Nick Knacks

Column: ‘Connecting the Dots’ for Five Years of Men’s Basketball Success

Nick Schultz | The PhoenixLoyola junior center Cameron Krutwig celebrates with fans after a victory at Gentile Arena.

Before the days of “Fortnite” and “Candy Crush,” kids used to enjoy the simple things in life like a game of “Connect the Dots.” The dots usually formed some sort of shape. If you connected the wrong dots, it wouldn’t look like a shape anymore.

The 2019-20 Loyola men’s basketball team started its own game of “Connect the Dots” when its schedule was announced last week. Now that fans know when the Ramblers are playing, they’re asking what they can expect to see this year.

It’s a long answer — and it begins during the 2016-17 season when the team was in a similar situation to which it’s in now. That year’s roster consisted of one senior, six juniors, one sophomore and three first-years. Three years later, the roster looks strikingly similar: one senior, six juniors, two sophomores and three first-years.

That 2016-17 team finished fifth in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), but also set the stage for Loyola’s magical run to the 2018 Final Four because the three juniors from that 2016-17 roster became central parts of the offense as seniors. 

This time, more than a year removed from the bracket-busting run, expectations are much higher. Fans can’t help but be hungry for an MVC regular-season three-peat. 

It’s important to point out only three players remain from that Final Four rotation: senior Bruno Skokna and juniors Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson. That’s quite a bit of turnover in just a couple years. Another MVC championship is the obvious goal, and an attainable one. But 2019-20 should be thought of as a building year toward an NCAA Tournament run, just as 2016-17 ended up being.

Except 2019-20 shouldn’t just set up 2020-21 as March Madness-or-bust. It could set up the next five years — and here’s where our game of “Connect the Dots” begins.

The first dot is the roster setup. Skokna is the only player who’ll graduate in May, meaning everyone else is set to return as of publication, including my projected 2019-20 starting lineup of Williamson, Krutwig, Keith Clemons, Aher Uguak and Tate Hall. 

In 2020-21, that potential starting five would consist of three seniors (Wiliamson, Krutwig and Clemons) and two redshirt seniors (Uguak and Hall). That also doesn’t account for the fact sharpshooter Cooper Kaifes would be back in the rotation after recovering from a torn labrum.

Even if a couple players transfer, that’s going to be one damn good roster if that core stays together.

But how does that tie into the four years after that? That leads us into the second dot: the underclassmen.

This year’s first-year class of Paxson Wojcik, Tom Welch and Marquise Kennedy is head coach Porter Moser’s best since he arrived at Loyola. They have the potential to be instant-impact this season and if Loyola can capitalize on what it’d bring back in 2020-21, could be instrumental in keeping the program on top of the MVC.

With the commitment of Baylor Hebb Sept. 9, Moser doesn’t have any more scholarships to offer for the high school class of 2020. But given the NCAA reported an average of 1.8 players transferred between four-year schools in 2018, he could gain one or two more. With his recruiting ability, he could use a 2021 NCAA Tournament appearance as yet another marketing tool.

Now we’ve reached the final dot of our game: keeping Moser at Loyola.

Rambler fans held their breath in April when Moser was offered the head coaching position at St. John’s University in New York — and turned down the reported $2 million per year offer. Loyola Athletics revamped his contract after the Final Four, extending him through the 2025-26 season.

If he stays in Rogers Park that long, the window of opportunity would stay open. That’s a big “if.”

The reason “Connect the Dots” is challenging is because the lines are never straight. This line is no exception. It twists and turns the same way the Chicago River winds through the downtown skyscrapers. But the dots connect, even if it seems like it’ll take some work to make it happen.

We all know Moser preaches a “one day at a time” mentality. But come on, fans have to at least be starting to think about how good 2020-21 could be, right?

I know I am.

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