Last year’s 24-13 Loyola Ramblers men’s basketball team won the College Basketball Invitational tournament, advanced to the MVC tournament semi-finals at Arch Madness with a record-setting win over Indiana State, and finished with an RPI of 87 in their second year in the MVC. They did it with only one senior in the starting lineup and their top player injured for more than half of the conference season. The 2015-16 Ramblers will face much higher expectations and a tougher overall schedule. Opponents will certainly be more prepared for the style of play the Ramblers adopted last year, a higher energy style which depends on sharing and switching on offense and defense. But whether the top players can stay healthy will probably have the largest impact on the Ramblers’ season.
Last season, the Ramblers compiled an impressive 11-7 record away from home, including wins over Boise State, Texas Tech, Kent State, UTSA, Indiana State, and Evansville. Loyola won the CBI title on the road, set a new record for the largest margin of victory at Arch Madness, and took the title of the Las Vegas Invitational. It was a surprise for Loyola to play so well on the road last year after snapping a 20-game road losing streak spanning three seasons with the UTSA win.
Nevertheless, health problems loomed especially large for Loyola in 2014-15. Milton Doyle missed 12 entire games while recovering from ankle problems, during which Loyola posted a lackluster 5-7 record (4-7 in league play) and dropped some close conference contests. Only four players on the team managed to play in all 37 games, and only one of those four started more than 21 games on the year. Christian Thomas (at Missouri State), Montel James (at Evansville), and Ben Richardson (at Kent State) each missed one entire game because of injury, and each of them played limited minutes for the next game when returning to the lineup. Jeff White and Julius Rajala began and ended the season in street clothes, respectively. Staying healthy will be crucial if Loyola is going to finish high in the top half of the conference.
The big loss from last year’s squad will be the leadership and steady play of Christian Thomas. The soft spoken senior led the Ramblers in scoring or rebounds (or both) in 21 of Loyola’s 37 games last season. Thomas averaged 11.2 points per game last season, and leaves LU as the 18th highest scorer and 15th highest rebounder in Loyola history. The Ramblers also lose experienced and hard-working Joe Crisman, who started 21 games, was a key defensive stalwart, and averaged 17.9 minutes per game. The two 4-year players saw Loyola rise from their worst-ever season in the Horizon League as freshmen to 20-plus wins and a couple of tournament titles as seniors in the MVC.
The three main additions to the team for 2015-16 will be: 6’9”, 240-pound sophomore Maurice Kirby; 6’7”, 215-pound freshman guard/forward Pernell Adgei; and 6’2” sophomore point guard Tyson Smith. A former Virginia Tech recruit, Kirby will be expected to fill a lot of the roles performed by Christian Thomas. His size and strength should help ease the leap up in competition from Coffeyville Community College, where he averaged 8.0 points, 7.9 rebounds, and 21.6 minutes per game as a freshman. Adgei comes from Northern Virginia via Fishburne Military School, and has the kind of athletic and ball handling skills in a large body that cause matchup problems for opponents. Another sophomore juco transfer, Baltimore native Tyson Smith, will add depth at the point guard position.
The likely starters will be Milton Doyle, Earl Peterson, and Devon Turk at guards and Donte Ingram and Montel James in the frontcourt. In the exhibition game against Lewis, the 6’6”, 215 pound Ingram got the starting spot to replace Christian Thomas, and though the sophomore may be a slight improvement on the boards over generously-listed 6’5” 220 pound Thomas, he’ll need to do some more work on finishing his shots. Seniors Peterson and Turk both played phenomenal stretches at the end of their junior seasons, and look to maintain that excellence on both sides of the court. James, also a senior in 2015-16, played very well in the second half of his first season in D1, and needs to play at that level with more consistency while improving his free throw touch.
Tops off Loyola’s bench are Ben Richardson and Jeff White, who both did a great job defensively last year, but need to score with more consistency. Sophomore Julius Rajala, and newcomers Maurice Kirby and Pernell Adgei will combine for significant minutes in the frontcourt, rotating in to spell James and Ingram. The development of the frontcourt bench players will play a big role in conference play, as sophomore Jay Knuth will miss the 2015-16 season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn labrum.
Loyola’s 2015-16 schedule is a nice step up in difficulty. Gone are the two non-D1 games from last season. The Ramblers finally get the Bracket Busters return game from Creighton, now in the Big East, after having waited throughout the entire Doug McDermott era and beyond. Road games at Notre Dame and New Mexico will be especially tough; home games against UTSA, UIC, Toledo, and Cleveland State should be excellent tune-ups for the conference season, and more challenging than last year’s home games.
Assuming the Ramblers can stay relatively healthy, some key contests stick out on the schedule as make-or-break games. The Dec. 5 home game against Creighton is a chance to get a quality win over a respected program in a major conference on the home court, yes, but it’s also a chance to make an emphatic statement about Loyola’s place in the MVC. The Jan. 2 game at Indiana State will go far in determining the trajectory of the MVC league race; Loyola has never won a regular season league game against Indiana State, and a win in Terre Haute would go a long way toward establishing a beachhead early in the season near the top of the conference standings. If the Ramblers are going to continue to progress up the ladder in the MVC, the Feb. 3 home game against Illinois State should be a crucial turning point; Loyola lost both games to Illinois State last year by a combined 10 points, and the Redbirds figure to be a rival for the same Arch Madness tournament seeds. The Feb. 14 home game against Evansville, the team predicted by most as the league runner up to Wichita State, may also be a similar statement game with high importance to the league race.
Around the league, Wichita State figures to run away with the league crown, and Evansville returns the core of their CIT championship team. Illinois State had serious losses to graduation and the shocking transfer of frontcourt cog Reggie Lynch. Northern Iowa has a strong home court advantage working for them and a mix of experience and promising newcomers under a savvy coach, but Seth Tuttle will be impossible to immediately replace. Indiana State lost their frontcourt to graduation, but Coach Greg Lansing always seems to have a team that punches above its weight class.
The expected parity just below Wichita State– with Evansville, Illinois State, UNI, Loyola, and possibly Indiana State or Drake jockeying for the 2nd, 3rd, and 4th seeds at Arch Madness– has all the earmarks of coming down to tiebreakers. After the head-to-head or multiple team round robin tiebreakers, non-conference strength of schedule plays a factor. Although Loyola has a favorable and improved non-con schedule this year, it’s still unlikely that the Ramblers would win that matchup against UNI, Evansville, or Illinois State.
For 2015-16, here’s how I see the MVC:
1. Wichita State
3. Northern Iowa
5. Illinois State
6. Indiana State
8. Missouri State
9. Southern Illinois
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