Ramblermania 2018-19 MVC Preview

Loyola’s run to the 2018 Final Four erased a lot of fears that the MVC was headed for 3rd Class status after the departure of Wichita State. Already, the performance of the Ramblers last year (along with some nice upsets by Indiana State and Illinois State, solid performances by Bradley, and in-league competitiveness by Southern Illinois) has elevated the view of the conference in the eyes of a lot of pre-season prognosticators.

The MVC is an extremely competitive league that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Play is tough, scouting and coaching is high level. The fan bases are passionate and large. And now there’s a little more attention from larger media markets that are beginning to understand the competitive culture of the league.

There’s no sleeping in the MVC. That’s why, despite Loyola returning three starters from their Final Four team, many preseason previews are picking Illinois State or Southern Illinois to surge to the forefront of the league. Here’s how Ramblermania sees the MVC for 2018-19:

1. Loyola

Yes, I’m picking Loyola this year. Last year I went with everybody’s favorite Missouri State because I thought they had the players, because Loyola hadn’t proven they could get over the hump in the MVC, and (selfishly, as a fan) I didn’t want the front-runner target on Loyola.

This year, Loyola is going to be the biggest game on the schedule of every opponent except Nevada, Maryland, and Boston College. Yes, Loyola. Big game. Mark that on your calendar. Fill up the arena fans, we’re playing Loyola!

2. Illinois State

I am wavering between Illinois State and Southern Illinois here. I am going with Illinois State as a fairly close second place team this year because they’ve got a hell of a talented and athletic squad, and a pretty good coach. I considered dropping them to third because of their offseason problems, their lack of discipline, and the fact that sometimes they have trouble putting together two good halves to a season.

ISU is loaded with some really talented and experienced players: Malik Yarbrough, Phil Fayne, and Keyshawn Evans are legit all-league players. William Tinsley is very athletic and reminds me a lot of Donte Ingram. They have a lot of high-potential players coming in or back from promising freshman campaigns, including Issac Gassman, Taylor Bruninga and Loyola transfer Matt Chastain.

Despite all the returning experienced talent, one of the components that was key to their success in 2016 was the defensive intensity of Paris Lee and especially Tony Wills. Last year Madison Williams tried to step in for Tony Wills, but this year Williams is gone. They don’t have a defensive leader, and I believe that will keep them from winning the conference.

Illinois State was picked second in the MVC Preseason Poll, 6655 they were picked 2nd in the conference (at #66 overall) in College Sports Madness’ preseason countdown. Bart Torvik’s preseason ranking had the Redbirds as the #1 MVC team at #57, just slightly ahead of Loyola at #62.

3. Southern Illinois

If you’ve read chronologically, you saw that I think Southern Illinois and Illinois State are pretty equal this year. Both teams have a lot coming back, healed injuries, a lot of experience, and very good coaching. Both teams can be inconsistent and lose focus.

The Salukis won 20 games last season, and most people forget they finished second in the league with an 11-7 record—with basically only six players available for most of the season. SIU has the most potential, I think, to actually outplay Loyola this season if the Ramblers have injuries. Kavion Pippen has the potential to be an NBA pick if he takes a step forward on offensive aggressiveness. Sean Lloyd, Aaron Cook, and Armon Fletcher are hard-working, extremely capable and athletic guards.

With added depth in the frontcourt in the person of Thik Bol (injured and did not play last season) and a wealth of new freshmen coming in (including Anthony Beane’s younger brother Darius), the potential is there for SIU to surge to the top of the league. Coach Barry Hinson has been there before, and he knows how to get the most out of a bare-bones and undermanned squad.

The Salukis came in at #76 (third in the MVC) in College Sports Madness Top 144 Countdown, and were picked third in the MVC Preseason Poll. In the poll on mvcfans.com, the Salukis came in 2nd.

4. Bradley

Bradley is a very good team. The Braves have a team that is cohesive, knows each other well, and plays well together as a unit. They have a good defensive scheme, and carry it out well. But with the exception of Elijah Childs, Bradley does not have exceptional talent at any position. Besides Childs, they are not distinguished in skill or athleticism.

Bradley’s very good defense is going to win them a lot of games, especially at home. If they almost run the table at home (you have to figure one or two of the top teams will beat them in Peoria) and beat some of the less experienced teams on the road, they have a chance to pile up 11 or 12 wins. That might be enough for second place if the better teams split their home-road series. But Bradley’s ceiling is a distant second in a highly competitive league.

Until Bradley begins to attract more athletic players who want to play defense, they’re not going to win the MVC. The Braves were picked to finish fourth in the MVC Preseason Poll, and were tabbed for fourth in the College Sports Madness Top 144 Countdown (#91 overall).

5. Valparaiso

I’m going to pick Valpo over Indiana State here. Valpo has a lot of potential, and I think they have been licking their wounds, lifting weights, and watching tape over the summer. Loyola made a good adjustment in their second year in the MVC, and I think Valpo is the kind of program that won’t accept bad performances like they had in the league last year. The Crusaders have some of the most highly-rated recruits in the league, some really dedicated fans, and the ARC is a tough place for opponents when the building is full.

