UIC Preview, Nov. 14th

Tuesday, November 14, 2023 7:00 p.m.
Gentile Arena, Chicago, Ill.

Loyola renews its cross-town rivalry with UIC at Gentile Arena on Tuesday night, facing the Flames for the 60th time in a series that dates back to 1986.

Almost every year since parting company as conference rivals– when Loyola left the Horizon League in 2013– Loyola has played local rival UIC. And almost every time in that span, the Ramblermania pre-game preview has expressed a phrase like: “UIC promises to be much improved over last year.” This year, it’s almost definitely going to be true.

Since Loyola left the Horizon League, UIC has had only two seasons with a KenPom better than 200. Yet despite their lower performance metrics (including Loyola’s rocky first years in the MVC and the A-10), the Flames have mostly been a tough challenge. There are bragging rights on the line, and a lot of the players know each other well. In 2016, Donte Ingram hit a three-pointer at the buzzer to force overtime that resulted in a Rambler win. Loyola eked out a three-point win at home in 2013, and last year’s final was Loyola 70, UIC 63. They’re usually pretty close games.

Loyola has won the last 10 games against UIC, but still runs a 28-31 deficit in the all-time series against Illinois-Chicago, thanks to a tortuous streak from 1992 to 2005 when UIC won 19 out of 23 games against Loyola. That decade-plus of misery included losing to UIC in the 2002 Horizon League Conference Championship Final– with an auto bid to the NCAA Tournament– by one point in overtime.

But back to UIC’s resurgence…. The Flames are entering their second year in the MVC after going 4-16 for an 11th place finish in their inaugural campaign. As Loyola can attest, it’s rough making a transition to a new conference. The Flames have re-made their lineup from last year thanks to key transfers and underclassmen stepping up.

Coach Luke Yaklich is in his fourth year on Harrison Street, still seeking his first winning season. The Flames were picked to finish 10th this year in the MVC Preseason Poll, ahead of Evansville and Valparaiso. The new-look Flames impressed in their first game of the year at Cincinnati, losing 69-58. After an 86-71 win over Little Rock, the lineups and roles are appearing more defined, even with some injuries.

The Flames are likely to start two forwards and three guards. Toby Okani is a 6’8″ senior forward who can handle the ball and pass like a point guard. In UIC’s season opener at Cincinnati, he had 20 points, 11 rebounds, six blocks and three assists. He’s averaging 17.0 ppg, 10.5 rpg, and 3.0 apg through two games. Filip Skobalj is a 6’7″ junior forward who averages 4.0 points, 3.5 boards.

The starting guards are 6’5″ senior Isaiah Rivera (a transfer from Colorado State), 6’4″ junior Ethan Pickett, and 6’4″ sophomore Steven Clay. Rivera had a monster game against UALR: 25 points (4 of 5 on threes), and seven rebounds. Picket is a juco transfer who’s averaging 13.0 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. Clay shoots the three well (4 of 6 against UALR), and averages 6.0 ppg and 4.0 rpg.

The top bench players are 6’5″ sophomore guard Christian Jones, 6’3″ sophomore guard Drew King, 6’9″ sophomore forward Jaden Brownell, and 6’10” sophomore center Cameron Fens. Two combo guards that would likely run the point, Marquise Kennedy and Drew King, have struggled with injuries—Kennedy hasn’t played a minute in the two games this season, and King has had foot issues keeping him to limited minutes.

UIC played Cincinnati (now in the Big 12) very close on the road to open the season, thanks to the explosiveness of Okani. His passing ability, mobility, rebounding and outside shooting (a respectable 29.3% last year from distance) makes him a matchup nightmare. Loyola may need to throw double teams or try different combos on defense to limit his production. But don’t forget about Rivera, who shot 37% behind the arc for Colorado State last year and already has a 25-point game under his belt at UIC. This UIC team is dangerous, particularly if more than one player has a super game.

