While many students were home for winter break, the Loyola men’s basketball team (14-4, 4-2) played seven games and saw mixed results, going 4-3 overall and starting Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) action.
Prior to MVC play starting, Loyola was 10-2 overall, its best start since the 1965-66 season in which the team appeared in the NCAA tournament.
After a loss to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Dec. 16, Loyola opened MVC play with a 64-59 loss at Missouri State University. Senior guard Ben Richardson returned from a broken hand in a 66-59 victory over the University of Evansville Dec. 30, but the Ramblers suffered their first home loss of the season in a 61-57 setback against Indiana State University Jan. 3.
Redshirt junior guard Clayton Custer returned to the starting lineup in a 56-50 victory at the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) Jan. 7, giving Loyola its healthiest roster of the season. After defeating Illinois State University 68-61 in Normal Jan. 10 for its first victory at Redbird Arena since 1991, Loyola closed out winter break with an 81-65 victory over Bradley University at Gentile Arena Jan. 13.
Custer’s return is key for the Ramblers, who are 12-1 when he’s been listed as active and went 2-3 while he was down with an ankle injury suffered in a 65-59 upset of the University of Florida Dec. 6. Head coach Porter Moser said having a healthy roster gives his team more depth and gives him the ability to give starters a rest.
“These last few games are the first games all year we’ve had everybody healthy,” Moser said. “I feel like the guys [are] deeper … now that everyone’s healthy.”
Senior forward Aundre Jackson was moved back out of the starting lineup over break, but he’s embracing the bench role, which earned him MVC Sixth Man of the Year honors last season. Jackson scored 15 points against Illinois State, including three highly contested shots. The Kennedale, Texas native said despite his recent numbers, he’s more concerned about getting shots off near the basket.
“Lately I’ve been playing a little bit terrible, I’d say, but [I’m] just focusing on the rim, getting my eyes to the rim and making the shot,” Jackson said. “I don’t care about the contact. Just making the shot is what I’m focused on.”
Moser said Jackson isn’t disappointed by the move and wants to do what’s best for the team.
“It was nothing on [Jackson’s] part,” Moser said. “He’s still playing starter minutes. He’s still in there in crunch time … and he came off the bench last year, and we talked about that. He was comfortable about it. I’m not sure if it’s going to continue, but we talk about it a lot.”
First-years Lucas Williamson and Cameron Krutwig stepped up over break to play key roles against UNI, Illinois State and Bradley. Williamson had a key block in the final minutes of the UNI victory and blocked a potential go-ahead layup against Illinois State, while Krutwig averaged 11 points per game and 7.7 rebounds per game during that span, including career-highs 21 points and 13 rebounds in his first career double-double against Bradley.
Moser said despite Williamson moving back to the bench with Custer and Richardson returning to the lineup, he’s still impressed with how the Chicago native has performed in his rookie season so far.
“With Ben and Clay coming back, it’s nothing to do with what [he] did wrong,” Moser said. “I’m actually loving how Lucas Williamson is doing right now. It’s a matter of staying locked in. [Moser’s mentor Rick] Majerus used to say, ‘Starting is for high school.’ You’re going to play. Make your minutes count.”
The Ramblers are scheduled to take on Southern Illinois University at home Jan. 17 before traveling to Valparaiso University Jan. 21.