The Crusaders bring back double-digit scorer Bakari Evelyn, 7-footer Derrik Smits, and one of the best 6th men in the league, Markus Golder. Ryan Fazekas is 6’8” small forward transfer from Providence, and Javon Freeman-Liberty is a 3-star freshman shooting guard. Two more transfers, Nick Robinson from St. Joseph’s and Eron Gordon from Seton Hall will be eligible next season, so if the Crusaders don’t make a mark on the league in 2018-19, watch out next year.

Valpo is picked to make a big stride this year by most forecasters, now that they have a year of the MVC under their belts. College Sports Madness selected Valpo at #112 in their Top 144 Countdown, and Bart Torvik’s preseason ranking has them at #114 overall, 5th in the MVC.

6. Indiana State

Despite having the league’s lowest budget year after year, Coach Greg Lansing has had fewer than 8 league wins only once in his eight years in the league. Only twice has his team finished worse than 6th place, and one of those seasons was an 8th place finish where the team beat Texas Tech and #25 Vanderbilt.

The Sycamores lose Brenton Scott, Brandon Murphy and Quidar Davis, but have some intriguing newcomers. Iowa transfer Christian Williams, a 6’5” combo guard, figures to make an immediate impact and add some size to the backcourt. Jordan Barnes averaged 17.4 ppg last season and made 42% of his threes; he was named to the MVC 1st team as a junior. Sophomore guards Clayton Hughes and Tyreke Key will need to take big steps forward from their freshman seasons. Bronson Kessinger, Devin Thomas, and Emondre Rickman will man the frontcourt.

Indiana State was picked 6th in the MVC Preseason Poll.

7. UNI

After being picked second in the Preseason Poll last year, UNI staggered to a 7-11 finish in the league and through tiebreakers wound up as the 9 seed at Arch Madness. This year the Panthers will contend with losing skilled big men Bennet Koch and Klint Carlson (last year’s top two scorers), and guard Juwan McCloud transferred out of the program.

Coach Jacobson hit the juco ranks for 6’10” forward Shandon Goldman and high-scoring guard Tray Croft to replace them, and 3.5-star freshman point guard AJ Green has been included on a lot of Top 100 lists. Seven-footer Justin Dahl redshirted his sophomore year and as a junior will be a factor in the frontcourt.

Again this year, no one seems to know where to pick UNI. They will have a new look, new on-court leadership, and the same smart coaching they’ve always had. Bart Torvik has UNI at #88 nationally, third in the MVC. The league’s preseason poll has the Panthers fifth. And the MVCfans.com poll had them at 6th.

8. Missouri State

The Bears had a nightmare season in 2017-18. Picked to finish first in the league and with the most athletic and skilled talent in a couple decades, the team was beset by lack of confidence in their coaches, freak injuries, bad decisions, and a disgruntled fan base. The Bears still have a lot of talent, but new Coach Dana Ford hopes to turn the page.

MSU returns impressive players including seniors Obediah Church, Jarred Dixon, and Ryan Kreklow. They’ll be joined by 6’8” Xavier transfer Jared Ridder, and a pair of 6’10” Polish twins—Szymon and Jan Wojcik.

It’s always tough for a new coach in a new league, but the Bears have the most returning talent of the three new coaches in the league this year.

9. Drake

The Bulldogs had a one-year mini-Renaissance under Coach Niko Medved, surprising just about everyone with a fourth-place finish at 17-17 overall and 10-8 in conference. It was Drake’s most wins since 2012, most league wins since 2007-08, and only the third time the Bulldogs have had double-digit league wins since 1970.

But new coach Darian DeVries needs to build a program from (almost) scratch after losing the schools career scoring leader Reed Timmer, plus most of the rest of the roster. Only 2nd leading scorer Nick McGlynn is back from the team’s top seven leading scorers. Promising sophomore guard Noah Thomas also returns.

The newcomers include 3-star shooting guard Desmond Wilkins, Jr. and juco forwards (and twins) Anthony and Tremell Murphy. Tremell is a 3-star small forward who was ranked #21 nationally as a juco player.

10. Evansville

The most difficult transition among the new coaches will be at Evansville, where due to graduation, injuries and transfer only six players on the current roster saw any court time for the Aces last season. The leading returning scorers are K.J. Riley (6.8 ppg) and Noah Frederking (5.4 ppg).

It will be a tough slog this year, but the Aces may have hired the best new coach for the long term in Walter McCarty. The Brad Stevens disciple and Evansville native brought former Butler Bulldogs and Iowa head coach Todd Lickliter in as top assistant, and added former Butler player and South Alabama head coach Matthew Graves as another assistant.

Loyola Men’s Basketball 2018-19 Preview

Loyola’s 2017-18 men’s basketball season was something that Loyola’s small but die-hard fan base will never forget. Ramblermaniacs knew that the Ramblers would be very good. But following the team through so many bad years, false starts, and plunging hopes had buffered fans to resist bubbly optimism. It wasn’t too much of a surprise to win the MVC somewhat convincingly, but the run deep into a tournament Loyola hadn’t seen in 33 years was a stunner. At least it was for me.

