What a Season!

The hard-working, undersized Ramblers overcame doubts and injury to put together the best Loyola men’s basketball season in 30 years.

After everything that the 2014-15 Loyola men’s basketball team accomplished, it’s worthwhile to reflect back on expectations at the outset of the season.

Following a 10-win, last place season in their first year in the MVC, the Ramblers were again picked for last in the league in the preseason poll. Four frontcourt players measuring 6’7” or taller left the team en masse just days after the 2013-14 season. Top recruit Marlon Jones was ruled academically ineligible at the start of the fall semester. Only one player taller than 6’7” was on the roster, and no one heavier than 220 pounds. Only six players on the roster had ever played a minute of Division 1 college basketball, and only four players had ever started a D1 college game. Star player Milton Doyle was diagnosed with a torn labrum in October, but was going to try to play through the injury. Loyola was entering the season with a 19-game road losing streak dating back to January 2013, and the non-conference schedule featured only four home games against Division 1 competition.

It was a pretty dire picture just before the beginning of the season. Yet despite the doubts and setbacks, the 2014-15 Ramblers put together their best season in 30 years, making the most of their talent and behind a strategy that emphasized hustle, teamwork, and tenacity. The list of accomplishments is pretty impressive:

    Breaking the 20-game road losing streak at UTSA.
    Earning the program’s first MVC road win at Evansville.
    Loyola’s first winning road record since 1985.
    Tying the program’s longest winning streak since 1985.
    A 3-1 record at neutral sites, including wins over Texas Tech, Boise State, and Indiana State.
    Winning the 2015 Continental Tire Las Vegas Invitational.
    Six victories over teams with 20 or more wins.
    First appearance in the MVC tournament semifinals.
    Setting a new record for largest margin of victory in Arch Madness history.
    Best RPI since 1985.
    Third best RPI improvement in Division I men’s college basketball, improving 205 places in the RPI.
    Six victories after the end of the regular season.
    Most wins in a season since 1985.
    First postseason tournament appearance since 1985.
    Winning the 2015 College Basketball Invitational.

The 2014-15 Ramblers also achieved impressive high-water marks for Coach Porter Moser. In his 11th season as a head coach, Moser shattered his previous season high for wins (18, three times at Arkansas-Little Rock), season winning percentage (.620, twice at Arkansas-Little Rock), RPI (115, in 2002-03 at Arkansas-Little Rock), and road wins (7, in 2000-01 at Arkansas-Little Rock). His regular season MVC record equaled his finish coaching the 2004-05 Illinois State team, and the win over Indiana State at Arch Madness gave him his third win at the MVC tournament and his first trip to the tournament semifinals.

Player Development

Ostensibly, NONE of the returning Loyola players made gaudy improvements in putting up individual scoring and rebounding numbers. Where they excelled, however, was in sharing, taking care of the ball, cutting down turnovers, better defense, and making wise decisions. As a team, Loyola made dramatic improvements in opponents field goal percentage (from .455 to .432), opponents three point percentage (.352 to .321), turnovers per game (13.31 to 12.59), field goal percentage (.462 to .474), and three point percentage (.350 to .392). As a result—and through being more effective at dictating tempo– the Ramblers cut their points allowed by more than 8 points per game, while their offensive scoring average decreased by only 3 points. Instead of losing games by close margins, Loyola found itself on the winning end of close games more often than not—even with a better overall level of competition than the previous season.

The Rambler newcomers, led by Montel James and Earl Peterson, were very impressive and demonstrated improvement through the season. Freshmen Ben Richardson and Donte Ingram both showed great potential, and their minutes played grew during the course of the season with Richardson gaining a spot in the starting lineup. Two more newcomers, Jay Knuth and Julius Rajala, showed potential to become key role players in the near future.

The improved team numbers, wins, and success of the 2014-15 Ramblers came even without Milton Doyle playing in 12 games during the season, which adds to the impressiveness of the team’s accomplishments. Doyle twisted his ankle against Abilene Christian, and had to sit out the entire game against Southern Utah. After returning for five games (which included the Las Vegas tournament and the first three conference games), he re-injured the ankle against Wichita State and played two more games before shutting down for 11 straight games to fully recover. Loyola was 19-6 in games where Doyle played, but only 5-7 in games without Doyle. Both of Loyola’s losses to Indiana State and Illinois State came without Doyle available to play; the two losses to Illinois State came by a total of ten points, and the Ramblers beat Indiana State by 28 points with Doyle playing at Arch Madness.

Looking Ahead

The huge improvement from 2013-14 to 2014-15 is going to be tricky to sustain with the loss of seniors Christian Thomas and Joe Crisman. Thomas had a tremendous four year career at Loyola, ranking in the Top 20 all time in both points and rebounds; he’ll be remembered for being the most solid tent post of the rebuilding effort if his successors can partly fill his shoes. Crisman was the model character and “glue guy” who always seemed to be involved in key plays down the stretch of his senior season. Thankfully, a lot of Crisman’s influence seems to have rubbed off on Ben Richardson.

