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.
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.
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.