How do the Ramblers follow an unbelievable storybook season? Loyola has had the benefit of being in the same conference to watch what happens to two different Final Four teams the year after they made an amazing run in the NCAA Tournament.

The 2010 Butler Bulldogs reached the NCAA Tournament Final, only to lose when a Gordon Hayward three pointer skipped off the rim. The following year, Butler stunned just about everyone by returning to the National Championship game again—- this time without NBA pick Gordon Hayward. The following year the score of the final against UConn wasn’t close, but Butler managed to turn a good season into a great one with a 14-game winning streak that took them deep into the tournament. On February 3, 2011 Butler was 14-9 with a three-game losing streak in the Horizon. The next time they lost was in the NCAA Championship game.

The 2012-13 Wichita State Shockers followed their Final Four run with a 35-game winning streak that included a perfect MVC campaign. The 2013-14 Shockers earned a #1 seeding in the NCAA Tournament, but were up-ended in the 2nd round by Kentucky, who eventually lost in the National Championship game to UConn.

One of the factors both those teams had was key contributors who were underclassmen, a solid team philosophy (e.g., “The Butler Way,” “Play Angry”), new contributors playing at a high level, and returning leadership. Loyola has all those things in 2018-19. What decides whether the Ramblers make a return trip to the tournament will be health, leadership, and development of the younger players.

Clayton Custer

Clayton Custer was named MVC Preseason Player of the Year. Photo: Harry Redman/Loyola Phoenix

Clayton Custer is the 2018-19 MVC Preseason Player of the Year after winning the league’s top individual honor as a junior. Custer took a huge leap forward from his sophomore season, and it would be hard to conceive him getting dramatically better as a senior. Leadership and teaching the younger players is a place where Custer can really step forward this year, as two departing four-year starters (Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson) leave a leadership void.

Two MVC Second Team honorees, sophomore center Cameron Krutwig and senior guard Marques Townes, will be back for their second seasons as Ramblers. Krutwig came into Division I basketball nearly fully-formed, making an instant impact as wide, 6’9” big man with great footwork and passing ability. In his first 17 games as a Rambler, Krutwig averaged 8.2 points and 5.8 rebounds, while shooting 53.8% from the field. Any coach would take those numbers in a heartbeat from a freshman big man. But in his last 21 games of the year, Krutwig shot 63.2% while scoring 12.2 and snagging 6.4 boards, with many of those games against top MVC teams and NCAA Tournament foes.

Townes was one of the best players on the team at driving to the basket through traffic, and drew the second most free throw attempts on the team. Throughout the year, Townes seemed to sense when a big play was necessary, and his big body was a significant part of defending against larger teams. He was second on the team in points and steals, third in rebounds and assists.

Sophomore guard Lucas Williamson takes the place of Ben Richardson in Loyola’s starting lineup, and New Mexico transfer Aher Uguak will take Donte Ingram’s spot in the starting five. Williamson was understudy to Richardson as Loyola’s best on-ball defender, and was able to establish himself as a tough outside shooter. He’s speedier than Richardson and has longer reach, but he can’t match Richardson’s rapport with Custer. And while Williamson might actually be a better defender than Richardson either now or in the near future, Richardson had Williamson as his backup. Who will back up Williamson as a tough defender off the bench this year?

Aher Uguak

New Mexico transfer Aher Uguak is a very athletic 6’7″ forward expected to join the starting lineup.

Uguak is a 6’7” forward with great athletic skills. He’s much more willing to mix it up around the basket than Ingram, and may actually be a more physical rebounder. Ingram was more of a perimeter small forward, while Uguak shows power forward moves on the defensive side of the ball. However, Uguak’s outside shot and free throws need some refining. Hopefully he can blend into the game more effectively by the time conference play comes around.

Junior guard Bruno Skokna returns as a top bench player, along with 6’7” sophomore forward Christian Negron who was limited to only 17 games last year by nagging injuries. Both players will see a lot of time this year if they can remain healthy; Negron looks better prepared to play bigger minutes in the early exhibition.

Newcomers to the roster are 6’3” freshman point guard Isaiah Bujdoso, 6’3” shooting guard Cooper Kaifes, and 6’9” power forward Frank Agunanne. A 6’6” shooting guard, Tate Hall, is sitting out the year as a transfer from Division II Indianapolis. All three of the eligible players for this season will be called on in key situations this year—Bujdoso as a backup floor leader to Custer, Kaifes as a deadly marksman from behind the three-point line, and Agunanne as a backup to Uguak and Krutwig.

Bujdoso has great hands, and should be a good candidate to sub in for Willimson this season while also learning how to run a D1 team as a Custer understudy. Kaifes is reminiscent of Ron Baker, not just in his haircut, but in his style of play. Having a capable three-point threat who can help replace the 365 career three-pointers from Ingram, Richardson, and Aundre Jackson is a huge plus. If Kaifes can develop into a great defensive player, that would be even better. Big Frank Agunanne is going to be a force in the league in a couple of years, but he can still provide some help this year as he learns the nuances of the college game.

