College basketball season brings out the good, the bad and sometimes the ugly thoughts from its viewers. Loyola men’s basketball is set to take the court for the first game of the regular season Nov. 9, meaning Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) men’s basketball season — and therefore, an avalanche of its viewers opinions — are upon us.
It can be difficult to sift through all the noise to find out what to think or even where to start. Sports editor Lu Calzada and co-managing editor Zack Miller have some opinions of their own to share.
Lu: As a member of the MVC Student Media Association, I got to vote in this year’s student media preseason poll. Personally, I do believe Loyola is going to be the team to beat, and I’ve got good reason to think so. Although the team will be without Rambler legend Cameron Krutwig and former head coach Porter Moser, the rest of the roster and coaching staff is stacking up tremendously.
With the No. 1 scoring defense in the country and defensive coordinator Drew Valentine now becoming head coach, the Ramblers are set up for another year of spectacular defensive strategy. Graduate guard Lucas Williamson, the MVC’s 2020-2021 Defensive Player of the Year, is also returning as one of four graduate students, set to remain one of the cornerstones of Loyola’s defense.
Although Drake University was picked to be No. 1 in the MVC for the first time in program history, I can’t say I agree. While the Bulldogs are coming off three successful seasons and their first NCAA Tournament in the last 13 years, I don’t believe it’s enough to compete with what the Ramblers have. I think putting Drake ahead of Loyola neglects to consider Loyola is much more than Krutwig, and after last season’s multiple rankings in the AP Top 25, the Ramblers don’t deserve to be relegated to second place.
Zack: While I am not a member of the MVC Student Media Association, I still have thoughts about the conference. While I think it’s important to focus on the top teams this year, the biggest thing for me is knowing the Valley could be — or rather will be — a three-bid league. My prediction is Loyola, Drake and Missouri State.
While much of the focus for Loyola has been on their defense, which is warranted, there needs to be more attention centered on their offensive capabilities. A team with just defense can’t win games. With sophomore center Jacob Hutson in even better condition than last year and the depth of the Ramblers’ guard lineup, I have no doubt they’ll be scoring big this season.
Part of my three-bid league premonition is a big year for Missouri State. This is a bit obvious given the team will return all five of the starters that led it to a third place finish last year — two of those being First Team All-MVC players Isiaih Mosley and Gaige Prim. Mosley was the first Bear in history to lead the conference in scoring last year, averaging nearly 20 points per game, and there are no signs of him slowing down. With the two of them at the helm, the Missouri State team is bound to do great things.
Players to Watch
Lu: Listen, I believe in Loyola’s potential to bring home the title, but don’t be mistaken — this is the year of Roman Penn.
Before he suffered a foot injury late in the season, I loved getting to see Penn play. Shooting 45.2% from the field, 33.3% from three-point territory and 70.2% from the free throw line, he was as efficient as he was captivating. It takes a smart player to rack up numbers like those, it takes a truly talented player to be cemented in memory as a joy to watch.
This season, I truly believe Penn is going to be the most exciting player to watch, both due to his stats and his talent as a player to make the game look so beautiful. He’s one of the players I remember most vividly from my first season covering men’s basketball, especially in Drake’s series against Loyola. I could not be more ready to see him face off against the Ramblers’ defense again.
All of the other major players — Isiaih Mosley, AJ Green, Tyreke Key, etc. — are already being talked about in many circles, so I’ll throw a different name into the mix: Bowen Born. I covered Loyola’s series with the University of Northern Iowa last season, and I’ve spent the last 11 months telling everyone that Born is not going to be one to sleep on. Watching the intensity and excitement with which he played kept me captivated by the game anytime he was on the court.
As the 2020-2021 MVC Freshman of the Year averaging 11.2 points per game and shooting 37.9% from the field in his first season, I’m hyped to see what he brings in his sophomore year.
Zack: As I mentioned before, Loyola’s Hutson is going to be a player to watch. His unexpected jump into Arch and March Madness last year was incredible to watch and I look forward to seeing a more refined version of the forward on the court.
Lu definitely has it right with Drake’s Penn. Without breakout star point guard Joseph Yesufu — who stepped up in Penn’s absence and then transferred to the University of Kansas at the end of last season — he will have the floor to himself, and I have no doubt he’ll live up to expectations.
Missouri State has a solid lineup as well. I already went over their All-MVC picks, but I can’t emphasize what Prim is capable of enough. With 28 steals, 31 blocks and an average of 16.7 points per game last year, he’s a dominating presence on the court with something to prove given the Bears’ fourth place selection in the preseason poll.
AJ Green’s Return
Lu: I’m not afraid to say it — I don’t think AJ Green will be the player everyone is making him out to be this season. After a season-ending hip surgery last season, I think he’s going to need a substantial transition period to get back and find his groove.
Did I just call this the year of Roman Penn even though he missed a portion of last season with a foot injury? Yes. But a surgery that alters the majority of one’s season is a bit of a bigger deal.
This isn’t to say he’s going to completely flop this season, however. He was named to First Team All-MVC for a reason, and that reason is he was unbelievably good before his injury. I simply think the expectations others have for him are higher than what he’s going to be able to give, and I’ll be honest about that.
Zack: I have to agree with Lu on this, and my evidence comes from an instance close to home. For my fellow Bulls fans, Derrick Rose is a nightmare no team wants to face — but last year University of Northern Iowa faced it.
Rose’s case is a unique one because of his pre-injury playstyle. He’s slowed down a lot and become more methodical on the court, and Green will likely have to do the same. In the 2019-2020 season, he attempted 490 field goals — nearly double that of his extremely talented teammate Trae Berhow. This is a difficult feat for a completely healthy player, and I’m not sure Green will be able to match his sophomore year self.
There’s no doubt Green is one of the best players the conference has seen, but the question remains — can someone recovering from a season-ending hip surgery come back and perform at the same level? My answer would be no. That’s not to say never, as Rose has clearly made his comeback, but I think there will be more of an adjustment period for a return to where he was in his prime in 2019.