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.

Road Woes

Loyola’s men’s basketball team is working on a 20-game road losing streak entering their game with UT-San Antonio on Tue., Nov. 25.  Their last win in a true road game was at Cleveland State on January 23, 2013. Oddly enough, the last Ramblers road win was their second road victory in a row, and at the time gave Loyola an admirable 6-4 road record in the 2012-13 season—including wins over DePaul and Horizon champ Valparaiso.  But the Ramblers lost their remaining five road games in 2012-13 to begin their second-longest road losing streak in school history.

What makes the Ramblers’ road woes even more confounding is the fact that Loyola has had a sometimes sizeable second-half lead in many of the games in the streak.  Loyola has won two of their four games at neutral sites since the last road win.

Loyola’s 20-game road losing streak, game by game:

  1. February 4, 2013 at Wright State, 62-59. Led by 13 with 6:34 left to play.
  2. February 7, 2013 at Youngstown State, 60-59. Led by 2 with :10 left to play.
  3. February 12, 2013 at Milwaukee, 72-53. Led by 7 early in 2nd
  4. February 26, 2013 at Detroit, 76-75. Led by 3 with 2:18 to play.
  5. March 5, 2013 at Youngstown State, 62-60. Led by 6 with 15:57 to play; tied with :13 left.
  6. November 12, 2013 at Tennessee Tech, 74-69. Led by 12 with 15:26 left.
  7. November 15, 2013 at Tulane, 65-59. Led by 19 with 17:25 left; led by 10 with 6:41 left.
  8. November 22, 2013 at Portland State, 67-63. Led by 17 early in 2nd half; led by 10 with 12:18 left.
  9. December 1, 2013 at Mississippi State, 65-64 (OT). Tied with :28 left (two missed FT); led by 4 with 3:30 left in OT.
  10. December 23, 2013 at Fordham, 83-69. Led by 11 late in 1st half; led by 6 with 17:49 left.
  11. January 1, 2014 at Indiana State, 70-58. Held lead 4 times in 1st half; tied with 2:35 left in 1st.
  12. January 11, 2014 at Illinois State, 59-50. Scored first 6 points; tied at halftime.
  13. January 18, 2014 at Evansville, 53-48. Led by 9 late in 1st half; tied with 1:55 left to play.
  14. January 28, 2014 at Wichita State, 57-45. Never led.
  15. February 1, 2014 at Southern Illinois, 81-76 (OT). Led by 5 at halftime; led by 2 (with missed FT) at :16 left in regulation.
  16. February 12, 2014 at Northern Iowa, 80-58. Led by 6 midway through 1st before wheels came off.
  17. February 15, 2014 at Drake, 70-62. Scored first 3 points; cut 16-point 2nd half deficit to 3 with 1:04 remaining.
  18. February 22, 2014 at Bradley, 55-38. Led by 2 early; trailed by 2 at halftime.
  19. February 25, 2014 at Missouri State, 72-56. Never led; tied with 11:26 left in 1st.
  20. November 21, 2014 at Michigan State, 82-57. Never led.

Loyola’s longest road losing streak was 25 games, from November 30, 1999 to December 15, 2001.

2014-15 Loyola Men’s Basketball Preview

Loyola’s 2014-15 men’s basketball season begins Friday, November 14, 2014 under perhaps the most pessimism and uncertainty in decades.  Not since Ken Burmeister’s first season in 1994-95 has there been as much off season chaos, disappointment, and skepticism surrounding a new basketball season at Loyola—and that’s saying a lot, considering the number of dismal and/or excruciating seasons since.

Despite hopes and some predictions for much better in 2013-14, the Ramblers finished last in the MVC in their inaugural season—even with the pleasant surprise of having the MVC’s Freshman and Newcomer of the Year in Milton Doyle.  But since a stirring, last-second win in the first round of last year’s MVC tournament, the news about this season’s Ramblers has been mostly bad:

  • Four frontcourt players (Nick Osborne, Matt O’Leary, Cody Johnson, and Jeremy King)– representing 27% of all rebounding, 18% of all points, 43% of all blocks, and 21% of the minutes played last year– transferred out of the program immediately following the dismal 22-loss season.
  • In addition to the four big men, freshman point guard Jordan Pickett also left the program, along with graduating players Tony Nixon, Bill Clark, and Derrick Boone.
  • A highly-touted replacement for the four departing frontcourt players– 6’9” power forward Marlon Jones– failed to qualify for enrolling before the fall semester.
  • Star player Milton Doyle was announced to have a torn labrum injury in October, and his prognosis for playing the full 2014-15 season is still highly uncertain.
  • Loyola released what is probably the worst non-conference schedule in memory, with two non-D1 games to start the season, three games against teams with RPIs at 297 or worse last year, and one game against a team playing its first season in D1. The “highlight” of the home schedule is a Wednesday night game against Tulane, and the most intriguing matchup away from home is either the suicide mission to East Lansing or the possible Vegas tournament matchup with Boise State.
  • Point guard Jeff White underwent an arthroscopic procedure shortly before the beginning of the season, and may not be available or fully recovered for the first few weeks of the season.

