The Loyola men’s basketball team had a rough start to the season. The Ramblers went 3-4 in the first seven games, but they’ve since rattled off an 10-2 record in the past month and a half.
This drastic turnaround has been largely due to injuries healing and a fully functioning roster, according to head coach Porter Moser and several of his players.
“We got guys back that were hurt previously,” first-year guard Marquise Kennedy said on the 8-2 stretch. “I feel like everybody’s getting into the swing of things. I feel like we got a good rotation going on.”
Following the graduation of back-to-back Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Player of the Year winners Clayton Custer and Marques Townes after last season, there were glaring holes at the guard spot for the men’s basketball team. To make matters worse, sophomore guard Cooper Kaifes had surgery for a torn labrum in July and has been out for this entire year. Kaifes had the second-best three-point percentage in the MVC last year at 46.5 percent.
In an effort to replenish the backcourt talent, Moser recruited a pair of first-year guards — Kennedy and Paxson Wojcik — as well as a pair of junior college transfers in Keith Clemons and Jalon Pipkins. But Clemons missed the first eight games of the season with a knee injury.
“[Kennedy] got a lot of valuable minutes starting early,” Moser said. “We kind of threw him into it with Keith’s injury. It’s really hard losing two 22-year-old point guards, backcourt player-of-the-year guys in Marques Townes and Clayton Custer. And all of a sudden I got an 18-year-old running the show. It was a little overwhelming for him.”
Clemons, who won a National Junior College Association of America National Tournament title with Vincennes University, made his return in the Ramblers’ victory over Ball State University Dec. 3. Moser said Clemons’ ability to facilitate the ball has helped the Ramblers get back on the winning track.
“[Clemons is] getting the ball moving, getting it to the right guys when [they] need to get it,” Moser said. “He’s got a high level of confidence, and he also makes winning plays. … He thinks all the right things as a point guard. He’s thinking about winning. He’s thinking about guys getting the ball.”
Moser immediately inserted him into the starting lineup. The 6-foot-1 guard has started every game since his debut against the Cardinals and has played an average of 30.5 minutes per game.
Since Clemons’ return, Loyola has gone 9-2. The Ramblers’ only losses came against Davidson University Dec. 22 at home and Drake University Jan. 7 on the road.
Clemons said winning is his primary goal, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get there. He added that often times his role is to “start the domino,” meaning he makes the initial pass that starts a string of ball movement leading to an open shot. Plays like that don’t show up in the box score but do contribute to the effectiveness of an offense.
“My main concern is winning and [I] have the mentality of everyone can play,” Clemons said. “I’m very selfless. It doesn’t matter if it’s me, [Kennedy] or Tate [Hall] scoring.”
While it might not directly show up in the stat sheet, Moser praised Clemons’ leadership on the court. However, there are tangible improvements in Loyola’s on-court production since Clemons’ return.
The Ramblers’ three-point shooting has leaped from 29.7 percent without Clemons in the lineup to 41.7 percent with him. Clemons himself has been shooting 41.9 percent from distance.
Currently, a team shooting 41.7 percent would easily rank first in the MVC, while 29.7 would rank last in the conference by almost 3 percent.
Turnovers have also cut down from 14.3 per game before Clemons’ debut to 10.8 in the games he’s played in this year.
Clemons’ insertion into the starting lineup has moved Kennedy to the bench. When news of Clemons’ meniscus injury broke before the season started, Moser said Kennedy would be “thrown into the fire.”
Kennedy was up to the challenge, starting in six of Loyola’s eight games without Clemons and averaging 9.3 points per game on 50.9 percent shooting from the field.
Since Clemons’ return, Kennedy’s scoring has stayed steady at 9.4 points per game while his turnovers have gone down from two per contest to just one. Moser said the scoring punch Kennedy brings off the pine has been valuable, highlighted by Kennedy’s 20-point performance against the University of Evansville Jan. 11.
“There was a benefit for [Kennedy], he got a ton of experience early,” Moser said about Kennedy starting early in the year. “I think he feels real comfortable right now. It’s not as much thrown at him. … He’s just getting more and more comfortable, as freshmen do, as the year goes on.”
Sophomore center Franklin Agunanne also missed time this year with a hand injury. He returned against Quincy University Dec. 7. Agunanne isn’t counted on to score much when he’s in, averaging 2.3 points per game, but he says he brings “energy and intangibles” off-the-bench.
With the addition of Clemons and Agunanne back into the lineup, Moser has a large roster at his disposal. He said this makes it difficult to play everybody, but that there are worse problems to have.
“We have 11 scholarship players right now, and I’m confident in all 11,” Moser said. “The flow of the game, matchups, those things sometimes dictate who I’m rotating in. It’s very hard to rotate 11 guys evenly, but that’s a good problem that I have.”
Next, Loyola is scheduled to host Southern Illinois University at Gentile Arena Jan. 16 at 7 p.m. The game is set to be broadcast on NBC Sports Chicago.