The Loyola men’s basketball team has had a historic year, and if the team wants to continue making history, it has to live by the college basketball cliche “survive and advance.” The Ramblers’ first test will be against the University of Miami March 15.
The Hurricanes have had an up-and-down season, according to associate head coach Chris Caputo. The team was picked to finish fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) preseason poll and went 11-1 in its non-conference schedule, losing only to New Mexico State University — another NCAA tournament team.
The makeup of the Hurricanes’ roster is constructed differently than Loyola’s. While Loyola’s core is made up of a strong group of upperclassmen such as seniors Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson and redshirt juniors Marques Townes and Clayton Custer, Miami’s roster is much younger. This season, the Hurricanes have only one senior and two juniors on their roster.
The Hurricanes were No. 6 in the country after their good start to the season but started their ACC schedule 4-4 and dropped back to No. 15, then to No. 25, and finally out of the rankings.
Midway through the season, Miami sophomore guard Bruce Brown Jr. — who led the team in scoring in the 2016-17 season — suffered a stress fracture in his left foot. Brown received surgery on his foot Feb. 1. His injury will keep him from playing in the NCAA tournament game against Loyola.
Following Brown’s injury, the team went 7-4 and had a weird stretch, according to Caputo. After the injury the team won three straight games, lost four straight games and then won four straight games.
“We’ve had a nice little end to the season, given losing your best player on Feb. 1,” Caputo said.
Taking Brown’s place as the Hurricanes’ leading scorer is first-year guard Lonnie Walker IV. Walker averages 11.7 ppg and is the ideal mold for a two guard, or guard who doesn’t handle the ball like a point guard, according to Caputo.
“He’s your quintessential two guard,” Caputo said. “He’s six-foot-five, very athletic, can score at the rim and can really score at three levels. He’s a young guy, 19-year-old freshman who’s had a very good year scoring the ball.”
Loyola’s NCAA matchup is a mid-major program up against teams including perennial college basketball powerhouses such as Duke University and University of North Carolina. When a mid-major program plays a high-major team, the biggest challenge is often keeping up with the size and athleticism of the high major. Caputo said he doesn’t think that’ll be a problem for the Ramblers.
“I’m not sure we do [have an advantage]. We do have some athleticism in the front court, but we don’t have a ton of girth there in terms of weight,” Caputo said. “Your big guy [Cameron Krutwig] has some size and some physicality to him. We’re more of a lean, long and athletic team. I don’t think we’re overwhelming size-wise.”
Loyola is one of the best shooting teams in the country and its offense won’t be the biggest concern going into the game; first-year center Cameron Krutwig and senior forward Aundre Jackson winning battles in the post will be a major factor for the Ramblers’ chances of winning.
The Hurricanes’ ability to contain Krutwig and keep the Ramblers from getting him touches of the ball will be important, according to Caputo.
“He’s a load himself. I think they do a great job of running things through him,” Caputo said. “He gets touches down there, he’s a skillful passer and I think their ability to play really hard, protect the basket and gang rebound is impressive to me.”
Caputo said he was impressed with Loyola’s discipline and ability to pass the ball. He said the ball often moves from one good passer to another good passer, allowing them to get open shots. Preventing open looks for Loyola’s shooters will be key for the Hurricanes.
“When they’re making threes, they’re a very difficult team to play against,” Caputo said.
When Loyola beat then-No. 5 ranked University of Florida Dec. 6, Caputo said the Hurricanes had it on their radar but quickly forgot about it. When the team first started scouting the Ramblers after Selection Sunday, it was the first game they saw stuck out, according to Caputo. The Hurricanes’ own experience against mid-major schools and Loyola’s win over the Gators give Miami a healthy respect for Loyola, Caputo said.
“We’ve played some really good teams outside of the power conferences,” Caputo said. “We’ve played New Mexico State, we’ve played Middle Tennessee State [University], so we’ve got a lot of respect for Loyola and a lot of respect for mid-major basketball.”
To win the game against Loyola, Caputo said the Hurricanes will have to contain the Ramblers’ high-powered offense.
“We’ve got to make them miss. They’re such a good offensive team, they get you in rotations and they have a lot of guys who can hurt you,” Caputo said. “We’ve got to find a way to be disruptive and play great defense and not allow them to get the ball flying around. Offensively we’ve got to find ways to get into the paint.”
Loyola and Miami will play in the first round of the NCAA tournament March 15 at 2:10 p.m. in Dallas. The game will air on TruTV.