Loyola’s inaugural men’s basketball season in the Missouri Valley Conference was generally a disappointment, despite some authentic high spots and hope for the near-term future. The Ramblers may have mostly stumbled to a 10-22 season overall and a 4-14 last place finish in the Valley, but not without some impressive wins, a respectable showing at Arch Madness, and a Freshman/Newcomer of the Year award going to Milton Doyle.
Watching the opening game of the season against UW-Milwaukee, it quickly became apparent that the Ramblers had something very special in freshman Milton Doyle. The Chicago native and freshman transfer from the University of Kansas didn’t play in the preseason open scrimmage or the exhibition game against Lewis. And although he didn’t score his first point until the 18:23 mark of the second half, it was obvious to everyone that he was a significant talent.
With the score tied at halftime, Doyle scored all 18 of his points in the second half in helping Loyola to a 76-72 opening night victory over a very good UW-Milwaukee team. The skinny but athletic freshman would go on to score 460 more points in his debut season, leading the Ramblers in points, assists, blocks, steals, and free throws.
Loyola was picked to finish 9th in the conference preseason poll, and despite the encouraging opening night win, a significant defect soon emerged in the non-conference schedule: the Hobos were horrible on the road. Loyola broke out to big leads early in the second half of games at Tennessee Tech (by 12 points), Tulane (by 19 points), and Portland State (by 17 points), only to crumble midway through the second half in demoralizing losses.
Against UC Davis, a turnover with :03 left turned a three point win into an overtime loss. At Mississippi State, two missed free throws with :28 left sent the game into overtime, where the Ramblers lost by a point. At Southern Illinois, a missed and-one free throw with :16 left allowed the game to be sent into overtime, where the Ramblers lost again.
Throughout the year, the only two games the Ramblers won away from Gentile Arena were neutral site games against SIU-Edwardsville by one point (where a last second three after two missed Loyola free throws failed to go down for SIUE), and against Bradley in the first round of Arch Madness (on a miracle three-pointer at the buzzer by Milton Doyle) by two points.
Yet the Ramblers showed much promise at home. In Loyola’s very first home Valley conference game, the Ramblers handed Missouri State– 10-2 on the season entering the game– their most lopsided loss of the year, an 89-57 drubbing. Loyola also beat Drake with a fine second-half performance, came from behind to beat Northern Iowa in overtime, and fully discombobulated Illinois State. The Ramblers fell short in a furious comeback against Evansville, and gave Indiana State all it could handle before fading in the last five minutes.
Immediately following the win over Illinois State, it still looked possible that the Ramblers might avoid a Thursday night in St. Louis. Following that win on February 9, Loyola stood at 4-8 in the Valley, with very winnable games remaining at Bradley, at Drake, and at home vs. last place Evansville. Yet the short bench, accumulated heavy minutes by the starters, and the MVC grind took its toll. Loyola dropped its final six conference games in disappointing performances. By the time Loyola took the court against Bradley for a dismal 55-38 drubbing on February 22, the Ramblers were fielding two walk-ons and a graduate transfer for heavy minutes.
Another disappointment in Loyola’s first MVC season was attendance. In their final season in the Horizon League, Loyola averaged nearly 2300 fans per game. In their first year in the Valley, home attendance averaged only 1928 despite a packed house for the game against #2 Wichita State. Weather played a factor (I missed the game against Missouri State because of 10” of snow and sub-zero temperatures), as did the sudden and unexpected dissolution of the marketing company Loyola engaged to ensure better home crowds. This was also the first year in quite a while where Loyola didn’t have a high profile non-con opponent such as Mississippi State, DePaul, Fordham, or Kansas State on the home schedule. The higher ticket prices this year may have also played a role in lower attendance.
But even as the season drew to a close amid a six-game conference losing streak witnessed by lower-than-expected attendance, the turnout of Loyola fans at Arch Madness was a shot in the arm. Loyola had one of the best student fan sections of all the schools at the conference tournament, and the turnout was excellent considering the seeding. A pep rally before the first game was instrumental in psyching up the players for an energetic performance against Bradley, and may have propelled the team to its narrow but exciting victory. Considering Loyola’s woes against teams away from home and their performance down the final stretch, how else could one explain it?
There were many other positives during the year. Devon Turk moved into 7th place in all time made three pointers as a sophomore. He’s on pace to become the Loyola leader in career three pointers midway through his senior season. Christian Thomas cracked the top 30 in career rebounds as a junior, and is well on pace to be one of the top 20 rebounders and top 20 scorers in Loyola history, a feat only 13 other players have accomplished. Jeff White learned a lot this year, and can help the program advance toward being a steady contender by asserting some leadership. Joe Crisman seemed to gain more confidence in his offense late in the year. Nick Osborne advanced quite a bit when he was healthy, and if he continues to progress while keeping his enthusiasm in check, he could be a significant force. Matt O’Leary has shown some great ability, but may be playing out of his most effective position; he might begin to get some help to shift his role to a more effective place with incoming recruits next year. Cody Johnson showed flashes of being a very good player, and still has two years of remaining eligibility. And Milton Doyle is simply amazing– a player who could almost single-handedly lift Loyola to the highest echelons of the conference with a better sense of knowing his capabilities and strategic assets.
And so we come to maybe the biggest question mark, Coach Porter Moser. I’ll admit up front that I was a doubter when he took over the program, and I was put off greatly by his first year actions that resulted in a 1-17 conference record in the Horizon. I have to admit that I’ve warmed up a little to his style, but I still have serious doubts. My goal for next season would be 18 wins overall, a .500 or better record in conference, and a post-season tournament of some type (CIT, CBI, or NIT). I think that if we fall short of that modest and achievable goal in his fourth year in the program, he should be released.
Coach Moser has been a head coach for ten seasons now in addition to being a top assistant for several years at St. Louis. We were told that he learned a great deal from Coach Rick Majerus at St. Louis, but I haven’t seen a hint of that in his tenure at Loyola. He has finished dead last twice in his three years at Loyola, and 7th out of 9th in his other year. His teams have blown in excess of 12 double-digit second half leads in the past year and a half. Like Larry Farmer, he may well be a fantastic recruiter, but if you bring in great talent without winning, you shouldn’t be a head coach– you’re just wasting the potential of otherwise talented recruits.
As head coach, Moser has never finished better than two games above .500 in conference—and the three times did that was 11-13 years ago in the Sun Belt conference. Since becoming head coach in the MVC and Horizon, he’s never finished better than 6th, he’s finished last in the league in four out of seven attempts, and he’s set an all time record for most losses in the Horizon. He was given due credit for recruiting the players at Illinois State who improved from 15-16 in 2006-07 to 25-10 in 2007-08, but he was no longer in charge. Since his supposedly valuable stint as an understudy at St. Louis, his record is actually worse with Loyola than it was at Illinois State.
The good news for Moser is that his recruits should easily be able to finish fifth, win 18 games overall, and get to a postseason tournament. That result should show enough improvement to keep him at Loyola for a couple more years. The bad news is he’ll have to do it against a better schedule, against a better overall league, and with many fewer excuses for failure.
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