Just one-third of the way through conference play, the Loyola men’s basketball team has exceeded all expectations and is looking like a team that could make it to the NCAA National Tournament for the first time in more than 30 years.
The Ramblers (13-6, 3-3) had a successful nonconference portion of their season. Marquee wins against San Diego State University and Washington State University, and one near-win against North Carolina State University, put Loyola in the national conversation. On Dec. 12, the Ramblers earned a vote in the Associated Press top-25 poll — something that has not happened since 1985.
But, moving into Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) play, critics wondered if the Ramblers’ record was telling of the team’s talent. Loyola’s strength of schedule is ranked No. 269 in the nation, according to ESPN. Many wondered how the team would fare once it began the gauntlet that is the MVC regular season.
Starting 0-2 in conference play — with losses coming to Illinois State University and Drake University — fans trembled at the thought of enduring a repeat of last season, when the Ramblers started conference play 0-5. The team put an end to that fear on Jan. 4 with a win over the University of Northern Iowa, this year’s bottom-dweller in the conference standings, which head coach Porter Moser said helped his team get out of a mental rut.
“There’s no surprise that every night, you have to be on it,” said Moser. “I think it’s so important in conference races, especially one like the [MVC] that’s 18 games — you can’t get too low with your lows. You [have] to block out all the talk. We’re a good team.”
The Ramblers then beat Bradley University but lost to Wichita State University. In defeat, Loyola showed it can compete late in the game, even if it’s losing. The Ramblers brought the game within four points with six minutes to go, erasing a deficit of nearly 20 points — despite a sold-out game and hostile environment on Wichita State’s home court. With the Shockers being the preseason favorites to win the MVC title, the loss proved Loyola’s talent more than it highlighted the Shockers’ skill.
It’s been an interesting year for the Ramblers, statistically. Offensively, they’ve improved, scoring nearly 10 points more per game (77.4) than last year. The team boasts a shooting percentage (51.1) that is fourth highest in the country. Junior forward Aundre Jackson has the fourth highest individual shooting percentage (70.8) in the nation and was just named the MVC Newcomer of the Week. Loyola is on pace to make at least 50 more three-point shots than last year. All of these signs leave fans wondering about the team’s actual postseason potential.
For years, Wichita State has set the pace in the MVC while the rest of the conference followed. But after Illinois State won the matchup of the only two remaining undefeated teams in the MVC with a dominant 76-62 win over Wichita State University on Jan. 14, the Redbirds hold sole possession of first place in the conference for the first time since 1998.
For Loyola, both teams look tough to beat. The Ramblers lost to the Redbirds by 22 points at home and to the Shockers by 12 on the road. Although Loyola found a way to hang tight with Wichita State late in the game, Illinois State dismantled the Ramblers from start to finish.
The Redbirds held Loyola’s Milton Doyle (15.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.6 apg) to only 11 points on 5-15 shooting in that game, but the star guard for the Ramblers’ is right alongside MiKyle McIntosh, Illinois State’s leading scorer (14.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg), in the race for MVC Player of the Year.
The Ramblers’ 77-71 win against Missouri State University on Jan. 15 solidified Loyola as the third best team at the moment, but a regular season top-two finish would take a colossal and near-perfect effort the rest of the season. There are too many holes on Loyola’s team right now to make that jump so quickly.
The team’s main deficiency is the lack of production on the bench. Other than Jackson, who has been coming off the bench lately, no Rambler has put up consistent points. While the starters are doing well, unless the bench improves exponentially in the next few games, the marathon of the conference schedule will likely wear on the team. After Loyola’s win against Missouri State, Moser said Doyle and the rest of the starters will need to rest more if the Ramblers are to get their best shot at winning a conference title since joining the MVC in 2013.
“We’ve got to develop our bench,” Moser said. “We’re not a rim-protecting team with all these guys above the rim. We grind teams out. We’ve been grinding [the starters], and for a long conference race, you’ve got to be deep. We’ve got to develop that.”
While rising above Illinois State or Wichita State is unlikely, developing the bench as Moser hopes to do could have the Ramblers making more noise in March than anyone thought was possible. Loyola has defied expectations thus far and set a high standard; the remaining 12 conference games — starting with a visit to Northern Iowa Jan. 18 — will show whether they are true contenders or overachieving pretenders.