Eastern Illinois Preview

Saturday, November 11, 2023 7:00 p.m.
Gentile Arena, Chicago, Ill.

Loyola faces the Eastern Illinois Panthers at Gentile Arena for the 2023-24 home opener on Saturday night. The Ramblers will be seeking to get into the win column after Wednesday night’s 75-62 loss to #10 Florida Atlantic. EIU comes into the contest at 1-1, with an 80-52 loss at Illinois to open the season and a lop-sided 91-45 home win over Division III Monmouth (IL) on Wednesday night.

Former Evansville Coach Marty Simmons is in his third year at Eastern Illinois, and appears to be building a program in a similar style to his recruiting at Evansville. The Panthers were picked last in the OVC preseason poll after going 5-13 in the conference last year, but the team has a whole new look this season. There are five Chicago-area products on the roster, two 6’8″ foreign players (remember Coach Simmons’ success developing Lithuanian center Egidijus Mockevicius? and others), a couple of freshmen, and transfers from several D1 and juco programs.

The Panthers are likely to start 6’7″ sophomore forward Kooper Jacobi, 5’10” senior guard Jordan Booker, 6’10” forward Jermaine Hamlin, 6’5″ junior guard Dan Luers, and 6’8″ sophomore forward Sincere Malone. Jacobi is a very active redshirt sophomore transfer from Toledo who had a double-double against Illinois on Monday and dropped in 16 points against Monmouth on Wednesday. He did not play at all last season as a redshirt at Toledo.

Booker is a transfer point guard from Tarleton State who is originally from Chicago Bogan; he averaged 6.6 ppg last year at Tarleton and is a great free throw shooter at 85%. Malone is a Simeon product who averaged 6.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, 2.0 steals, and 1.4 assists last year as a freshman part-time starter. Luers hails from Lebanon, Ohio and is one of those guys who might be a better shooter from outside the arc than inside. Hamlin is the Illinois transfer originally from Lincoln, Ill. who played mop-up minutes in 24 games as a freshman and sophomore at Illinois before transferring to EIU. Hamlin is not a great shooter, but he’s a big body that can rebound and block some shots.

Coming off the bench are Nakyel Shelton, a 6’3” juco transfer guard out of Chicago Schurz; 6’4” junior guard Corey Sawyer, Jr.; Jaylin Gibson, a 6’3” guard from Evanston who played two years at Mount St. Mary’s; and Kyndall Davis is a 6’5” junior guard out of Chicago Bogan who started his career at Long Island. Freshman guard Isaiah Griffin might also get a few minutes.

Only five players on the 15-man roster return from last year, and only three of them (Malone, Luers and Hamlin) appeared in more than 10 games, so this is a very different team from last season. Jacobi and Booker have already developed some leadership on the court. Expect a good showing of EIU fans to attend, between local family members of the team and area alumni.

Loyola will be looking to find some rhythm and rotations against a team that isn’t nearly as imposing, experienced or unrelenting as FAU. Many of the slightly-fumbled, just-a-little-bit off passes went for points off turnovers against FAU, and Loyola’s younger players sometimes looked reluctant to even try a shot as FAU’s 7’1” center did a lot of work over the off-season. Returning to home and facing a team that is also trying to establish familiarity might be just what the Ramblers need to work out some bugs and establish a better game flow.

#10 Florida Atlantic Preview

Wednesday, November 8, 2023 6:00 p.m.

Wintrust Arena, Chicago, Ill.

Loyola opens the 2023-24 season on Wednesday night at Wintrust Arena in a neutral site battle with #10 Florida Atlantic in the 2nd Annual Barstool Invitational.  The Ramblers are riding an 11-game season opener win streak, dating back to a loss on 11-11-11 at Illinois, Porter Moser’s first game as Loyola’s head coach.

