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.