2015-16 Loyola Men’s Basketball Preview

Last year’s 24-13 Loyola Ramblers men’s basketball team won the College Basketball Invitational tournament, advanced to the MVC tournament semi-finals at Arch Madness with a record-setting win over Indiana State, and finished with an RPI of 87 in their second year in the MVC. They did it with only one senior in the starting lineup and their top player injured for more than half of the conference season. The 2015-16 Ramblers will face much higher expectations and a tougher overall schedule. Opponents will certainly be more prepared for the style of play the Ramblers adopted last year, a higher energy style which depends on sharing and switching on offense and defense. But whether the top players can stay healthy will probably have the largest impact on the Ramblers’ season.

Last season, the Ramblers compiled an impressive 11-7 record away from home, including wins over Boise State, Texas Tech, Kent State, UTSA, Indiana State, and Evansville. Loyola won the CBI title on the road, set a new record for the largest margin of victory at Arch Madness, and took the title of the Las Vegas Invitational. It was a surprise for Loyola to play so well on the road last year after snapping a 20-game road losing streak spanning three seasons with the UTSA win.

Nevertheless, health problems loomed especially large for Loyola in 2014-15. Milton Doyle missed 12 entire games while recovering from ankle problems, during which Loyola posted a lackluster 5-7 record (4-7 in league play) and dropped some close conference contests. Only four players on the team managed to play in all 37 games, and only one of those four started more than 21 games on the year. Christian Thomas (at Missouri State), Montel James (at Evansville), and Ben Richardson (at Kent State) each missed one entire game because of injury, and each of them played limited minutes for the next game when returning to the lineup. Jeff White and Julius Rajala began and ended the season in street clothes, respectively. Staying healthy will be crucial if Loyola is going to finish high in the top half of the conference.

The big loss from last year’s squad will be the leadership and steady play of Christian Thomas. The soft spoken senior led the Ramblers in scoring or rebounds (or both) in 21 of Loyola’s 37 games last season. Thomas averaged 11.2 points per game last season, and leaves LU as the 18th highest scorer and 15th highest rebounder in Loyola history. The Ramblers also lose experienced and hard-working Joe Crisman, who started 21 games, was a key defensive stalwart, and averaged 17.9 minutes per game. The two 4-year players saw Loyola rise from their worst-ever season in the Horizon League as freshmen to 20-plus wins and a couple of tournament titles as seniors in the MVC.

The three main additions to the team for 2015-16 will be: 6’9”, 240-pound sophomore Maurice Kirby; 6’7”, 215-pound freshman guard/forward Pernell Adgei; and 6’2” sophomore point guard Tyson Smith. A former Virginia Tech recruit, Kirby will be expected to fill a lot of the roles performed by Christian Thomas. His size and strength should help ease the leap up in competition from Coffeyville Community College, where he averaged 8.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 21.6 minutes per game as a freshman. Adgei comes from Northern Virginia via Fishburne Military School, and has the kind of athletic and ball handling skills in a large body that cause matchup problems for opponents. Another sophomore juco transfer, Baltimore native Tyson Smith, will add depth at the point guard position.

The likely starters will be Milton Doyle, Earl Peterson, and Devon Turk at guards and Donte Ingram and Montel James in the frontcourt. In the exhibition game against Lewis, the 6’6”, 215 pound Ingram got the starting spot to replace Christian Thomas, and though the sophomore may be a slight improvement on the boards over generously-listed 6’5” 220 pound Thomas, he’ll need to do some more work on finishing his shots. Seniors Peterson and Turk both played phenomenal stretches at the end of their junior seasons, and look to maintain that excellence on both sides of the court. James, also a senior in 2015-16, played very well in the second half of his first season in D1, and needs to play at that level with more consistency while improving his free throw touch.

Tops off Loyola’s bench are Ben Richardson and Jeff White, who both did a great job defensively last year, but need to score with more consistency. Sophomore Julius Rajala, and newcomers Maurice Kirby and Pernell Adgei will combine for significant minutes in the frontcourt, rotating in to spell James and Ingram. The development of the frontcourt bench players will play a big role in conference play, as sophomore Jay Knuth will miss the 2015-16 season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum.

Loyola’s 2015-16 schedule is a nice step up in difficulty. Gone are the two non-D1 games from last season. The Ramblers finally get the Bracket Busters return game from Creighton, now in the Big East, after having waited throughout the entire Doug McDermott era and beyond. Road games at Notre Dame and New Mexico will be especially tough; home games against UTSA, UIC, Toledo, and Cleveland State should be excellent tune-ups for the conference season, and more challenging than last year’s home games.

Assuming the Ramblers can stay relatively healthy, some key contests stick out on the schedule as make-or-break games. The Dec. 5 home game against Creighton is a chance to get a quality win over a respected program in a major conference on the home court, yes, but it’s also a chance to make an emphatic statement about Loyola’s place in the MVC. The Jan. 2 game at Indiana State will go far in determining the trajectory of the MVC league race; Loyola has never won a regular season league game against Indiana State, and a win in Terre Haute would go a long way toward establishing a beachhead early in the season near the top of the conference standings. If the Ramblers are going to continue to progress up the ladder in the MVC, the Feb. 3 home game against Illinois State should be a crucial turning point; Loyola lost both games to Illinois State last year by a combined 10 points, and the Redbirds figure to be a rival for the same Arch Madness tournament seeds. The Feb. 14 home game against Evansville, the team predicted by most as the league runner up to Wichita State, may also be a similar statement game with high importance to the league race.

Around the league, Wichita State figures to run away with the league crown, and Evansville returns the core of their CIT championship team. Illinois State had serious losses to graduation and the shocking transfer of frontcourt cog Reggie Lynch. Northern Iowa has a strong home court advantage working for them and a mix of experience and promising newcomers under a savvy coach, but Seth Tuttle will be impossible to immediately replace. Indiana State lost their frontcourt to graduation, but Coach Greg Lansing always seems to have a team that punches above its weight class.

The expected parity just below Wichita State– with Evansville, Illinois State, UNI, Loyola, and possibly Indiana State or Drake jockeying for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th seeds at Arch Madness– has all the earmarks of coming down to tiebreakers. After the head-to-head or multiple team round robin tiebreakers, non-conference strength of schedule plays a factor. Although Loyola has a favorable and improved non-con schedule this year, it’s still unlikely that the Ramblers would win that matchup against UNI, Evansville, or Illinois State.

For 2015-16, here’s how I see the MVC:

1. Wichita State
2. Evansville
3. Northern Iowa
4. Loyola
5. Illinois State
6. Indiana State
7. Drake
8. Missouri State
9. Southern Illinois
10. Bradley

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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.