As I sat courtside at Gentile Arena Nov. 9 taking pictures of the Loyola men’s basketball team’s 60-58 loss against Furman, I took a few minutes to walk around the arena to get some shots of the crowd just before halftime. It was an electric atmosphere I’d only seen once, when Loyola took on Illinois State Feb. 24.
Then, when redshirt senior guard Clayton Custer’s half-court shot bounced off the rim, Gentile was as quiet as it was my first year at Loyola when hardly any students showed up to games. I walked over to the press table afterward and turned to Jordan Bernfield and Jeff Dickerson, who were the play-by-play announcers that night. All we could say was “Wow.”
The Ramblers lost their first home non-conference game since 2015, and it stung. But the pain’s going to set in even more come March.
Last year, Loyola finished with a 32-6 overall record and only suffered non-conference losses to Boise State University and University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee — both on the road. But if the Ramblers would’ve lost the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Tournament championship game, it’s likely they wouldn’t have made the NCAA Tournament.
That, of course, didn’t happen. The Ramblers won the Arch Madness championship game, and the rest is history. Hard to believe a loss would’ve left all that happened to the imagination.
It’s even harder to believe we’re having the same conversation not even nine months later. Could it be a little early? Maybe. But we’re almost all thinking about it.
The NCAA used to use a system called the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI), which gave the March Madness selection committee a system to use to decide at-large bids. Loyola ranked 14th at season’s end while Boise State ranked 58th out of all 353 Division I teams, according to teamrankings.com.
Wisconsin-Milwaukee would’ve been the difference between a National Invitation Tournament (NIT) appearance or an NCAA Tournament appearance for Loyola, finishing 227th in the RPI. That loss occurred Dec. 16.
Furman is this year’s Wisconsin-Milwaukee. The Paladins ranked 96th in the RPI at the end of last season. While that’s not as bad as 227th, the selection committee still might not be friendly toward the Ramblers about this one.
Although the NCAA did away with the RPI this year in favor of a complex metric called the NCAA Evaluation Tool, the same question arises: What will this loss mean for Loyola down the road?
Simply put, the Ramblers need to win the MVC Tournament again to get back to the big dance.
Winning the MVC’s going to be a challenge this year for the Ramblers. While Loyola brings back three starters, Illinois State University returns four — including reigning Newcomer of the Year Milik Yarbrough. On top of that, Southern Illinois University returns its entire 2017-18 lineup and former All-MVC forward Thik Bol is back for one last season after suffering a season-ending knee injury last year.
That’s not to say Porter Moser’s squad can’t pull it off. With 2017-18 MVC Player of the Year Clayton Custer, 2017-18 MVC Freshman of the Year Cameron Krutwig and guard Marques Townes all back this season, the pieces are there. They just have to start fitting together like they did last year.
The Ramblers didn’t play like themselves against Furman. Custer even said so postgame. They only dished out 10 assists and turned the ball over 14 times, which is almost the exact opposite of Moser’s goal of at least 15 assists and less than 10 turnovers.
It’s certainly possible Loyola could be dancing in March once again, but it won’t be an easy road. Even in his postgame press conference after the loss, Moser said “it’s a long season.” That’s true; Loyola has 29 games left before heading to St. Louis for Arch Madness.