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Ramblermania 2018-19 MVC Preview

Loyola’s run to the 2018 Final Four erased a lot of fears that the MVC was headed for 3rd Class status after the departure of Wichita State. Already, the performance of the Ramblers last year (along with some nice upsets by Indiana State and Illinois State, solid performances by Bradley, and in-league competitiveness by Southern Illinois) has elevated the view of the conference in the eyes of a lot of pre-season prognosticators.

The MVC is an extremely competitive league that doesn’t get the credit it deserves. Play is tough, scouting and coaching is high level. The fan bases are passionate and large. And now there’s a little more attention from larger media markets that are beginning to understand the competitive culture of the league.

There’s no sleeping in the MVC. That’s why, despite Loyola returning three starters from their Final Four team, many preseason previews are picking Illinois State or Southern Illinois to surge to the forefront of the league. Here’s how Ramblermania sees the MVC for 2018-19:

1. Loyola

Yes, I’m picking Loyola this year. Last year I went with everybody’s favorite Missouri State because I thought they had the players, because Loyola hadn’t proven they could get over the hump in the MVC, and (selfishly, as a fan) I didn’t want the front-runner target on Loyola.

This year, Loyola is going to be the biggest game on the schedule of every opponent except Nevada, Maryland, and Boston College. Yes, Loyola. Big game. Mark that on your calendar. Fill up the arena fans, we’re playing Loyola!

2. Illinois State Continue reading

Florida Preview — 12-06-2017

Wednesday, December 6, 2017 7:00 p.m.
Exactech Arena, Gainesville, Fla.

With a good mix of experience and talented newcomers, the Florida Gators had a lofty #8 ranking in the 2017-18 AP Preseason Poll on Nov. 1. The preseason poll in the SEC picked Florida just behind favorite Kentucky in what is expected to be an uptick in the league’s competitiveness. After powering their way to a 5-1 record against good competition (their only loss was by three points to #1 Duke) and averaging 99.5 points per game (highest in college basketball) in their first six contests, Coach Mike White’s crew entered the week and their Monday night matchup with rival Florida State ranked #5 in the country.

Facing a short bench due to illness and injury, and coming off a long layoff after the PK80 tournament in Portland, the Gators couldn’t find their rhythm or their shots from distance against a disruptive Florida State defense, and lost 83-66. That’s no misprint—after averaging 99.5 points per game, they scored only 66 at home, to their biggest instate rival. FSU used swarming help defense to force long twos, forced 17 Gator turnovers, and crashed the glass for 23 offensive rebounds. The Seminoles are a team with a lot of length and quick hands, which seemed to disrupt Florida’s rhythm and force bad passes, bad shots, and turnovers. And despite Florida averaging 46% on their three-point shots coming into the game, the Seminoles held them to only 6-for-25 on threes (24%).

Florida’s likely starters are guards Jalen Hudson, KeVaughn Allen, Egor Koulechov, and Chris Chiozza, plus forward/center Kevarrius Hayes. Playing his first season with the Gators, Hudson is a 6’6” junior guard who transferred from Virginia Tech, and leads the team in scoring with 20.9 points. He pulls in 4.4 rebounds per game and shoots great from behind the arc at 46.7%. He’s fast, athletic, and takes care of the ball well. Another newcomer in the backcourt is Egor Koulechov, a 6’5” graduate transfer from Rice. Koulechov is a great three point and free throw shooter, holding top 10 career rankings in both those stats at Rice. So far in Gator country he’s putting up numbers even better than in Texas, averaging 16.7 points per game on 42.5% three-point shooting. Although he’s better at shooting threes than shooting twos, Koulechov is not simply a three-point specialist—he contributes 6.6 rebounds and 2.7 assist per game, and has hit all but one of his 23 free throw attempts.

The other two guards are both 4-star recruits from the Billy Donovan era who have started nearly every games since they were freshmen. Chris Chiozza is a 6’0” playmaker very reminiscent of Fred Van Vleet. Quick, quirky, and seemingly everywhere on the floor, Chiozza is averaging 11.7 points and 6.4 assists per game in the early going. He doesn’t take a lot of threes, but when he takes them he makes them at a 55.6% rate. Florida State shut down Chiozza with only three points, four assists and four turnovers, and zero made field goals on five attempts—in 34 minutes. Junior KeVaughn Allen is a key defender and adds 13.7 points per game, but he is the only Gator who shoots below 40% from the field on both threes and twos. Allen picks up 3.4 rebounds per game, and like Koulechov, he shoots over 90% from the line.

Kevarrius Hayes is a 6’9” junior forward/center who starts about half the games for the Gators, switching off or pairing up with 6’8” forward Keith Stone depending on the matchup. Hayes averages 4.7 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.85 blocks per game. Stone averages 5.7 points and only 2.3 rebounds; he likes to play a bit further away from the basket and should be considered a dangerous threat from three.

Florida’s bench is surprisingly short for a legitimate Final Four contender. Besides the likelihood of Stone coming off the bench, only 6’8” four-star freshman shooting guard Deaundrae Ballard (8.3 points, 3.1 rebounds) 6’3” four-star freshman guard Mike Okauru (5.3 points per game), and 6’11” sophomore center Gorjok Gak (7’4” wingspan) have seen time in every game.

Wednesday night’s matchup in Gainesville will be the first meeting in history between the Ramblers and the Florida Gators. The Gators are one of four teams Loyola has never faced in the SEC; Alabama, Auburn, and Tennessee are the others. It’s also their last of only two non-con games against a top 100 foe. The Ramblers had perhaps their best game of the year and received significant contributions from newcomers Adarius Avery, Lucas Williamson, and Cameron Krutwig in their win against UIC on Saturday. Defensively, Loyola looked much improved over the first week of the season, and the team looked rejuvenated from a long road trip and searing loss at Boise State. But to beat Florida, on their own floor, immediately following their fourth straight loss to their in-state rival, is going to take another higher level of defense and some fortunate bounces.

Having watched parts of three Florida games this year, one gets the impression sometimes that the Gators like to take it easy. They’re all ultra-talented, but the mental toughness, killer instinct, willingness to work extra hard for every ball, willingness to sacrifice for the team, diving to the floor for a loose ball, etc. is something that has yet to emerge on a consistent basis. A couple of weeks ago, the Gators prevailed in a lackluster 70-63 home win against New Hampshire where they had only three assists and shot 3-of-18 from three. Their three-point loss to Duke came after Florida led by 17 points in that game with ten minutes to play, and led by 10 with 4:15 left. And then there was Monday’s return to lacklusterdom against a hard-working, pressing rival with a nuisance defense.

It almost seems like if it’s going to be a big hassle for these guys, they’re not really into it. It’s somewhat telling when the game story of Florida’s loss has the headline “Gators Get Roughed Up by Seminoles, Must Toughen Up”– and that’s on Florida’s own official website.

Loyola game notes: http://www.loyolaramblers.com/documents/2017/12/4//Florida_Notes.pdf?id=4754

Florida game notes: http://floridagators.com/documents/2017/12/5/2017_12_06_LoyolaChicago.pdf

TV/Streaming video: SEC Network / http://www.espn.com/watch/_/id/3207014/loyolachicago-vs-7-florida-m-basketball

Radio/Audio: Sirius 135 / XM 191

Vegas odds: Florida by 15.5

2015-16 Loyola Men’s Basketball Preview

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
2. Evansville
3. Northern Iowa
4. Loyola
5. Illinois State
6. Indiana State
7. Drake
8. Missouri State
9. Southern Illinois
10. Bradley

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