Despite coming off consecutive Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) regular season titles and having the MVC Preseason Player of the Year in Cameron Krutwig, the Loyola men’s basketball team was picked to finish fourth in the conference’s preseason poll.
This season, the Ramblers will be forced to fill the gap left by the graduation of back-to-back MVC Players of the Year Clayton Custer and Marques Townes. The Ramblers’ hole at the guard position grew larger when sophomore Cooper Kaifes went down with a torn labrum in his hip over the summer.
“It’s going to take some getting used to,” Krutwig said about losing Custer and Townes. “I’m not going to be able to look at Clay and Marques. I’m going to have to take control and direct some guys on where to go. … This year that kind of falls more on me.”
Attempting to fill the guard positions are several new additions, including junior college transfers Keith Clemons and Jalon Pipkins. Joining them is Marquise Kennedy and Paxson Wojcik, a pair of first-year guards. Redshirt junior guard Tate Hall will be eligible to play this season after sitting out last year due to NCAA transfer rules.
Krutwig said he thinks the team as a whole is quicker than last year. He specifically mentioned Kennedy’s speed and ability to change pace. The junior center also said Pipkins is a “high flyer” who’s able to do things Krutwig has “never seen before.”
At the Chicagoland Tip-Off Luncheon Oct. 21, Loyola head coach Porter Moser said Clemons would be out for four-to-six weeks with a meniscus injury, The Phoenix reported. Moser also said Clemons was likely to be the starting point guard, but added that Kennedy would now be “thrown into the fire.”
Moser said he also expects Lucas Williamson to step up this season. Williamson battled injuries last season, missing 18 games throughout the year. However, Williamson averaged 8.8 points and 5.9 rebounds per game in the 16 games he played in last season. His 41.3 percent from three-point territory ranked second on the team, trailing only Kaifes.
Williamson was the only other Rambler to receive preseason individual recognition after being named to the third team Preseason All-MVC.
“[Williamson] benefited from some great leadership,” Moser said. “Now, it’s time for him to pull some of these young guys along. His body’s different, his shot looks good, he’s improved all that part of it. The intangible part is that he’s got to help some of these young guys.”
Another key returning player for Loyola is Aher Uguak. The redshirt junior forward started in 28 of the 34 games he played last season. Uguak averaged just 5.8 points per game last season, but led Loyola with 18 points in the Ramblers’ final game of the season against Creighton University in the National Invitational Tournament (NIT).
“I’m not going to be able to look at Clay and Marques. I’m going to have to take control and direct some guys on where to go.”
-Cameron Krutwig, junior center
“I’ve just thought about building my game as a whole,” Uguak said. “I haven’t really thought about [the game against Creighton] or last season. It’s a new season, and I think it’s a good opportunity for me to come out and be a versatile player for this team.”
As for the season as a whole, Moser said the team has the same expectations of finishing atop the conference for this season despite coming in fourth in the preseason poll.
“It’s a new year, and it’s a new situation with the guys,” Moser said. “There’s a lot of new faces. … For our guys, I think they’re hungry.”
Krutwig said it’s hard not to notice the preseason rankings, but said it motivates the team.
“That just adds fuel to the fire,” Krutwig said. “You can’t help but see that people picked you to be fourth. Obviously, we won it last year and we were going to have a target on our back no matter where we were picked in that poll.”
From a personal standpoint, Krutwig said he is focused more on team success rather than individual accolades. If Krutwig wins the MVC Player of the Year award, it would be the first time in MVC history that three different players from the same school won the award in three consecutive years.
“You don’t get awards for preseason,” Krutwig said. “With team success comes awards. If we were bottom half of the league last year, [Townes] probably won’t have won [MVC Player of the Year]. … Individual awards come from team success.”
Krutwig and the Ramblers open up their season against University of California, Davis Nov. 5. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. at Gentile Arena and the game will be broadcast on ESPN3.30