After becoming the Cinderella of last year’s NCAA Tournament, the Loyola men’s basketball team struggled to live up to its heightened expectations entering this season, finishing non-conference play 7-6.
Following the 45-42 loss to St. Joseph’s University Dec. 22, head coach Porter Moser said the team had a chance to hit the reset button in the 10-day break before Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) play started.
“I texted everybody after the St. Joe’s game and said ‘Fresh start when we get back. Enjoy your time off and your family, but fresh start when we get back,’” Moser said. “Then when we got back we told them that we had a week to get better. We had to get better.”
Loyola had a difficult non-conference schedule which included losses to three teams ranked in the AP Top-25 poll in Furman University, then-No. 5 University of Nevada and then-No. 23 University of Maryland. Loyola’s non-conference schedule currently ranks as the 70th most difficult out of the 353 NCAA Division I teams, according to NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET). Also, the high quality of competition in the MVC has raised Loyola’s overall strength of schedule to 54th ranked in Division I.
Offense has been the biggest issue for Loyola this season. Its 42-point outing against St. Joseph’s was its second-lowest point total of the season. On the season, the Ramblers are 1-7 when scoring less than 70 points, but they are undefeated in the 10 games in which they’ve reached 70 points.
Loyola kicked off its conference schedule by dominating Indiana State University 79-44 Jan. 2. The Ramblers came out shooting 65.5 percent, up from their season average of 49.1 percent through conference play.
Moser’s squad followed up that win with another strong offensive showing in an 85-74 victory over Drake University. The 85 points marked a season-high, and the 63.3 percent shooting percentage was the team’s second best in a game this season. In the two conference victories, Loyola averaged only nine turnovers per game, down from the 14 turnovers they averaged in non-conference play.
“It’s been a collaborative effort,” Moser said in a teleconference Jan. 7. “We really talked about pushing the restart button. There was such a wave of pressure that these guys were feeling. We took that week and went back to a ton of fundamentals and film sessions.”
Loyola suffered an offensive setback against University of Evansville, losing 67-48 despite sophomore guard Lucas Williamson’s return to the lineup from a broken hand that sidelined him for more than a month. The Ramblers shot a season-low 37.3 percent against the Purple Aces and turned the ball over 17 times.
Following the loss, Loyola saw a 13 percent increase in field goal shooting in a victory over rival Illinois State University. The Ramblers also took care of the ball, not committing a single turnover in the first half against the Redbirds.
“After the [Evansville] game, we were all pretty disappointed and the locker room was pretty tense,” Loyola sophomore center Cameron Krutwig said. “We responded really well [with] two days of practice that were really good and we came back today with a great team effort.”
Loyola moved into a tie for first place in the MVC with a commanding 71-54 win over Valparaiso. The Ramblers submitted another efficient offensive performance, shooting 53.3 percent and turning the ball over only 11 times.
Moser said the team is starting to adjust to the national attention and pressure brought by the NCAA Tournament run last season. He praised redshirt seniors Marques Townes and Clayton Custer for their leadership in refocusing the team and keeping an emphasis on the fundamentals.
“We [pulled] into St. Joe’s and we’re coming out of the airport and the billboards around Philadelphia had us up there,” Moser said. “I felt it at Drake, our guys feel it. What I loved about Drake is they embraced it … I was really proud of how the guys responded.”
One factor that has remained relatively constant for the Ramblers this season has been a strong defense. Loyola ranks first out of 10 teams in the MVC in average points allowed with 61.1 per game, and there is a sizeable gap with second-place Bradley University allowing an average of 67.1 points. On offense, the Ramblers have shot a league-best 49.7 percent.
Loyola is scheduled to travel to Terre Haute, Indiana for its second matchup against Indiana State Jan. 19. Tip-off is set for 1 p.m. and the game will be broadcasted on ESPNU.