How soon the newcomers blend into Coach Moser’s system– which requires extremely precise teamwork and unselfishness– is going to be key. By the end of last season, the primary eight players for Loyola (Ingram, Richardson, Custer, Townes, Krutwig, Williamson, Skokna, and Satterwhite) had such high-level intuition on sharing the ball, switching off on defense, knowing where the other player was going to be (and when), and trading off defensive assignments that the process was seamless. That’s why the Ramblers went as far as they did.

With new key personnel, learning each other’s inclinations and habits and tendencies is going to take some time, if it ever comes along at all. The sheer athletic talent level of this year’s team might be noticeably better than last year. But the Ramblers defeated a whole lot of teams who had significantly better athleticism last year.

Last season, Loyola had only seven players with more than 500 minutes, and only nine with more than 100 minutes. The Ramblers will be playing the 2018-19 season with only 11 scholarship players (two unused scholarships), and one of the 11 scholarship players will be sitting out a transfer year. Having only 10 scholarship players available makes avoiding injury all the more important.

By starting out at #26 in the preseason AP poll, the Ramblers have a reasonable chance to be ranked by their second week of the season if they can beat UMKC, Furman, Niagara and Grambling as expected. As St. Mary’s, Middle Tennessee, and some other mid-major teams who were ranked much of last year proved, an AP ranking is nice for publicity and pride, but no guarantee of a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

The key games this year will be the two games in Ft. Myers, the Nevada game, the Maryland game, the game in Philly against St. Joes, and the road games against ISU, Bradley, and SIU. If the Ramblers can win five or more of those eight games and only flub one or two outside those key games, there’s a chance for an at large bid. Losing only to ranked Maryland, #7 Nevada, at Illinois State, and at St. Joe’s could be enough for the at-large if a 2nd place ISU or SIU team floods Arch Madness with fans to will their team over the top.

But first, before any of that, the Ramblers need to beat UMKC on Nov. 6.

The Dark Years: The Nauseous Nineties (1990-1996)

In the late 1980s, Loyola men’s basketball was faltering in its attempt to compete with DePaul and Illinois. The Ramblers’ 1985 Sweet 16 run had just about lost all its luster by 1988, when Loyola was playing in an empty livestock arena on the South Side. A shared MCC regular season title in 1987 was followed by a rebuilding year, and then a change in the leadership in the Department of Athletics. But a huge change in the philosophy of the department of athletics was about to kick in, with critical implications for Loyola men’s basketball in the 1990s.

The Dark Years

Chuck Schwarz was hired as Athletic Director in 1988, and arrived with a focus on raising academic standards in the athletic department. Several key Loyola men’s basketball players– who were eligible to play based on NCAA standards– were ruled ineligible because they failed to meet Loyola’s standards. Kenny Miller and Tim Bankston were ruled ineligible before the 1988-89 season, and Gerald Hayward (averaging 22.4 points per game) and Antowne Johnson (19.2 ppg, 12.8 rpg) were ruled ineligible before the spring semester. Coach Gene Sullivan resigned (er, really he was fired) after a 11-17 season in March 1989.

In 1989-90, new head Coach Will Rey and the Ramblers finished 7-22 overall and 3-8 in conference. It was the first year Loyola played in the Rosemont Horizon, and attendance picked up to 2701 per game despite the losing record. Grant Moehring, a 6’7” forward out of Rockford Boylan, and 6’4” shooting guard Brian Wolf were the top newcomers—and two transfers, 6’3” sophomore guard Eric Dolezal from Nebraska, and 6’3 junior guard Hunter Atkins would be eligible in 1990-91.

Will Rey’s first recruiting class for 1990-91 was highlighted by 6’6” center Kerman Ali out of South Shore High School. He was joined by very raw and gangly 6’11” center Bernie Salthe out of Staples, Minn. and redshirt freshman Russell Wilson from Minneapolis South HS. Wilson had knee surgery and therapy which caused him to redshirt.

The hodge-podge of transfers, newbies, freshmen and the purge survivors (senior shooting guard Keith Gailes, injured senior forward Keir Rogers, and red-shirt sophomore point guard Don Sobczak) somehow managed to eke out wins over Western Michigan, Northwestern, Bradley, and Illinois State in Normal.

Rosemont Horizon

The Rosemont Horizon, circa 1988.

The 1990-91 Ramblers finished 10-19 overall, but only 3-11 in conference. Despite some wins against good programs having rebuilding years, the Ramblers also lost games by double-digits to the likes of Maine, UIC, East Carolina, and Cal-State Northridge. Marquette beat Loyola with particular ferocity, hammering the Ramblers 82-36 in Milwaukee. DePaul took it out hard on Loyola as well, gleefully smashing the Ramblers 102-67. Average home attendance slumped again, dropping below 2000 for only the second time in the past decade; fewer than 2000 people in a building with a capacity of 19500 is a very bad look. In 1990-91, Loyola finished 251st out of 295 teams in RPI.

In his final season, Keith Gailes averaged 25.3 points per game in 1990-91, and scored the last of his 2026 career points at Loyola as the Ramblers were knocked out of the second round of the conference tournament in Dayton. Freshman center Kerman Ali was the only Rambler to start all 29 games averaged 8.4 points and 5.6 rebounds. Ali had two double-doubles and 18 blocks. And transfers Eric Dolezal and Hunter Atkins combined for more than 26 points per game, making the most of their additional playing time in Chicago. Freshman Bernie Salthe played in all 29 games, averaging 3.6 points and scoring a season high 13 points in only 15 minutes against St. Louis.

