In just under three weeks, Loyola men’s basketball will step on the court to play its first match of the 2021-2022 season. Armed with four returning graduate students, all but one of former head coach Porter Moser’s “seven starters” and a brand new head coach, the Ramblers will soon kick off what’s sure to be a season to watch.
With the days counting down to tip-off, rankings and fan opinions have begun forming for the season ahead.
Although the Ramblers are returning six of Moser’s “seven starters” — graduate forward Aher Uguak, graduate guards Lucas Williamson, Tate Hall and Keith Clemons, redshirt junior guard Braden Norris and junior guard Marquise Kennedy — they will be missing one of their former keys to success.
2021 MVC Player of the Year and all-time Loyola great Cameron Krutwig — often known as “King Krut” — chose to forgo his extra year of eligibility in order to play professionally this season, now playing for the Telenet Giants in Antwerp, Belgium.
Krutwig was a force to be reckoned with during his time on the Ramblers, especially in his senior season where the former center led Loyola to the 2021 Sweet Sixteen. He’s one of four players in Valley history to tally 1,500 points, 800 rebounds and 300 assists, joining the likes of Larry Bird, Oscar Robertson and Hersey Hawkins. With 99 wins under his belt, he’s the winningest player in Loyola men’s basketball history over a four-year period.
Loyola will not only have some sizable shoes to fill on the player side of things, but also on the coaching side. After Moser’s departure to the University of Oklahoma was confirmed, his assistant coach of four years, Drew Valentine, was named his successor.
Valentine, who is believed to be the youngest head coach in NCAA Division I men’s basketball history, also served as a defensive coordinator for Loyola — which finished the season with the No. 1 scoring defense and No. 6 scoring margin in NCAA DI men’s basketball.
Although the Ramblers’ scoring defense held the top spot nationally, their scoring offense wasn’t as polished. With an average of 71 points per game, Loyola’s scoring offense ranked No. 181 at the end of last season. Even though the Ramblers may not measure up in sheer numbers of points scored, they did finish the season with the No. 6 field goal percentage, highlighting the team’s shooting accuracy.
When it came to overall national rankings, the team was able to finish its 2020-2021 campaign at No. 17 in the AP Top 25 and No. 12 in the USA Today Ferris Mowers’ Coaches Poll. Last year also marked the first time the Ramblers had been ranked in the AP Top 25 during the season since 1985.
However, the Ramblers weren’t among the ranked teams when the first AP Top 25 poll of the 2021-2022 season was released Oct. 18. The only MVC team to earn votes was Drake University, which fell to the University of Southern California in the first round of the 2021 March Madness tournament.
With the team bringing back the majority of its starters and adding four first-years, fans like Loyola graduate Jonah Blatt are excited to see where the Ramblers will go. He said he’s especially interested in seeing what the new players will bring to the team, especially forward Saint Thomas, an All-Nebraska First Team player and the 2020-2021 MaxPreps Nebraska High School Player of the Year.
“I think we’ll look back on [Thomas] specifically in like two years and be wondering why he didn’t go to a Power 6 program out of high school,” Blatt, 23, said. “I think all of them, especially Saint Thomas, have a very good chance of being immediate impact freshmen, and that’s something I’m looking forward to seeing.”
Blatt said without Krutwig this season, there may be an adjustment period during the first few games to find a new player to fill Krutwig’s shoes in terms of success and reliability. However, he’s hopeful for Valentine’s success this year after he worked under both Moser and as a Michigan State University graduate assistant to Tom Izzo, helping the Spartans to two Sweet Sixteens and one Final Four.
The Ramblers are currently predicted by some to be an 11-seed or 12-seed this season — after being an 8-seed in the 2021 tournament — and Blatt said he believes this year could be another year of mid-level seeding for Loyola simply because it’s a mid-major school. However, he said Loyola does have some solid talent on this year’s team.
This year’s Ramblers will be put to the test when they host Coppin State University Nov. 9 at Gentile Arena. Tip-off time and broadcast information have yet to be announced.