Back in November, excitement surrounded Loyola’s Men’s Basketball team. It was the first season in the larger and more prestigious Missouri Valley Conference (MVC). More importantly, it was the first season for highly touted redshirt freshman guard Milton Doyle, a native of Chicago.
In addition, guards Jeff White and Devon Turk were coming off strong freshman seasons. A young nucleus was forming. Even forward Christian Thomas, the Ramblers’ highest scoring returning player, was only a junior.
There was good reason to have high expectations. But expectations and reality unfortunately don’t always coincide.
And the reality was that the Ramblers were an inexperienced group heading into a significantly better conference.
“We were a very young team,” Thomas said. “We definitely took our lumps.”
Lumps, indeed. Loyola finished its first season last in the MVC with a 10-22 record and managed just four wins in conference play.
Though the record is certainly not exemplary, it is a tad deceiving.
The Ramblers had legitimate chances to win in almost every game they played, save the two games against Wichita State. Loyola played in four overtime games, three of which they lost.
Thomas believed it was inexperience that prevented the Ramblers from being on the winning side of those close games.
“It was the youth, just a lack of discipline,” Thomas said. “As a team, we didn’t really buy into everything that we were trying to do as group.”
“You have one person go off and try to do their own thing and it costs us four, six points maybe and that could be the difference in the game.”
Two important stats should be looked at when judging young teams: free throw shooting and turnovers. The Ramblers finished the season shooting just 70 percent from the line and averaged more than 13 turnovers a game. And in order to win close games, strong free throw shooting and limited turnovers are crucial.
Doyle, however, views the high number of close games positively.
”We stayed in games with most of other teams in the Valley,” Doyle said. “So we know we can play [with the other teams in the MVC].”
”We got a taste of how close we can be. We were right there.”
The Ramblers got a taste of some success as well. Loyola beat both of its old Horizon Conference foes, including an opening day win against University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who went on to win the conference tournament and earn a spot in March Madness.
The Ramblers’ best regular season win came against Missouri State University when they obliterated the Bears 89-57 in the Gentile Arena for their first ever MVC win. In the game, Turk scored a career-high 30 points, including five three-pointers and a perfect 13-13 from the free throw line.
Another highlight was playing the No. 3-ranked Wichita State Shockers. Though neither game was really winnable, the experience alone was memorable.
“It will be something I tell my kids, my grandkids,” Thomas said. “They made history [completing the regular season undefeated at 34-0], they were a great team this year.”
The atmosphere was especially electric when the Shockers came to play at Gentile. According to Head Coach Porter Moser, it was the largest crowd to pack the arena since it was renovated nearly three years ago.
But by far the most iconic moment of the season was the Ramblers’ first trip to the MVC tournament in St. Louis, particularly the team’s first-round matchup against Bradley University.
After playing the best and most efficient basketball they’ve played all season, Loyola racked up 43 points on 61 percent shooting in the first half. The game tightened up in the second until it came down to one final shot with 4.8 seconds left.
Doyle, the MVC Freshman of the Year, hit a miraculous three-point field goal from way behind the line at the buzzer much to the jubilation of his teammates and the couple hundred faithful fans that surprisingly rocked the Scottrade Center. It was, and probably will be, one of the most exciting plays in Rambler history.
“It was probably one of the best feelings I’ve had playing basketball, being able to hit a big shot like that in a tournament game,” Doyle said.
Alas, the Ramblers season would come to an end the next day with a 75-62 loss to Indiana State University. But just being in a tournament of the magnitude of Arch Madness was a huge motivator for the team heading into the offseason.
“I can only imagine what it would be like playing there on Sunday in the championship,” Thomas said.
Before they get another crack at the tournament though, the Ramblers have work to do in the offseason. Strength stands to be the point of emphasis, as does ball discipline according to Thomas.
Most importantly, though, the players will have another year under their belts. Another year older, another year of maturation. If this season was to prove the Ramblers belong in the MVC, next season will be to prove they can compete with the best the conference has to offer.
Until then, Loyola fans wait with high expectations. Maybe next season these expectations will become reality.