Florida Atlantic made the most of their second NCAA Tournament appearance in school history last year by going all the way to the Final Four– and coming just two points from the title game.  After bringing nearly everyone back from their 2022-23 team and moving from C-USA to the American Athletic Conference, they’re ranked #10 in the first AP Poll of 2023-24.

The rise of the Owls tracks somewhat similar to Loyola’s resurgence over the past decade-plus.  FAU Coach Dusty May was hired during Loyola’s Final Four run– in fact, his hiring was announced on the same day Loyola faced Nevada to reach the Elite Eight.  And May was on the opposing sidelines as a top assistant as the Ramblers got their signature out of conference win at Florida in that Final Four season.  Entering his sixth season guiding the Owls,  May has compiled a 101-60 record.  May was a student manager at Indiana under Bob Knight before assistant coaching gigs at Louisiana Tech and Florida.

FAU is picked to finish first in the American Athletic Conference in their preseason poll, and they’re also picked to finish 1st in the AAC by The Almanac.  KenPom ranks them at 37,  Bart Torvik at 19 , and Haslametrics at  46.

The FAU starting lineup is made up of four speedy guards and a 7’1″ center.  The guards are 6’2″ junior Alijah Martin, 6’4″ junior Johnell Davis, 6’0″ senior Bryan Greenlee, and 6’3″ sophomore Nick Boyd.  Davis and Martin led the team in scoring last season with 13.8 and 13.4 ppg respectively.  All four guards can pass well– they all average between 1.3 and 2.4 assists per game– and they all hit the three better than 36%.  Davis, Martin and Boyd are exceptional rebounders as well, averaging 5.4, 5.3, and 4.3 rebounds per game– pretty amazing for players that size.  FAU was 9th in the nation in defensive rebounding and 18th in total rebounds thanks to their quick guards.

Vlad Goldin is the big man, a gangly 7’1″ center with a surprisingly quick first step.  Last season he averaged 10.2 points and 6.5 rebounds per game, but having a 7-footer looming around the rim is more important than just the numbers he puts up.   Goldin shot 62.5% from the field and led the team in blocks with 1.2 per game. 

Coming off the bench are 6’4” senior guard Brandon Witherspoon, 6’3” senior guard Jalen Gaffney, and 6’8” junior forward Giancarlo Rosado.  The only significant player the Owls lost from last season is backup guard Michael Forrest, the team’s fourth-leading scorer who averaged 8.2 ppg off the bench.  Presumably, FAU will run similar rotations and combinations while mixing in some minutes for two freshmen:   Devin Vanterpool and Jakel Powell.

Loyola also has something to prove this season after an embarrassing introduction to the A-10.  The Ramblers’ newcomers—transfers Greg Dolan, Patrick Mwamba, Des Watson, and Dame Adelekun, plus freshman Miles Rubin—are highly touted and fill needs exposed in last season’s campaign. Sophomore guards Jalen Quinn and Jayden Dawson are primed for emergence, and will give senior playmaker Braden Norris some cover.  Fifth-year senior forward Tom Welch and senior forward Philip Alston have obviously spent serious time in the weight room in the off season.    

One thing is for certain: no one will be underestimating FAU this year, coming off a Final Four, ranked in the top 10 to start the season, and playing in the AAC rather than C-USA.  The Owls will get everyone’s best shot and have a lot of quality game tape to review, just like the Ramblers got in 2018-19. 

Want to discuss the game? Visit the Ramblermania Message Board.

Loyola game notes:  https://loyolaramblers.com/documents/2023/11/6/2023-24_MBB_Notes_-_FAU.pdf

Florida Atlantic game notes: https://fausports.com/news/2023/11/7/no-10-owls-begin-the-season-in-barstool-sports-invitational.aspx

TV/Streaming video:   Barstool.tv

Radio/Streaming audio: https://loyolaramblers.com/watch/?Live=150&type=Live

Live stats: https://www.statbroadcast.com/events/central.php?tid=993

Vegas odds: Pending