At the beginning of the season, No. 22 Loyola men’s basketball head coach Porter Moser pulled seven players aside and told them they were worthy of the starting lineup.
With so much emphasis on being a starting player — of which there can only be five — Moser said it was important to communicate they would all have the opportunity.
“‘We have seven starters,’” Moser said in his speech to the seven. “‘I look at all of you guys, and you are the seven starters. You’re in the rotation. I want you to play loose, free and know you’re in the rotation.’”
Seniors Cameron Krutwig, Lucas Williamson, Keith Clemons, redshirt seniors Aher Uguak, Tate Hall, sophomore Marquise Kennedy and redshirt sophomore Braden Norris are these seven players. Only one of them hasn’t actually started in a matchup this season, but they’ve all played what Moser considers “starting minutes.”
Moser said this rotation is something a lot of NBA teams have instead of naming true starters.
“I just thought it was important to sit them down and to know my confidence in them,” Moser said. “I don’t believe that you have to say the five starters are the end all.”
Krutwig, Williamson, Uguak and Norris have all started every single game they’ve played this year. Kennedy hasn’t started yet this season. Clemons and Hall have split time in the fifth spot.
For the first 11 games of the season, Hall started over Clemons. Eventually, Moser said he wanted to switch things up so he put Clemons back into the lineup.
While being taken out of the starting lineup might have bruised a player on a different team’s ego, the Loyola men’s basketball team doesn’t see it that way. Hall said they function off a “different guy, different nights,” mentality.
“We’re all focused about the bigger picture, which is winning,” Clemons said. “We trust and know Coach is going to put us in the best situations for us to win. Regardless if you started [or] come off the bench, you’re going to get guaranteed minutes. It’s just about going out there and just producing and the time whichever you get.”
In their 20 games so far this season, eight different Ramblers have led a game in points — with Krutwig leading 11 games in scoring. Although Clemons is the only one of the “starting seven” who hasn’t led a game in points, he has hit double digits five times this season.
But it’s not all about shooting, according to Moser — everyone has an “intangible” element to their game. Both Clemons and Hall furthered this sentiment by breaking down what each of the seven adds.
Krutwig leads in both points and rebounds, averaging 15.5 and 6.1, respectively. The offense is also fed through him which allows him to be a playmaker.
Norris is the starting point guard. He has the most assists with 58 all season and has also played more minutes than any other player with an average of 28.7 minutes per game.
Clemons is the team’s leading three-point shooter. He currently has a 45.5 percent rate on 44 shots. He’s also had some “clutch” plays — as Kennedy called them — such as the steal and layup against the University of Evansville Feb. 6.
Hall referred to himself as the bigger guard on the team, which allows him to mix up who he defends. He’s also the team’s second leading scorer behind Krutwig and averages 8.7 points per game.
Uguak adds the strength — as seen by his many dunks. Although he’s a forward, Clemons said Uguak is like another guard who can bring the ball up or just put pressure on opposing guards. He also averages the second most rebounds, with 4.4 per game.
Williamson is the key defender of the team. According to Clemons, Williamson’s presence on defense is very known and he’s also a good shooter. Williamson has stolen the ball more times than any other Rambler with 27 steals. Hall called Williamson “the best defender in the MVC.”
Finally, Kennedy is the true sixth man on the team — a title he earned last year when named the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) Sixth Man of the Year. He adds a lot of energy off the bench and in the case of the Bradley University game Jan. 25, can change the pace of a game completely.
“We all complement each other and just bring what we can to the table,” Hall said. “We have a variety of weapons, a lot of shooters, a lot of people that can play off the ball. That’s kinda hard to scout against.”
Playing during the COVID-19 pandemic offers a challenge. Not only are players undergoing intense testing protocols, but they’re also playing games back-to-back. They have little rest time in between series.
Clemons said it’s beneficial to have an experienced roster that’s capable of handling these turnarounds. Loyola typically plays 9-10 Ramblers in a single game, all of which have the capability to keep up high intensity.
“I think it speaks volumes to the work that we as individuals put in in the offseason and off-days,” Norris said. “We have a lot of guys that are really bought in and that shows. We’re super deep, and it all comes from work every day.”
Moser said of all of the seven starters, the only two he thought would actually be confused if he pulled them out of the lineup are Krutwig and Williamson. Both these players have been on the roster for the past four years and contributed to Loyola’s 2018 NCAA Tournament Final Four run, with Krutwig starting for the Ramblers.
“Krutwig would look at me like ‘Damn, Coach, you’re crazy’ if I pulled him out,” Moser said. “They’re probably the exception.”