Based on the eye test, the Loyola men’s basketball team (5-2) has improved since last season.
After head coach Porter Moser lost three starters to graduation last May, expectations were low for this year’s Ramblers. The Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) preseason poll put Loyola in seventh place entering this season, only ahead of the University of Evansville, which lost its top two scorers to graduation, and perennial MVC bottom-dwellers Bradley University and Drake University.
But don’t tell that to the Ramblers, who won their first game against a current Pac-12 team since 1987 after defeating Washington State University on Nov. 21. Five days later, Loyola nearly took down another Power Five opponent, losing by two points to North Carolina State University (NC State) on the road.
Key staples of every Moser team, regardless of the players on the roster, are tough defense and the belief that the Ramblers can beat any team, no matter how much Loyola might be considered the underdog. This year’s squad is no different.
“We didn’t go in there to be close, we went in there to win the game,” junior forward Donte Ingram said of the team’s 79-77 loss to NC State, an Atlantic Coast Conference team. “And we felt like we should’ve won the game.”
Those games don’t tell the whole story. Early last season, the Ramblers beat Creighton University, another big name in men’s college basketball, but went on to lose their first five games of conference play and dropped eight of their first 11 conference games.
So, is Loyola really better just because it’s hanging tight with a big name school like NC State?
The short answer: It might be.
Although the Ramblers’ strength of schedule so far this year ranks near the bottom nationally among Division I programs, the team is playing tough non-conference opponents like it did last season. But this year’s team has been more dominant than last season’s squad was
Through seven games last year, Loyola averaged only 67 points per game, the eighth worst average among MVC teams at the time. This year, the Ramblers have the third best scoring offense in the MVC through seven games, dropping 80.9 points per game: enough to earn the No. 72 spot in the nation out of 351 eligible teams.
Moser’s signature defense is even better, holding opponents to only 62.3 points per game. This makes the Ramblers’ defense the 32nd best in the country.
Junior forward Aundre Jackson, a transfer from McLennan Community College in Waco, Texas, leads the team in scoring with 15.7 points per game. He also is second in the NCAA in field goal percentage, shooting 77.6 percent from the field.
Jackson said he’s fitting in well so far this season.
“I was going to come in and do whatever I could,” Jackson said. “Whatever I bring to the table, [Moser] uses.
He isn’t the only one scoring. Senior guard Milton Doyle, one of only two seniors on the team and the only senior in the rotation, has taken a leadership role in the absence of Jeff White, Earl Peterson and Montel James, who all graduated in May. Doyle is averaging 14.6 points per game this season, the most since his first year with the Ramblers in 2013.
Junior guard Clayton Custer, a transfer from Iowa State University, has added 12.7 points per game and is shooting 44.4 percent from behind the three-point line. His high school teammate, junior guard Ben Richardson, is also heating up beyond the arc, shooting 47.8 percent.
“If they’re keying in on me, I can pass it out, and Milton, Ben and Clayton, they can hit the open shot,” Jackson said.
But it’s Jackson filling James’s role as the team’s go-to big man, who has also helped Loyola address a problem it has had since joining the MVC in 2013: rebounding.
Loyola typically has a short roster, making it hard to rebound against the MVC’s bigger teams. Though, in non-conference play against smaller teams, Loyola doesn’t have as much trouble.
At this point last season, the Ramblers were nearly even with their non-conference opponents in rebounding, only grabbing an average of one more rebound per game than their competition. But those games included matchups against teams such as Eureka College, a Division III team, which skewed Loyola’s numbers. Loyola lost the rebound battle in seven of its other 11 non-conference games last season, including in its win against Creighton.
That trend continued against MVC teams, as Loyola finished the season last in the conference in rebounding margin.
This year is a different story.
Loyola is second among MVC teams, out-rebounding opponents by almost seven rebounds per game. The Ramblers grabbed 27 more rebounds than Indiana University Northwest in a 100-51 beat-down on Nov. 13, and 23 more rebounds against Eureka the next night. Even taking those two games out of the mix, Loyola has grabbed more rebounds than its opponents this year, including five against NC State.
Jackson said that in practice, Porter emphasizes the importance of rebounding.
“It’s all about heart,” Jackson said. “You’ve got to position yourself for the rebound, but it’s just effort.”
That improvement, adding to the team’s increased offensive firepower and consistently strong defense, has Loyola looking like it could make noise in this year’s MVC.
The Ramblers are scheduled to host Norfolk State University on Nov. 30 at 7 p.m. and San Diego State University on Dec. 3 at 3 p.m. in Gentile Arena.