Fresh of its best season in more than 50 years, the Loyola men’s basketball team hasn’t changed its mentality after becoming the “Cinderella” of last year’s NCAA Tournament.
The Ramblers were picked to finish first in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) preseason poll and missed being ranked in both the Associated Press (AP) Top-25 poll and the USA Today top-25 coaches’ poll by three votes and six votes, respectively.
One of Loyola’s most important returning players is redshirt senior guard Clayton Custer. After winning MVC Player of the Year last season, the Ramblers’ point guard was picked as the MVC Preseason Player of the Year.
Loyola lost several key contributors from last season’s team — most notably Donte Ingram, Ben Richardson and Aundre Jackson. Those three have all signed contracts with professional teams around the world since graduating. Ingram currently plays in the NBA G-League for the Texas Legends.
Custer said he believes the team will be able to fill the holes left after last year and he highly regards the team’s new additions. He also said the veterans on the team have worked to help the first-years.
Head coach Porter Moser, the reigning MVC Coach of the Year, brought in a strong recruiting class — which was ranked first in the MVC by 247sports.com. The trio of three-star recruits, 6-foot-9-inch forward Franklin Agunanne and guards Isaiah Bujdoso and Cooper Kaifes, all played more than 10 minutes in Loyola’s exhibition game against Winona State University Oct. 23. Kaifes was the biggest standout, hitting four of five three-pointers for 12 points.
Another new face for the Ramblers will be redshirt sophomore forward Aher Uguak, who transferred from University of New Mexico in 2017; due to NCAA transfer rules, Uguak had to sit out last season. Despite not seeing game action, Uguak was allowed to be part of practices last year.
“I think Aher [Uguak] is really, really good and I think he’ll surprise a lot of people,” Custer said. “He’ll kind of step into Donte’s role … Lucas [Williamson] is going to have a way bigger role this year, stepping in for Ben [Richardson] and kind of being our defensive stopper.”
Sophomore center Cameron Krutwig was the MVC Freshman of the Year last season, and he was named to the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar Center of the Year watch list this season. The list highlights the top-20 centers in the nation and will be narrowed down as the season goes along. The list will be down to 10 players by mid-February and to five by the time March rolls around.
Krutwig joined redshirt senior guard Marques Townes as second-team preseason All-MVC this year.
During the offseason, Krutwig said he’s continued to work on expanding his offensive skillset as well as focusing on the importance of a nutritional diet to develop lean muscle.
“I’ve been working on my jumper a little more, trying to extend my range a little more,” Krutwig said. “Also with me it’s always about weight, keeping the bad stuff off, leaning down, slimming off.”
Moser said unlike Krutwig’s first offseason, he’s now no longer emphasizing weight loss, but changing what makes up those pounds.
“His first offseason was about weight loss,” Moser said. “His second offseason was about body toning. Becoming more athletic. More toned up and [with a focus on] body fat instead of pounds … he still hasn’t lost that big base that he’s effective with and I think he’s going to be a little quicker.”
The loss of Ingram and Richardson means two starting positions are open. Moser said he’s more concerned with who ends a game than who’s starting.
“The starting five is not a [big] deal because from the jump I’m always telling them it’s for high schoolers,” Moser said. “It’s really who ends the game, that’s what I’m finding out. That’s the harder thing, I’m trying to find out who are my five for the last minute of the game.”
Moser also said he’s stressing a “strength in numbers” approach to leadership for the team. He said he expects Williamson, Krutwig and junior guard Bruno Skokna to assume leadership roles alongside Custer and Townes. Moser said, much like how Richardson taught Williamson last season, he expects Williamson to take the younger players under his wing.
In their sole exhibition game, the Ramblers beat Division II school Winona State 82-52 Oct. 23. Custer was Loyola’s highest scorer with 16 points on an efficient 7-for-11 shooting.
Loyola is set to open the regular season at home against University of Missouri-Kansas City Nov. 6 at 8 p.m.
Other key games for the Ramblers’ include a rematch of last season’s NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen game against University of Nevada at Gentile Arena Nov. 27 and a game against University of Maryland Dec. 8 in Baltimore.
Conference play is set to open Jan. 2 when Loyola plays Indiana State University at Gentile. The Ramblers are also scheduled to take on Illinois State University at Gentile Jan. 12, nearly one year after a sold-out crowd saw Loyola defeat the Redbirds 68-61 at home.