Yet not all of the news is bad.  Some of the incoming talent for 2014-15 has real potential.  Donte Ingram, a 6’6” wing from Simeon high school, has an excellent basketball pedigree to go with demonstrated scoring and rebounding ability.  Montel James is a 6’7” juco forward from Coffeyville Community College who averaged 13.4 points and 4.9 rebounds as a sophomore and earned first team all conference honors with even higher numbers as a freshman.   Jay Knuth is yet another wing at 6’6” who promises to add some depth.  The first team all state player averaged 19.0 points and 7.0 rebounds per game as a senior.  Freshman forward Julius Rajala, out of Finland, will be the tallest Rambler at 6’9”.

In the backcourt, Earl Peterson is another Coffeyville juco who earned first team all-conference honors.  The 6’3” shooting guard led the team with 16.7 ppg, 58 made three-pointers, and 173 trips to the line.  Ben Richardson is a solid 6’3” guard known for defending as well as scoring.  He comes to the Ramblers from Overland Park, Kan., where his high school team that won 94 out of 100 games during his four seasons, including two state championships.

Even though there are several newcomers who have potential to be improvements in talent over individual players from the 2013-14 squad, it should be noted and underscored:  Entering the 2014-15 season, Loyola will have seven newcomers on the roster, and only six players who have ever played a single minute of Division I basketball.  One of those six experienced players is a former walk-on, and another has started only six games in two years.

There will be only one player taller than 6’7”, and zero players over 6’5” with any prior D1 experience.  Beyond height, the Ramblers do not have any players on the roster weighing more than 220 pounds– in a league where every other team has between 4-6 players weighing 220 pounds or more.  Remember, this is a team that finished last in the league in rebounding even with the four frontcourt players who left en masse.

Heading up this inexperienced and undersized crew is a coach who desperately needs to show the ability to adapt to his new personnel just as a new athletic director arrives on campus.  Entering his fourth season at Loyola, Porter Moser is 10-42 in conference games and 32-61 overall in his three seasons at Loyola.  He has a 22-64 lifetime record in MVC conference games over five seasons of coaching at two different MVC schools.  The Ramblers also come into 2014-15 having lost 19 consecutive road games dating back to January 2013, including several losses in which they had double-digit second-half leads.

The MVC, thoroughly dominated last season by the 35-1 Wichita State Shockers, will see a lot of new faces in 2014-15.  Notably absent are Wichita State’s Cleanthony Early, now playing with the New York Knicks, and Jake Odom from MVC runner-up Indiana State.   Gone are the top scorers from Southern Illinois, Bradley, Drake, and Missouri State; the top rebounders from Bradley, Drake, Missouri State, and Southern Illinois have also moved on from college.

Northern Iowa and Evansville both return five starters with another year of experience, which could vault them to just below consensus favorite Wichita State.  Missouri State returns seven players who each averaged 14 minutes or more per game—including four starters– from a team that won 20 games last year.   Illinois State returns four starters as well, including big sophomore center Reggie Lynch, who led the league with 96 blocks.

As a whole, the MVC should be much more competitive in the middle of the standings (third place through seventh place), with Wichita State followed by Northern Iowa at the top.  Eighth place through 10th should be pretty dismal, perhaps much worse than last year.

As for the Ramblers, the newcomers are very promising and should develop into very good players over the next several years.  But for this year, the lack of size and experience in the frontcourt, the doubts about Milton Doyle’s health, and the sheer number of players without Division I experience will likely doom the Ramblers to another last place finish.

Attitude and execution were certainly part of Loyola’s woes in 2013-14, but it could also be argued that the returning players (Christian Thomas, Jeff White, Joe Crisman, and Milton Doyle– plus sixth man Devon Turk) played close to the very top of their potential and expectations.  Some marginal improvement due to additional experience might be possible, mostly through better decision-making and reduced errors.  The coaching staff will also need to adjust strategy and improve game planning to maximize advantages and minimize some glaring deficiencies.

Loyola finished last in the league in 2013-14 largely because of turnovers and weak interior defense.  The Ramblers had the most number of turnovers in the league (averaging nearly one per game more than the next worst team), the worst turnover margin in the league (by far– twice as bad as the 9th worst in the league), the lowest number of rebounds (by far), half as many blocked shots as the league leader (8th in the league), and the worst field goal percentage defense in the league (by far).  What makes those numbers even worse was the fact that a large part of Loyola’s strategy last season was trying to control the tempo of the game, taking more time to look for the higher percentage shot, and lowering the opposition’s number of possessions.  Simply bringing in several talented but undersized newcomers to replace a larger, more experienced (yet admittedly deficient) frontcourt isn’t likely to change things very much for the better.

Here is the Ramblermania prediction:

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

Comments and discussion are welcome on the Ramblermania message board.