Step right up, folks. This year’s Rambler season is a rollercoaster ride. I’ve been spoiled with only good basketball and a smooth sailing ride from this team considering I started at Loyola last year. The Final Four was fun, wasn’t it?
Last year, I only saw the team lose six games. They have surpassed that total in only half of an additional season.
While the Missouri Valley Conference has always been all over the place, this season has had so many ups and downs., especially for the Ramblers. Coming off such a successful season, I was honestly surprised to see it, and I’m not sure it’s a good thing for this team.
They had a rough non-conference season, finishing 7-6. Sure, they ended up with a winning record heading into conference season, but I know I’m not the only one worried about this team performing well.
The Ramblers lost to some big teams — University of Nevada and University of Maryland both rank in the AP Poll, and Furman University was ranked for a while, too. They also had a handful of losses that shouldn’t have been losses largely due to lackluster offense and subpar defense — including a surprising 75-69 loss to Ball State University. They lost to both Furman and St. Joseph’s University by only a couple points after leading a majority of the game.
It’s not like the team had a particularly difficult non-conference schedule. The NCAA ranks the strength of their schedule at 92nd out of 353 Division I teams. The conference strength isn’t much better, coming in at 60th. To compare, last year’s overall strength of schedule was ranked 135th, with non-conference coming in at 254th.
This could be why the Ramblers have tallied so many losses — they upped the caliber from last year and they’re not used to it.
Maybe you can say that St. Joseph’s loss was due to sophomore guard Lucas Williamson being out due to injury — a barrel roll the team wasn’t prepared for. But the team has lost some easily winnable games even with him on the roster.
The non-conference season was definitely a low point on this metaphorical rollercoaster. Yes, it had its positives, but overall, the team didn’t look anything like the one seen last March. Last season they ended with a 84.2 percent shooting from inside the paint. Now, they’re standing at 63.2 percent. But they lost three key players in Donte Ingram, Ben Richardson and Aundre Jackson, who all averaged double digit points.
You can almost compare it to that rollercoaster — let’s call it the Loyola Rumbler — that gives you a headache, but it’s so fun you decide to get back in line.
But, the Ramblers did a hairpin turn since coming back from that 10-day break between non-conference and conference play back in December. They went from struggling to create momentum to a team that seems to be fairly consistent and is producing wins. Loyola is currently ranked 10th in the nation in scoring defense and over the last 10 outings is holding opponents to 31.7 percent from behind the three-point line.
The conference season has brought some more upswings to the team. Loyola is currently holding a 5-1 record with only one loss against University of Evansville — a game which, frankly, should have been won. Though, it can be argued this loss also has to do in part with Williamson’s first game back from injury. The team might have struggled with finding a groove with him returning to the lineup.
So, they’re producing results as Loyola inches up the hill toward the conference tournament. Individually, redshirt senior guard Marques Townes has produced some standout performances and is now averaging 14.2 points per game.
After struggling for a chunk of the season we’re also finally seeing some quality action from sophomore forward Aher Uguak, who head coach Porter Moser described as Loyola’s “best athlete” before the season. He’s been a dunk master, which is a new sighting in Rogers Park. Before Uguak started playing, dunks were a rarity in Loyola basketball. Since his first dunk, we’ve seen more players also finding success above the rim. It’s definitely been a fun change to see.
While rollercoasters can have their ups and downs, they’re definitely an adrenaline rush. That’s the case with the Ramblers. They’ve been on an upward trajectory since conference play started and, barring any setbacks, appear to be making a run at their second league title.
There are 12 games left. Hold on tight: This is going to be a fun ride.