With 15:44 left in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) men’s basketball tournament quarterfinal, it looked as though Loyola was coasting to a semifinal appearance. The Ramblers led by 18 points and looked poised to move on in what many thought had just become a wide-open tournament after No. 1-seeded University of Northern Iowa lost earlier in the day.
Then, that lead vanished as the Ramblers missed 13 free throws and eventually lost to No. 7-seeded Valparaiso University 74-73 in overtime — making them the first No. 2 seed to lose in the quarterfinals since 1998. Now, discussions have begun about the offseason.
Loyola is expected to return 10 scholarship players, only losing senior guard Bruno Skokna to graduation. That includes the entire starting lineup, one that went 16-7 after junior point guard Keith Clemons returned from knee surgery. Most of the bench is also slated to return, including 2020 MVC Sixth Man of the Year Marquise Kennedy.
The Ramblers are also set to get sharpshooter Cooper Kaifes back to the rotation after he missed the season with a torn labrum in his hip. They’re also expected to have another three-point threat join the rotation in guard Braden Norris, who had to sit out this season after transferring from Oakland University.
On top of picking up another good outside shooter in rising first-year Baylor Hebb, expectations could be heightened in 2020-21. But with early exits the last two years, fans could also still have those on their minds when looking to the future.
Either way, it doesn’t sound like anyone on the team is worried about what’s next after the way the final game of the year ended.
“That’s not what we’re going to talk about right now,” said head coach Porter Moser. “These guys were ready. I thought we did a lot of things we needed to do to be up 18.”
This season didn’t have the high outside expectations of last year, the first after Loyola took the nation by storm during that magical run. The Ramblers were picked to finish fourth out of 10 teams in this season’s MVC preseason poll, meaning their No. 2 seed at Arch Madness was better than they were predicted to finish. After all, they only finished one game behind league-leading Northern Iowa, which won its first outright MVC regular-season title since 2010.
But that 18-point lead made it feel as though the Ramblers were going to make it back to the big dance because Northern Iowa was out of the picture. Visions of a Selection Sunday watch party danced in Ramblers fans’ heads. Although the expectations were lower than years past to start the season, they started rising throughout the year before going sky high, shortly before tip-off against Valparaiso.
“We didn’t live up to our expectations and our standards,” said junior center Cameron Krutwig in the postgame press conference. “Coach always talks about standards. Our standards for ourselves and as a program. This season, we didn’t live up to them.”
If the Ramblers decide to forego postseason — they could decide to join a pay-to-play tournament such as the College Basketball Invitational or CollegeInsider.com Tournament — it’ll be their longest offseason in three years. As they get set for next year, Krutwig echoed a sentiment from last year’s press conference after Loyola’s season-ending loss to Creighton University in the NIT.
“I’ve said this the last three years: The faces change, but the expectations don’t,” Krutwig said. “The good thing for us is we don’t have a lot of faces changing next year.”
The 2020-21 regular season is scheduled to begin in November, meaning it could be eight months before Loyola returns to Gentile Arena.