Will Rey

Will Rey

Will Rey’s third season, 1991-92, brought some additional help in the form of Chris Wilburn, a 6’1” point guard out of Martinsville, Ind. Wilburn was a second-team all-state player in Indiana who averaged 11 points and 12 assists per game as a senior. Rey also got a another 6’11” center to join Bernie Salthe, Dan Ciesielski out of Jacobs. But there were no other additions, either from the high school or junior college ranks. The school’s second-highest career scorer was out, and a back-up point guard and a project of a center were coming in.

The starting lineup was projected to be sophomore Kerman Ali at center, juniors Grant Moehring and Eric Dolezal at forward, senior Don Sobczek at point guard, and fifth-year senior Keir Rogers at shooting guard. Coming off the bench would be senior guard Hunter Atkins, redshirt freshman guard Russell Wilson, sophomore center Bernie Salthe, and the freshmen Wilburn and Ciesielski.

ENCOURAGING WINS OVER THE BIG 10

The 91-92 season started with Ali injured for the first three games, replaced by Bernie Salthe. The Ramblers dropped their first game of the year at Wisconsin’s UW Fieldhouse, and their second game at the Horizon against Western Michigan. But beginning with their third game of the year against Illinois State, Loyola went on perhaps their best streak of the entire decade.

On Mon. Dec. 2, 1991, Loyola beat eventual MVC regular-season co-champs Illinois State at the Horizon, 71-58, for their first win of the season. A week and a half later, on Sat., Dec. 14, Loyola beat Morgan State at Alumni Gym, 105-55. The 50-point win was great, but Bernie Salthe (the only experienced player taller than 6’7″) broke his foot in that game and missed the rest of the season. The following Thursday, Loyola beat UC-Irvine at the Horizon, 84-51, to go to 3-2 on the season.

On Dec. 21, Loyola forced 28 Northwestern turnovers and beat the Wildcats 88-73 at the Horizon. Northwestern was not very good that year, but the same group of starting players—Cedric Neloms, Kevin Rankin, Pat Baldwin, Todd Leslie– would make a nice little run in the NIT two years later. It was Loyola second straight win over Northwestern, and their second game of the year against a Big Ten team. The following week would be a third game against a Big 10 foe, when Purdue came to the Horizon.

Gene Keady’s 1991-92 Purdue squad was not their most talented; that year was the season Indiana’s 1991 Mr. Basketball Glenn Robinson sat out his freshman year as a Prop 48. But they were extremely well-schooled in the fundamentals. The leading scorer was Indiana’s 1988 Mr. Basketball, Woody Austin, who averaged 19 points per game. Travis Trice, Sr. (who coached his son to the NBA via Michigan State, and coached an Ohio high school to a state championship) was a starting guard, and future NCAA coaches Matt Painter and Cuonzo Martin came off the bench. Keady, Painter, and Martin have combined for 1230 Division I coaching wins so far— probably not near a record, but still very impressive.

About 6000 fans, the biggest crowd of the year, saw Loyola beat Purdue 87-79 for their fifth win in a row and their second in a row over a Big Ten team. The Ramblers led by two points at halftime and pulled away in the closing minutes behind 22 points from Indiana native Keir Rogers. Hunter Atkins had 17 points and seven assists off the bench, Kerman Ali had 13 points and five rebounds, and Grant Moehring was 9-for-9 from the free throw line. The Ramblers got 23 points from the foul line and held their own on the glass over the taller, stronger and deeper Boilermakers.

Loyola gear from the 90s.

The Ramblers were beginning to get some attention in the local media. Loyola went on the road to beat Maine 65-55 on New Year’s Eve at Bangor Auditorium for their sixth in a row. Five days later they were back at home to crush a decent Georgia State team, 94-73. Seven wins in a row was Loyola longest winning streak since losing to Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA Tournament almost seven years earlier.

But seven is where the streak would end, as Iowa State decisively crushed the Ramblers at Hilton Coliseum in Ames, 92-69. In these very dark times Loyola was beginning, there would not be another seven-game winning streak for another 15 years; Loyola’s next seven game winning streak against D1 competition happened late in the 2006-07 season.

1992-93: DARKNESS DESCENDS

The end of the 1990-91 season saw the departure of Keith Gailes, and the end of the 1991-92 season saw the graduation of his longtime friend and high school teammate Keir Rogers. Between them, the Rogers High School teammates from Michigan City, Ind. scored 3458 points, grabbed 1148 rebounds, and committed 363 steals. But because of injury and eligibility rules, they were only able to play together for two seasons.

Now with significantly higher admissions and eligibility rules, it would be a while before Loyola took chances on players like Gailes again. Kerman Ali was an undersized center from a Chicago Public League school whose last title was in 1947, but he had enough academic qualifications to be admitted in 1990; he would graduate in four years. At the time, it took 128 semester hours to graduate from Loyola, and a large percentage of non-athlete students struggled to finish in four years. Loyola’s next four-year recruit from the Chicago Public League was David Bailey in 1998, and that signing was delayed until the very end of the signing period, when all the grades came in from Westinghouse.

