With six games left, the Loyola men’s basketball team has a two-game lead in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) standings. It’s a cushion the team hasn’t had this year, and it’s certainly welcome at this point in the season.
Despite what recent history has told us, though, it might not be enough.
Since the MVC expanded to 10 teams in 1992, each team that led by two games with six games left has gone on to win the regular-season title, according to the league office. But given this rollercoaster of a season, I’m not counting my chickens until after they hatch.
Loyola controls its own destiny now. Three road games remain, and the Ramblers are 4-4 away from Gentile Arena. The road won’t be easy — is it ever in The Valley? — but the odds are in their favor.
Loyola head coach Porter Moser has told me, repeatedly, he doesn’t look at the standings much because he’s seen how crazy the league can get. I appreciate that, having grown up in a house of Illinois State University alumni and watching MVC basketball my whole life.
But it’s a different league than it was when I was younger. Creighton University and Wichita State University have both moved on. It’s Loyola’s league now, and it’s time to kick it into gear.
Despite the two-game lead, five things have to happen if the Ramblers want to repeat as conference champions.
1. Defense Wins Games
Loyola currently leads the MVC in scoring defense and ranks eighth in the nation, holding teams to 60.8 points per game. The next closest MVC team is Valparaiso University, which is averaging 65.8 points per game. If the defense can keep at this pace, the Ramblers could ride a stalwart defense into Arch Madness.
2. “King Krut” Reigns Supreme
The offense needs to run through Cameron Krutwig. Between his scoring, rebounding and passing ability, he’s a nightmare for opposing teams to guard. Sometimes, Loyola even looks like an entirely different team when he’s on the bench. He’s such a force and, while the big fella needs a break once in a while, the Ramblers need to feed him as much as possible.
3. Make your free throws!
My biggest pet peeve is when teams miss free throws. Yes, I know nobody’s perfect, but you literally practice free throws every single practice. The Ramblers have gotten better from the line after shooting 64.4 percent during non-conference — and, admittedly, losing to Furman University Nov. 9 because they missed so many free chances. I have a tweet saved on my computer whenever they miss a free throw that says “Free throws are free” with clapping emojis between each word. Enough said.
4. Be Ready When Lucas Williamson Returns
The last time sophomore guard Lucas Williamson came back from an injury, Loyola lost to University of Evansville 67-48. When he went down a second time, the Ramblers were steamrolled by Missouri State 70-35. Moser’s said the best-case scenario is Williamson returns next week, but he could be out for two. His return can’t be rushed, and if that happens, he’ll fit right back into the offensive scheme.
5. Shoot the Three
As I’ve written in this space, Moser’s pace-and-space offense is why Loyola made the Final Four last year. But that offense doesn’t work unless the team makes three-pointers. After ranking second in the MVC at a 39.6 percent clip last season, Loyola sits tied for third with 37 percent from outside the arc. While that’s improved from a 32.9 percent rate during non-conference, it’s hard to win when the Ramblers shoot 5-for-25 like they did against Illinois State Feb. 2.
So, yeah. Those are my keys to another Valley title. If the Ramblers take this advice, they’ll have no problem coasting to the No. 1 seed at Enterprise Center in St. Louis.
Trust me on this one.