In the preseason poll conducted by the media and coaches, Loyola’s men’s basketball team was picked to be last in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) this season.
“I think everybody and their dogs had us picked at 10th,” said Coach Porter Moser.
However, from the very beginning, Moser instilled in his players that the only use for ranking teams before the games are played is as a motivational tool.
“Preseason predictions only matter within your own locker room,” he said.
Now, with just two games left in the regular season, the Ramblers aren’t fighting to stay out of the doghouse. Instead, they are fighting for a chance to avoid participating in a play-in game in the rapidly approaching Arch Madness tournament.
“If you get out of those bottom four seeds, you get off Thursday night,” Moser said. “If you get off of Thursday night, then you got three games to win it all … It’s a lot harder to win four in a row than it is three in a row.”
Christian Thomas, senior forward, added that it will also help the team both physically and mentally.
“When you think about the grind we’ve been going through from the preseason, you know throughout the season and now, getting that extra day of rest can certainly help out,” said Thomas.
Loyola is currently 6-10 in conference, tied with the Drake Bulldogs for sixth place in the MVC standings. The Bulldogs are next on the Ramblers’ schedule, and if Loyola can grab a win in Des Moines on Wednesday, they will clinch the sixth spot and ensure a day off on Thursday.
Another benefit from being in the middle of the pack as opposed to the cellar is that Loyola would avoid playing No. 10 Northern Iowa or No. 11 Wichita State on day two of Arch Madness. Both the Shockers and the Panthers have been dominant in the MVC, each team losing just once in conference play. They are the clear favorites to play on Sunday afternoon.
“Wichita and Northern have kind of separated themselves,” Moser said. “[Northern Iowa] hasn’t been in too many close games.”
But after the top dogs, it is really a tossup. Indiana State is third in conference at 10-6, but is only .500 on the season. Evansville is fourth, at 9-7, and has the most prolific scorer in the MVC: D.J. Balentine (19 points per game). But neither team, nor any other through the seventh seed (Missouri State, Southern Illinois and Bradley are having terrible seasons), stands out from the rest.
“I don’t look at any of the teams and say, ‘Man, there’s not a chance we can win that game,’” Moser said. “I feel good about our group going in there. Guys have gotten better.”
While Earl Peterson and Ben Richardson have had the opportunity to showcase their ability in the absence of sophomore combo guard Milton Doyle, the nagging shoulder and ankle injuries that sidelined the superstar disrupted the strong start to the season for the Ramblers.
Loyola began the year 13-5 (two of the losses coming against Wichita State and Northern Iowa) and there was small chatter of a possible berth in the NCAA tournament. But then Doyle went down with an injury and the Ramblers won just three of their next 10 games.
A sidelined Doyle and a lack of height in the paint exposed the team on both ends of the court, and Loyola dropped in the standings.
Despite the fall in performance, Moser said he feels the close-knit group can take on anybody in the MVC on any given day, especially come tournament time. Add the return of Doyle, which Moser said is highly possible, and the Ramblers become an even tougher opponent.
“I think right now we are kind of jelling,” Thomas said. “But then you add Milton, who’s the most talented person on our team, back to the equation, [and] I think we will be really dangerous.”
And if the Ramblers get hot, anything can happen. Tournaments are a different sort of beast. With games played daily, a hot team can have tons of momentum. One bad game from a higher quality opponent, and a team like Loyola could be playing in the semifinals.
Take last year for example. The Ramblers were the 10th seed in the MVC, coming off a miserable regular season. Their opponent in the first round: Bradley. The Braves had two veteran players with three years of Valley experience and great scoring ability. Yet it was Loyola who put on the offensive show, ultimately prevailing on a thrilling buzzer-beating deep three by Doyle to send them on to the next round.
Though they lost the next night to Indiana State, it gave Devon Turk, Thomas and other returning Ramblers a taste of Arch Madness success. Now they want more.
“After Milt’s buzzer beater it was like a big party,” said Turk, shooting guard. “[It] makes you want to keep winning.”
With a year of experience for both the coaches and some players, a deeper bench and possibly a day off if they beat Drake on Wednesday, the Ramblers might get what they wish for: a semifinal appearance.
Whatever the outcome, the Ramblers have already proven the naysayers wrong. Cellar-dwellars no longer, they’ve shown they belong in the MVC.