Nevertheless, Coach Rey and the athletic department painted a rosy picture for 1992-93. The recruiting class featured 6’6” forward Joe Estes from Jeffersonville, Ind., 6’5 forward Matt Hawes out of South Suburban Rich Central High School, and 6’3” guard Lamont Nelson from downstate Marion. Joining them was 5’9” Vernell Brent, a juco transfer from Kaskaskia who attended Chicago Vocational.

On opening night of the 1992-93 season at the Horizon the Ramblers faced Wisconsin in former NBA coach Stu Jackson’s college coaching debut. Wisconsin was led by future NBA all-star Michael Finley out of Proviso East High School in Maywood. Future Loyola assistant and UIC head coach Howard Moore was a bench-warming sophomore forward that year for the Badgers.

Loyola stayed close throughout the game, and with the score tied at 66, Kerman Ali came up with the ball and drove to the basket for a layup at the buzzer. It was a happy trip back to Rogers Park down Touhy on the Bud Bus that night.

Three nights later, a potential tying shot against Notre Dame rolled off the rim at the buzzer in a 52-50 loss. The next week, the losing margin was a little larger against Bradley, five points. And the losses kept getting bigger that season—a 14-point loss at #18 Purdue, a 15-point loss to DePaul, a 24-point loss at Illinois State, and a 38-point loss at Evansville.

After a 67-65 win at Duquesne to start the conference season 1-0 (but only 4-6 overall), the Ramblers lost 12 straight games. From Jan. 2, 1993 to the end of the season, Loyola went 3-16 against D1 competition, with the three wins coming on a total of six points. It was the first time in the 14-year history of the Midwest City/Midwestern Collegiate Conference that Loyola had finished in last place, tying with Dayton at 3-11 for a share of the conference cellar.

Through four seasons, Will Rey had assembled a record of 37-77 as head coach. In conference, his squads won only 11 games against 41 losses in the first four years. Unlike previous seasons, there was not a single four-year prospect signed up to come on board for 1993-94. The word was getting around– Loyola was a tough place to get admitted, a tough place to stay eligible, and tough to get excited about on the court.

1993-94: VERY, VERY DARK

Desperate to turn things around in the last year of his contract, Rey loaded up with athletic players from the only place he thought he could get them under Loyola’s academic standards— the juco ranks. Five junior college players signed on and made it through the admissions office for 1993-94 season. And to make the won-loss ledger look a little more favorable, Coach Rey loaded up his schedule with teams from the weakest conferences possible: four games against teams from the MEAC, two from the OVC, two from the MAC, and one from the Mid-Con. Northwestern was the only major conference team on the schedule before conference play began on Jan. 15.

Midwestern Collegiate ConferenceMeanwhile, the Midwestern Collegiate Conference was falling apart. St. Louis and Marquette left the conference at the end of the 1990-91 season, headed for the new Great Midwest Conference. The move left the league with only six teams for 1991-92, so the MCC attracted LaSalle and Duquesne to bolster the ranks for 1992-93. At the end of the 1992-93 season, Dayton left for the Great Midwest, and Duquesne departed for the A-10. This left the MCC with only five teams holding membership for five years or more, which caused the MCC to lose their automatic bid for 1993-94.

The five juco newcomers in 1993-94 were 6’6″ forward Marlon Burton from Thornwood via Lincoln College, 6’5” forward Elmer Dickerson from Galesburg via Lincoln College, 6’7” forward Darrin Jenkins from Pratt Community College, 6’1” guard Eric Thomas from Peoria and Butler County CC, and 6’6” forward Bernard Williams out of Gordon Tech via Snow Junior College. Williams and Dickerson were ruled academically ineligible ten games into the season; again, the players were still eligible by NCAA minimum standards, but not Loyola’s standards. Thomas and Burton made it to the end of the season, but were gone the following year. Only Darrin Jenkins was able to play the full two years he signed up for.

Even at full strength early in the season, playing against one of the weakest schedules in school history the Ramblers struggled. Loyola won their two games against Morgan State by a combined six points, and got smacked by 23 points at Coppin State. The other wins came against Bethune Cookman, Morehead State, and non-D1 Concordia. The losses included a 25-point drubbing by Bowling Green at the Horizon, a 24-point smackdown by Northwestern, a 23-point beating by Miami of Ohio, and a double-digit loss to UIC.

The Ramblers lost Dickerson (9.2 points per game) and Bernard Williams after the first 10 games. Senior Kerman Ali, averaging a career high 16.9 points, injured the arch of his foot just 13 games into the season and never returned to the court; he finished his career with 1142 points and 569 rebounds.

Yet even in the middle of one of the bleakest, soul-crushing seasons in Loyola history, riddled by injury, academic problems and suffering blowout losses, there was one unforgettable bright spot. Just a game after losing Kerman Ali to injury, the 5-8 Ramblers limped into South Bend on Jan. 24, 1994 for a Monday night non-con matchup with Notre Dame. The Irish—still unaffiliated with a conference for men’s basketball– were having a rough year as well, standing at 5-10 on the year. But their dominance over the Ramblers in the all time series was stark and intimidating—Notre Dame had won 25 out of 26 games in the series at that time, dating back to 1924. Loyola’s only win against the Irish came in 1956, in Chicago.