The Ramblers’ biggest need— size and interior presence— should be partially answered by incoming recruits Maurice Kirby (6’9”, 230) and Pernell Adgei (6’7”, 220). Two more scholarship slots are open, with several offers out to point guards and interest circulating around another frontcourt player. Loyola might possibly replace Christian Thomas in the starting lineup with Donte Ingram, with James, Doyle, Turk, and Richardson filling out the starting lineup. Hopefully some experience and training room time over the summer will help Ingram toughen up a bit physically and mentally, because at times the freshman played a little “too nice” to simply replace the hard-nosed Thomas in the paint.

In any case, the 2015-16 Ramblers can’t simply be content to coast after the improvement and hard work that went into earning the accomplishments of 2014-15. With a program that’s trying to lay cornerstones for the future after decades of complacency, stringing together several years of progress toward an NCAA tournament appearance is absolutely vital.

Get to a Postseason Tournament—Any Postseason Tournament

party 1985

As crazy as it might seem, Loyola’s last appearance in a postseason tournament was in 1985.

On March 21, 1985 #14 Loyola—riding a 19-game winning streak—faced off against Patrick Ewing and defending National Champions Georgetown in the 1985 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16.  Despite carrying a two point lead into the locker room at halftime, the Ramblers lost the game 65-53 as Ewing asserted control down the stretch.  It remains Loyola’s last postseason tournament game.

True, there have been several close brushes with postseason appearances for the Ramblers since then.

In 1987, Loyola won a share of the Midwestern Collegiate Conference regular season title, but was eliminated in the second round of the conference tournament by eventual champion Xavier.

In 2002, the Ramblers reached the Horizon League championship game as a five seed.  With characteristic heartbreak, Loyola lost by one point in overtime as a half-court shot skipped off the rim.  Almost immediately following that game, the Horizon League made draconian changes to the conference tournament format with the aim of preventing lower seeded teams from winning the auto bid.

And in 2007, Loyola lost a conference tournament semifinal overtime game to #18 Butler by one point as yet another last second shot failed to drop.  Finishing that season at 21-11 with an RPI of 101—a year before the creation of the CIT and CBI—the Ramblers were yet again a basket or two away from an NIT bid, and out of luck for a postseason spot.

Now Loyola is in a different conference—thanks perhaps in some part to lingering resentment over rule changes in the Horizon that many perceived as specifically targeting Loyola for disadvantage.  Would Loyola have left the Horizon League—as the last remaining founding member—if the rules hadn’t been changed in reaction to their brush with a postseason bid, and if there hadn’t been a decade-long perceived bias toward promoting all things Butler?  Probably– and especially so after Butler departed a year before Loyola had the opportunity to jump.  But if the HL had conducted itself fairly, the searing desire to escape the Horizon might not have been there, and the Horizon might have been a more comfortable and successful conference for all concerned.

One of the many superior aspects of the Missouri Valley Conference is its highly equitable conference tournament format.  Held at a neutral site, with one bye for the top six teams, it’s a format that promotes strength across the board instead of reinforcing dominance of elite programs.  The conduct of the league promotes equity in a way that benefits all league members in a way that puts the shame of the cynical Horizon League policies in stark contrast.  As a result, eight of the 11 schools that have been members of the MVC over the past three years have reached some sort of postseason tournament, the only three exceptions being Loyola, Southern Illinois, and Bradley (see chart below).

As the newest member of the MVC, building for the long term is the goal for Loyola.  At last, the Ramblers are in a league with a philosophy that promotes development rather than preventing it through “protecting” the already favored.  Many teams build their programs by getting into lesser postseason play, getting experience competing at that level, and using that experience to improve their tournament bids the following year.  Achieving the incremental benchmarks also helps sustain or build fan interest over time.

Wichita State didn’t just get to the NCAA Final Four suddenly in 2013; they won a game in the 2009 CBI tournament, reached the 2010 NIT, won the 2011 NIT, and lost a close game in the 2012 NCAA while building toward that Final Four run.  Loyola didn’t just suddenly win the NCAA Tournament in 1963; they first gained important experience by winning the third place game in the 1962 NIT with a sophomore-heavy team, after losing in the semi-finals to the eventual champion.

