When Loyola guard Cooper Kaifes hit a three-pointer right before the halftime buzzer against Valparaiso University Jan. 15, the fans in Gentile Arena erupted with cheers and “Cooper” chants. It was his third three-pointer of the half, and it extended the Ramblers’ lead to 10 points.
Kaifes, a first-year from Shawnee, Kansas, finished the game with 12 points on 4-of-5 shooting, all from beyond the arc. He also grabbed a season-high five rebounds and had a block and a steal on the defensive end.
The game against Valparaiso was the sixth time Kaifes has scored in double figures, and Loyola is 5-1 in those games. It was also the 10th time Kaifes shot above 50 percent from three-point territory in a game, and Loyola has won nine of those games — meaning his individual success translates to team success.
The fans rallied behind Kaifes during that game, and head coach Porter Moser sang his praises following the 17-point win over the Crusaders.
“We know he’s got a torch to shoot it,” Moser said. “I thought he made some nice plays off the bounce, we call it ‘starting the domino,’ but I thought it was his best game defensively.”
On the season, Kaifes is averaging 6.2 points, 1.5 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game. Kaifes is shooting 32-for-66 from outside — a 48.5 percent clip — from outside so far this season, which ranks first in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) out of the 33 players who have attempted at least 50 three-pointers on the season. The rest of the team is shooting a combined 33.4 percent from beyond the arc.
Kaifes, a sport management major, said his teammates have continued to give him confidence and have encouraged him to continue to shoot. The statistics back up their support.
“I’ve always been a player that knows what shot is good, but sometimes I’m a little too passive,” Kaifes, 18, said after his 12-point showing against Valparaiso. “Sometimes I don’t take the shots that I actually need to take, that are good for the team. Lately, coach and all of my teammates have kind of been on me for not shooting enough. I think tonight is just the start of everything, and I think continuing on will be special.”
Kaifes has been a fan favorite since his 19-point outburst in the season-opener against University of Missouri-Kansas City Nov. 6. Although he’s had the typical ups-and-downs of a young player, Loyola fans and students have continued to have his back, as seen during the Valparaiso game.
“We go crazy every time Cooper hits a three,” Victor Villagomez, a sophomore marketing major, said. “I think Cooper easily became a fan-favorite player because of how good of a shooter he is.”
Although Kaifes had a strong debut, he didn’t get consistent playing time until starter Lucas Williamson went down with a broken hand during a game against University of Nevada Nov. 27. Kaifes started the next nine games until Williamson returned to the lineup against Illinois State University Jan. 12.
With the extended opportunity, Kaifes struggled to maintain the same level of efficiency. His three-point shooting percentage was 37.1 percent during the nine games he started, significantly below his season-average of 47.6 percent. Since his return to the bench, he’s gone 8-of-12 from downtown in wins over Illinois State, Valparaiso and Indiana State.
Moser compared Kaifes’ situation to that of Williamson’s last season. Ben Richardson went down with an injury that pushed Williamson into the starting lineup. Richardson eventually returned to the starting lineup and Williamson went back to the bench, but Moser said the increased opportunity gave Williamson confidence that was vital toward the end of the season.
“It’s kind of like Lucas,” Moser said following the victory over Valparaiso. “I hate to keep doing the parallel, but Lucas was starting and then Ben came back. We put Ben back in [the starting lineup], but Lucas had confidence coming off the bench. We’ve talked to [Kaifes] about getting a feel for the way the game is going, come in and uplift us. He was almost the same reaction as Lucas, ‘Coach, no problem.’”
Kaifes said there was no adjustment to make when transitioning back to the second unit. He mentioned Williamson’s help as a big factor to him having the continued success throughout the season.
“I didn’t really have to adjust because in the beginning of the year, I was able to come off the bench like I am now,” Kaifes said. “Honestly, Lucas was helping me out a lot while I was starting. Even though he knew he was starting the last few games, he still had the confidence in me and I think that’s really helped me the last couple games.”
Loyola is currently tied for first place in the MVC with Valparaiso University with a 5-1 conference record. Kaifes and the Ramblers are scheduled to take on Missouri State University Jan. 23 in Springfield, Missouri. Tip-off is scheduled for 8 p.m. and the game will be broadcasted on CBS Sports Network.