When Loyola moved to the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) from the Horizon League in 2011, men’s basketball head coach Porter Moser wrote “Top Defensive Teams” on a whiteboard and then listed the top three.
“As we enter this league, look at who wins the Missouri Valley every year,” Moser recalled telling the team. “It’s the teams who finish in the top three in defense. After a couple of years it built credibility because it felt that way.”
Now, 10 years later, the Ramblers have three MVC titles under their belt and are on their second March Madness run with Moser as coach. Moser credits this to the team’s defense.
Loyola has been one of the top teams in the nation in scoring defense — meaning they hold teams to few points — for the last four seasons. Currently, the Ramblers rank first in the country, allowing an average of 55.8 points per game.
The Ramblers proved to the nation their proficiency in defense when they upset No. 1-seeded University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the second round of the NCAA Tournament March 21. But while shutting down the Midwest region’s top seed was a huge testament to Loyola’s defense and broke many brackets, the Ramblers’ defense has been consistent all year.
“I guess people kind of forgot or something, but we were the No. 1 defense in the country this year,” Senior center Cameron Krutwig said. “I guess people chalk it up to maybe being a mid-major or something, but we play hard, play the right way, and we follow the scout and follow the scheme.”
The Ramblers have held their opponents to 55.8 points per game and 32.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc all season.
Senior guard Lucas Williamson is the defensive star for Loyola. He was named MVC Defensive Player of the Year after averaging 7.9 points, 3.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.5 steals per game.
He’s been able to shut down some of the top players in the MVC, including Missouri State University’s Isiaih Mosely who, at the time, had a 22.9 scoring average that ranked second in the nation. Williamson held Mosley to just 24 points over the span of two games.
Most recently, Loyola’s defense shut down one of the best teams in the country. The Ramblers held the Fighting Illini to just 58 points on 44.9 percent shooting. Illinois typically averaged 81.3 points per game on 50 percent shooting.
“We tried everything in the bag,” Illinois head coach Brad Underwood said following the loss. “Everything that’s made us one of the most efficient offensive teams, today just for whatever reason didn’t work.”
Loyola has only surrendered more than 60 points in a game twice this season since conference play began. First in a 76-71 loss at Indiana State University Jan. 10, and then in the MVC Tournament championship game March 7 against Drake University where the Ramblers came out victorious 75-65.
Williamson said limiting threes was an aspect Loyola could improve upon from last season. He said they knew they wanted to focus on preventing three-point shots and plays during the last 10 seconds in the shot clock.
“We found out for the first few seconds of the possession we would play really good defense,” Williamson said. “Then we would have a break down in those last 10 seconds when a team is running a ball screen action or doing an iso-drive.”
Both Moser and Williamson said Krutwig has been instrumental in improving Loyola’s defense this season. The 6-foot-9 big man was named MVC Player of the Year after averaging 15.0 points and 6.9 rebounds a game.
He serves as the “point center” on offense, but a predictor on defense due to his intelligence on the court, according to Moser.
“I think the reason why his defense is good is because he’s got a mental motor,” Moser said. “He thinks — he sees it starting to come and develop, and then he’s ahead of the play.”
The development of defense starts from the first conversation during recruiting, according to Moser. He said he tries to show recruits that playing good defense is instrumental in becoming a two-way player.
Moser said he typically shows them the big NBA players — specifically referencing Michael Jordan, Lebron James, Kawhi Leonard and more. He makes a point to show that the “greats” can score as well as defend.
“It doesn’t mean that you don’t get your offense developed,” Moser said. “Defense creates offense.”
Williamson said he didn’t know how to defend until he got to Loyola, citing that in high school and professional basketball the game is more focused on shooting.
During Williamson’s first year at Loyola, former men’s basketball player Ben Richardson served as Loyola’s top perimeter defender and was named 2018’s MVC Defensive Player of the Year. Richardson went out with an injury during the 2018 season, forcing Williamson to step up into that role.
Williamson said he learned a lot from Richardson during that time.
“I just had to keep learning,” Williamson said. “I kept asking myself ‘What can I do to make myself valuable as a player? What can I do to get myself on the floor?’ And that was playing defense.”
The next challenge for Loyola’s defense comes March 27 when the Ramblers face off against No. 12 Oregon State University. Tip off is set for 1:40 p.m. CT.