What does it take to get to postseason play?  Here are a few MVC team season profiles (at the conclusion of Arch Madness) that have reached postseason play:

Conf. RPI Rank: 11   NCAA Team: Wichita State (auto)

2013-14 Indiana State  NIT    Record:  23-10 (12-6) RPI: 71

2013-14 Missouri State  CIT   Record: 20-12 (9-9) RPI: 85

2013-14 Illinois State   CBI   Record: 16-15 (9-9)  RPI: 134

Conf. RPI Rank: 8  NCAA Teams: Creighton (auto), Wichita State (at large)

2012-13 Indiana State  NIT  Record: 18-14 (9-9)  RPI:  72

2012-13 Northern Iowa  CIT  Record: 18-14 (11-7) RPI:  83

2012-13 Evansville  CIT  Record:  18-14 (10-8)   RPI: 106

Conf. RPI Rank: 8   NCAA Teams: Creighton (auto), Wichita State (at large)

2011-12 Illinois State NIT  Record: 20-13 (9-9)   RPI: 100

2011-12 Northern Iowa  NIT  Record: 19-13 (9-9)   RPI: 73

2011-12 Drake  CIT  Record:  17-15 (9-9)   RPI: 134

2011-12 Evansville CBI  Record:  16-15 (9-9) RPI: 131

2011-12 Indiana State CIT  Record: 18-14 (8-10) RPI: 129

This season the MVC is ranked 10th in Conference RPI, and barring spectacular collapses both Wichita State and Northern Iowa will receive NCAA bids.

At this writing– with six games remaining in conference play before Arch Madness– Loyola is in danger of squandering its best start in decades and missing out on a postseason birth.  In order to make a case for a postseason spot, the Ramblers will need to win four of the remaining six, or win multiple games in St. Louis.  There is a favorable schedule in which to do it—four out of the six remaining games are against teams with losing records.

The entire Rambler community–  players, coaches, fans, administration, students, band members, family members, neighborhood residents, and casual observers—need to band together to erase this shameful and dismal streak.  We all need to do our parts to get the monkey of this three decade postseason drought out of the way this year—not only to build for a better, healthier, and more vibrant season next year, but to reverse the inertia that keeps us from moving forward.  A postseason appearance– at any level– will help innoculate the team from adversity next year, and bury a mental stumbling block that haunts fans, players, and the entire Rambler community.

Super Team Play Sparks Turnaround

With great team play and a new attitude, Loyola men’s basketball finishes successful non-conference schedule for a great start to 2014-15 season.

Contrary to just about every prediction (including here), the Loyola’s men’s basketball team is off to a phenomenal start.  The Ramblers finished the non-conference portion of their season with an improbable 10-2 record, capped by winning the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic with wins on consecutive nights over Texas Tech and Boise State.  Loyola’s impressive turnaround from last season has been stunning and unexpected, and the team appears to be gaining confidence with each game.

Winning away from Home

The Ramblers entered the 2014-15 season burdened by a 19-game road losing streak dating back to January 2013, and a 2-21 record away from home in that span.  After a dismal performance at Michigan State in the first road contest, the Ramblers debuted a super-energetic help defense at Texas-San Antonio, where they came out on top 71-57.  The first road win in a year and a half was followed by another great performance at Kent State just four nights later, where the poise and teamwork of the young and undersized team was refined a bit more.

After another road win at UIC, followed by the two gutsy performances in Las Vegas, the Ramblers are 3-1 in road games and 5-1 in games away from Gentile Arena in the 2014-15 season.   More important, many of the games on the road losing streak last year were the result of blown second-half leads.  That hasn’t been the case in 2014-15; the Ramblers beat Boise State after trailing early in the second half by eight points, and have successfully weathered furious home team comeback attempts at Kent State and UIC.

Smothering Team Defense

After the departure of four frontcourt players from last year’s squad, the 2014-15 Ramblers were left woefully understaffed and undersized in the frontcourt.  Just one player on the starting lineup stood taller than 6’5”, which presented an enormous challenge for the coaching staff—how to compensate when going up against much larger teams night in and day out.  The answer has been three-fold:  creating a really unselfish and hard-working team concept; controlling the tempo of games to advantage; and exploiting the gaps between frontcourt and backcourt defense through ball movement, shot selection, and athleticism.

The three-pronged strategy is paying off, and the team is buying in.  Through Loyola’s 10 games against D-1 competition this season, the Ramblers’ rebounding margin has been -17, -2, +4, -15, -11, 0, +25, +9, +10, and +6.  Notice a trend?  It’s all the more phenomenal considering the height deficit the Ramblers are working with.

Meanwhile, the Ramblers have the second best field goal percentage and third best field goal defense in the MVC.  Loyola leads the MVC in 3 point field goal percentage (39.8%), and are tops in 3 point field goal defense, holding the opposition to under 30%.  Over the last two games– against Big 12 and Mountain West teams– the Ramblers held the opposition to a combined 6-for-51 (11.8%) three-point field goal shooting.

Through their 10 Division 1 opponents this season, the Ramblers have held five of them (including Loyola’s last three opponents) to their lowest scoring output of the season:  UTSA, Jackson State, Southern Utah, Texas Tech, and Boise State.  And three out of those five games were at road or neutral sites.

Loyola begins MVC play with a New Year’s Eve matinee against Bradley.  The Ramblers are getting some notice around the league for their new attitude, great teamwork and impressive start, so they won’t be “sneaking up” on MVC foes when the conference slate begins.  Nevertheless, the hard work and intelligent coaching in the early season has put Loyola in a position to potentially reach a postseason tournament for the first time since 1985 if the Ramblers can sustain their energy, teamwork, and confidence through the long grind of MVC play.