Friday, March 3, 2017 2:30 p.m.
Scottrade Center, St. Louis, Mo.
For the third time in 27 days– and for the second time in the past week– Loyola faces Barry Hinson’s Southern Illinois Salukis. The Ramblers lost close games in the first two contests, by 6 points at home and by two points on the road. If you ask most Loyola players and fans, the Ramblers should have won both those games, and especially the one last week in Carbondale that could have vaulted Loyola into the #3 seed. But instead, Loyola as a #5 seed (the highest Arch Madness seeding in the four years since Loyola joined the MVC) will attempt to knock off #4 seed SIU on a neutral court.
The Ramblers are 3-3 all-time at Arch Madness, and 2-6 all-time against SIU. In the 26 years of Arch Madness there have been 13 times where two teams that faced each other on the last day of the season have had an opening round rematch, and in those games, the teams that won to end the season are 8-5. This year, the Loyola-SIU rematch at Arch Madness is one of three pairs of teams that also played each other in the regular season finale. Loyola is 2-1 on the season at neutral sites, and the Salukis haven’t played at a neutral court this season.
Despite no games at a neutral site yet this year, the Salukis will surely have plenty of fans on hand in St. Louis, which is only 105 miles from SIU’s Campus and one of the largest job markets for SIU graduates. The SIU partisans are used to success at Arch Madness, having won in 1993, 19994, 1995, and 2006. And Barry Hinson is 13-12 in 13 trips to St. Louis as head coach of SIU (2012-Present) and Missouri State (1999-2008).
One of the two teams will end their season in this game on Friday, and one of two all-conference seniors will end their college career. Will it be SIU’s versatile 6’7” forward Sean O’Brien, a MVC second team honoree who has annihilated the Ramblers in SIU’s two wins? O’Brien had 19 points and 10 rebounds on 9-of-11 shooting in the first game, and 17 points, 13 rebounds and five assists in the second game against LU. Or will it be Milton Doyle, the do-everything first team awardee who ranks in the top ten of so many Loyola basketball statistical categories? Doyle has been held in check against the Salukis, and the Ramblers have been bothered by SIU’s rim protection in the person of Thik Bol.
The Ramblers haven’t really put their pieces together against SIU. In the first game on Feb. 4, Donte Ingram had one of his best games of the year, scoring 22 points and racking up 10 rebounds, just about offsetting Sean O’Brien’s big game. Unfortunately, Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson had sub-par games and Aundre Jackson struggled against SIU’s big men, shooting below 50% from the field for only the fourth time in the season. In the second game last Saturday, Loyola overcame an early 12-point deficit and looked to take charge with six minutes left to play, but the Salukis always had an answer to keep the score close and hit a game-winning three-pointer in the final 20 seconds. This time Clayton Custer had the big game with 21 points, but Ben Richardson struggled again (2 points), and Milton Doyle (13 points on 5-of-13 shooting) and Donte Ingram (11 points) were kept in check. Meanwhile, the two SIU shooting guards, Leo Vincent and Armon Fletcher, combined for 29 points on 10-of-16 shooting.
Loyola certainly played better in the second game against SIU, but the offense experienced long dry spells in both previous contests. The Ramblers may have to consider backing off guarding O’Brien a bit, and concentrate on limiting offensive contributions from the likes of 6’4” guard Armon Fletcher (averaged 13 points in previous two contests), 6’1” guard Leo Vincent (averaged 11 in two games), and point guard Mike Rodriquez (13.5 average). If Loyola can put up with letting O’Brien go off for 25 points hold the trio of Fletcher, Vincent and Rodriguez in single digits, and figure out a way to neutralize 6’8” Thik Bol, will they may have a better chance at changing the outcome? Some other alternatives are to get O’Brien in foul trouble early and often (which he is apt to do), change the dynamic by using tactics that fluster the opposition (using traps, a full court press, a zone, etc.), improve offensive efficiency, get to the line more often, etc.
The only options left to the Ramblers are how they will beat SIU. When or whether or if they beat SIU is no longer an option. Just beat SIU. And waiting in line afterwards are possibly two other teams that swept the Ramblers this year who are also in need of a lesson.