The Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) released its women’s basketball preseason poll Oct. 13. The Ramblers are projected to finish eighth out of 10 teams, despite coming off their first winning season since 2012-13. The poll is voted on by the MVC’s head coaches, sports information directors and select media members.
Missouri State University finished atop the preseason poll with 360 points, including 33 of the 40 first place votes. Loyola received 133 points, four more than projected ninth place Indiana State University. Evansville University was selected as the last place team, receiving only 80 points.
Loyola was picked to finish seventh in the conference last season. However, after a historic 9-0 start to their season, the Ramblers stumbled to an eighth-place finish in the MVC. Loyola was 4-0 against Indiana State and Evansville last year, but just 2-12 against the rest of the conference.
Last season, the MVC was ranked as the eighth best women’s basketball conference in the country, according to the Rating Percentage Index (RPI). This tied the highest ranking in the conference’s history.
Loyola hasn’t finalized this year’s non-conference schedule, but head coach Kate Achter said she’s planning on scheduling just four non-MVC opponents as well as a scrimmage. This is a dramatic decrease from the roughly 10-to-12 non-conference games scheduled in a normal season. The limited non-conference slate is due to a combination of concerns about the health and safety of the team as well as the challenges of scheduling games with the city of Chicago’s emergency travel order which requires people quarantine for 14 days after entering or returning to Chicago from certain states, according to Achter.
Because of the risks and complications associated with travel, Achter said her players most likely won’t be traveling home for Thanksgiving or Christmas. Instead, the players just recently had a couple weeks off to go home to their families and then go through the quarantine process when returning to Chicago. Achter said the plan is to set aside a similar stretch in early December for players to go back home.
“Our biggest concern is the mental health of our student-athletes right now,” Achter said. “It’s just unreasonable to think that they could stay on campus and compete at their highest level from August until March or April without seeing their families.”
Achter is entering her fifth year at the helm for Loyola. Her record through four seasons is 37-83, including 18-54 in MVC play. However, Loyola’s overall record has improved each season under Achter, going from two wins in her first season to 15 wins last year.
Since her hiring, Achter has talked about her five-year plan for rebuilding Loyola’s women’s basketball program. Last year’s goal was to make a postseason tournament and Achter said she was in talks to potentially play in the Women’s National Invitation Tournament (WNIT) or the Women’s Basketball Invitational before the season ended.
Prior to her third season with the Ramblers in 2018, Achter told The Phoenix she hoped the team would be competing for a conference championship and a postseason tournament. While she hasn’t ruled out the possibility of achieving those goals, she said the focus this year has shifted to finding more success in conference-play.
“That five-year plan you’re constantly evaluating and changing,” Achter said in a recent interview. “Our goal this year isn’t the postseason that we had a year ago for year four, it’s ‘we gotta win at all levels, win in the MVC and see where that takes us.’ I could see how on paper, finishing eight doesn’t exactly align with making a postseason tournament, but stranger things have happened.”
However, Achter and the Ramblers will be tasked with replacing two of their top-three scorers from last season in guard Tiara Wallace and forward Abby O’Connor. Wallace graduated after averaging 10.1 points and 4.3 assists per game for Loyola last season. O’Connor averaged 12.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per contest — both team-highs — during her junior campaign, but transferred to Gonzaga University in the offseason.
Loyola returns its second-leading scorer in junior forward Allison Day, who put up 10.7 points per game in her sophomore campaign. After starting 40 straight games dating back to her first season at Loyola, Day was relegated to coming off the bench for the Ramblers’ final nine games last year.
“During the middle of the season, Allison I just thought really struggled defensively,” Achter said. “As we were losing to teams, it wasn’t necessarily Allison’s fault, but we just weren’t getting the production that I had hoped and that I knew she was capable of.”
Achter said the idea behind the benching was to motivate Day, and she praised the way Day responded. Day scored 20 points twice in the Ramblers’ final four games to end the season. As for the offseason, Achter said Day is “on a tear” in practice.
Senior guard Ellie Rice joins Day as a veteran presence on the team. Rice started all 29 games for the Ramblers, posting averages of 6.9 points and 5.0 rebounds per game.
While Achter will be tasked with replacing the combined 22.4 points per game Wallace and O’Connor averaged last season, she said she thinks this year’s team is more balanced and harder to guard.
“We couldn’t win games with just two people scoring more than 10 points,” Achter said. “If I can get all five starters to be around 10 points a game or more, we’re at our best. Because then, who does the defense focus on specifically?”
Achter mentioned sophomore guards Jala Johnson and Sam Galanopoulos as two players she thinks could “take a big step.” Despite battling injuries last season, Johnson averaged 6.1 points per game in her 24 appearances and cracked the starting lineup for the Ramblers’ last eight games. Galanopoulos appeared in every game in her first season, averaging 4.8 points per contest.
Loyola is scheduled to kick off conference play against Valparaiso University on New Year’s Day. The Crusaders were picked to finish seventh in the MVC this season.