The Ramblers had nothing to lose that night, and played with a defensive intensity that they might not have known they possessed. Maybe it was frustration at losing their senior leading scorer to injury, or two newcomers to stringent academic standards, or maybe it was taking advantage of Notre Dame’s overconfidence. But the Ramblers thoroughly dominated Notre Dame, earning a 70-58 win over the team led by Monty Williams, a 6’8” senior headed for the NBA as a player, and later as a head coach.

ESPN’s Sports Center was just taking off on its rise to become a cultural phenomenon in 1994, and Loyola’s improbable win over the Irish in South Bend earned a segment on Sports Center that’s become an enduring memory among Rambler fans. “Too Much Matt Hawes!!” the Sports Center anchor barked, showing several clips of the Loyola sophomore forward going for 14 points and three rebounds in only 16 minutes that night.

Loyola won only one more game of the remaining 12 contests that year, a home non-con win over Northern Illinois. The 1993-94 season finished with a ledger of 8-19, and a 1-9 record in conference– last place for the second year in a row.

Fans and players all knew Will Rey was on his way out; it was no surprise when it became official on March 16, 1994. Rey finished his five years with a record of 45-97. There were wins against Notre Dame, Wisconsin, Northwestern, Purdue and Bradley, but there were losses to Coppin State, Morgan State, and several embarrassing blowout losses to DePaul and UIC. Only 12 conference wins in 5 years, out of 62 chances, for a conference winning percentage of .193—in a conference that had lost its NCAA Tournament auto bid. The Sweet 16 season in 1985 was a distant memory. Kids coming into the recruiting pipeline in 1994-95 were eight years old the last time Loyola was in the tournament. Word had spread on the street among players and coaches that Loyola was an extraordinary academic burden for student-athletes, with little margin for error.

Loyola’s 2000-seat Alumni Gym.

In April 1994, DePaul Assistant Coach Ken Burmeister was announced as Loyola’s new head coach. Burmeister also had head coaching experience at UTSA, where he took the Roadrunners to the 1988 NCAA Tournament. The Ramblers would also return to campus to play home games in an Alumni Gym that had just experienced a $300,000 facelift.

“Return to campus” was a glossy way to put what others might call a retrenchment or even a retreat. The Ramblers had lunged for the brass ring after the 1985 Sweet 16. The new edicts on admission and eligibility had burned players, coaches and fans, and given the program a bad reputation. Loyola hadn’t developed or maintained a rabid fan base– it doesn’t happen overnight. The team wandered from home court to home court through the 1980s and 1990s, playing on the South Side, West Side, Lincoln Park, Rogers Park, Evanston and Rosemont– six different home court venues in 14 years, sometimes doubling back to previous homes after trying out others. With shrinking crowds, higher academic standards limiting recruiting, and a fiscal crisis at the university brought on by separating the Medical Center from university revenues, many wondered if the downsizing of facilities and big time ambitions was a first step toward dropping from Division I status.

Ken Burmeister

Ken Burmeister.

In his haste to put together some kind of team from the wreckage of Will Rey’s juco gambit, Burmeister brought in St. Rita guard Charles Smith, 5’10” point guard Ray Collum from Racine Lutheran, 6’8” forward Joe Warnke from Chicago Christian, and 5’10” juco point guard Theodis Owens. The new coach also claimed transfer guards Yann Barbic from Georgia Tech and Derek Molis from Fordham; they would be eligible in 1995-96. Part of the reason for signing Collum was to appeal to Javan Goodman, a Top 100 6’8” athletic power forward with a sweet perimeter jump shot. The Collum family was a host family for Goodman, who was a native of the Bahamas. Goodman would be a senior at Racine Lutheran in 1994-95.

All but one of Will Rey’s jucos departed Loyola before the 1994-95 season, leaving many scholarships open. Kerman Ali had graduated, and only a few experienced players were holdovers: Joe Estes, Matt Hawes, and Chris Wilburn. Coach Burmeister also found some new uses for 6’11” fifth-year center Bernie Salthe, who had been used almost exclusively as a rim protector for his entire career. With some minor footwork and shot development, Salthe became a potent offensive weapon in addition to Loyola’s second-leading career shot-blocker.

The new-look Midwestern Collegiate Conference in 1994-95 had nearly as many newcomers as Loyola. Evansville left the league for the MVC after the 1993-94 season, and the MCC raided the membership of the Mid-Continent Conference, adding Northern Illinois, UIC, Wisconsin-Green Bay, Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Wright State, and Cleveland State. The 11-team format would last for a year before Xavier and LaSalle bailed out, leaving Butler, Detroit, and Loyola as the only private schools remaining.

