After only suffering one conference loss so far, the Loyola men’s basketball team (8-3, 3-1) is set to face off against preseason favorite University of Northern Iowa at Gentile Arena Jan. 16-17.
In the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) preseason poll, Loyola was picked to finish No. 2 in the conference, trailing only reigning regular-season champion Northern Iowa. The Panthers received 30 first-place votes compared to Loyola’s 13. Northern Iowa gathered a total of 426 votes followed by the Ramblers with 405, creating the closest gap between teams in the top six.
The Panthers (3-8, 2-4) came into conference play without junior guard AJ Green, the 2019-20 MVC Player of the Year, due to a season-ending hip injury. Green averaged 22.3 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in the 2020-21 season, but only played three non-conference games before his injury. He had also been voted to repeat as Player of the Year in the 2020-21 season.
In Green’s absence, other Northern Iowa players have stepped up to contribute high numbers. Senior guard Trae Berhow is averaging career-highs with 14.1 points and 3.3 assists per game, while junior center Austin Phyfe is contributing 12.4 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. First-year guard Bowen Born is the third Panther to have a double-digit scoring average — putting up 11.2 per game. Meanwhile, Loyola only has one player averaging double figures.
Coming into this series, the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) ranks Loyola at No. 65 and Northern Iowa at No. 177 out of all 345 Division I teams. In terms of just the MVC, Loyola and Northern Iowa are ranked No. 2 and No. 7, respectively, out of all ten.
On an MVC men’s basketball teleconference Jan. 12, Loyola head coach Porter Moser said he thinks possession has been the most decisive factor in past games against Northern Iowa.
“They’re going to defend, they’re going to execute offense, they’re going to compete,” Moser said. “All those things are trademarks [of Northern Iowa] … obviously it’s a huge loss with AJ … but they still have a lot of tools and a lot of really good players.”
Loyola brings the runner-up in 2019-20 MVC Player of the Year voting — senior center Cameron Krutwig — who has averaged 16.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game in the 2020-21 season. Moser said he thinks this series will create an exciting matchup between Krutwig and Phyfe.
“They’re both terrific players … I know people know Krutwig can pass, but Phyfe is an elite post passer, as well,” Moser said. “You don’t see the true centers a lot, but they’re two true centers going at it.”
Northern Iowa is 0-3 on the road this season. The Panthers dropped a pair of games against the University of Evansville and suffered a 10-point loss on the road to the University of Richmond. The Ramblers also played Richmond on the road, falling 75-73 to the Spiders.
This weekend’s meeting between the two teams will be their 23rd match-up in history. Their past record is tied 11-11, but Loyola has won nine out of the last 11 matchups and both losses came from away games in overtime. The two teams have a history of close games with six of the last eight meetings ending within six points or less.
The Ramblers will be attempting to maintain a 15-game win streak at home when they host the Panthers, having won 19 of their last 20 games at Gentile Arena.
Loyola’s first game against Northern Iowa is set for Jan. 16 at Gentile Arena. Tip-off is scheduled for 5 p.m. and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.