1994-95: BLACK HOLE DARK

The 1994-95 season was miserable. In many ways, it was like Loyola had dropped to Division II, playing in a tiny old gym against a bunch of teams that were D-II just a few years before. Except for Bernie Salthe, most of Loyola’s talent was D-II as well. Loyola beat non-Division I Concordia to start the season with an 89-70 win, as expected, but then shocked Northwestern 70-69 behind 22 points from Theodis Owens to start the season 2-0.

Unfortunately, the early win over a 22-loss Northwestern team was the highlight of the year. The Ramblers lost 22 of the 25 remaining games, ending with a 2-13 conference record. It was Loyola’s third last-place conference record in a row, even with a conference now full of teams somewhat new to Division I. And it was the sixth season in a row with three or fewer conference wins.

There were two eight-game losing streaks in 1994-95 sandwiched around a home win over Wright State. But perhaps the low point was the 68-56 loss to Sacramento State on Jan. 5, 1995. The Sacramento State bench players were jumping around like maniacs in the last four minutes of the second half; Loyola was ending Sacramento State’s 55-game road losing streak dating back to their entry into Division I in 1991.

According to the Simple Rating System (SRS), 1994-95 was Loyola’s worst season of men’s basketball for as far back as data has been collected (1949-50). The previous season (1993-94) was the fourth worst. The 1992-93 season was seventh worst, and 1995-96 was 11th worst. The 1990-91 season comes in as the second worst season at Loyola since 1950. Five of the 11 worst seasons in Loyola men’s basketball (including the two worst ever) happened in the six-year span from 1990 to 1996.


One of the top hits of 1994-95 was Soundgarden’s very dark opus, “Black Hole Sun.”

Coach Burmeister’s “mulligan year” was probably about the best he could do without a real recruiting class, after the bench had emptied from the juco exodus. Even after the $300k facelift (mostly just installation of plastic bleacher seats, a couple of temporary concession stands and some restroom upgrades) Alumni Gym was a bit better than it was in the 1980s, but still uncomfortable. It was not even conceivably a permanent solution to an on-campus home court.

1995-96: DIM GLIMMERS

Javan Goodman

Javan Goodman

The 1995-96 team was full of promising newcomers, led by Top 100 recruit Javan Goodman. The 6’8” forward from the Bahamas by way of Racine, Wis. had good shooting range, impressive wingspan, and great rebounding ability. Joining Goodman in the frontcourt was 6’5” Donyale Bush, a sophomore juco transfer who had spent four years in the Navy during Desert Storm. Another juco was 6’11” JaJa Richards from Pensacola JC. Fordham transfer Derek Molis instantly became a long range shooting threat, and Georgia Tech transfer Yann Barbic added some size at guard coming off the bench. Molis, Goodman, and Bush immediately joined the starting lineup, with sophomore guard Charles Smith and senior point guard Theodis Owens. Four-year seniors Joe Estes and Matt Hawes added some experience from the bench.

Coach Burmeister’s first year running with his own crew at Loyola showed some early promise when the Ramblers beat Indiana State in Terre Haute on Dec. 6, 1995. After a 66-65 come-from-behind win over a decent Loyola Marymount team on Dec. 28, the young Ramblers came within three points of knocking off Northwestern at Welsh-Ryan on Dec. 30.

But the Northwestern loss began an eight-game losing streak and a seven-game conference losing streak as conference play began. Yes, Loyola was losing a lot, just as they had been doing for almost all of the past three seasons. But there was some fight in this new bunch, and glimmers of possibilities. By late January, the young team began to play a bit better together. Beginning with a Jan. 27 win at Cleveland State, the Ramblers put together a run where they won five of their next seven, losing only to conference leaders Green Bay and Butler. Green Bay, led by 1996 NBA 2nd round pick Jeff Nordgaard, went undefeated in conference play and reached #22 in the AP rankings.

Loyola bowed out in the first round of the tournament against Green Bay, but finished 5-11 in conference and 8-19 overall. For the first time since 1991-92, the Ramblers were out of the cellar. The five conference wins were the most for a Loyola team in nine years, and the team was much more watchable. Derek Molis set a new single-season school record for made three-pointers with 71, and led the team in scoring. Donyale Bush, standing only 6’5”, became known for his toughness and tenacity under the basket, averaging 10.7 points and 6.2 rebounds. Freshman Javan Goodman led the team in rebounds with 7.9 and added 9.8 points per game while shooting over 50% from the field. As a freshman, Goodman finished third in the league in rebounding, ahead of 1996 NBA first round pick Vitaly Potapenko.

Gentile Center construction..

Gentile Center under construction in the Spring of 1996.

Rising outside Alumni Gym was the new multipurpose center, which would seat over 5000 and provide a long-overdue comfortable on-campus home court for Loyola. Talk of the on-campus home court began in the early 1980s, and almost a decade and a half later it would open for the 1996-97 season. Things seemed like they were turning around. The new facility, soon to be named the Joseph J. Gentile Center for 1946 graduate who made a fortune as a velour jumpsuit-clad suburban car dealer, was a huge step forward. Javan Goodman was only a freshman, and Donyale Bush only a sophomore. Coming in next year was a highly-regarded point guard from the Chicago Catholic League. It really seemed like the Ramblers had turned a corner. Had they?

Spoiler Alert: Eh… kinda.

To be continued.