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After roller-coaster season, Loyola enters Arch Madness as No. 1 seed

Loyola won its second consecutive regular-season conference title on Saturday. | Madeline Kenney/For the Sun-Times

After Loyola earned a share of its second consecutive Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title Saturday, coach Porter Moser looked out at the crowd of nearly 5,000 decked out in maroon and gold at Gentile Arena.

‘‘We’re not finished yet,’’ Moser promised before the Ramblers cut down the nets.

One year ago, Moser made the same promise after Loyola was crowned the MVC regular-season champion. He ultimately guided the Ramblers to their first Final Four appearance since 1963.

This season, however, Loyola’s situation is different. The Ramblers (19-12) enter Arch Madness, which starts Thursday in St. Louis, as the No. 1 seed, but there isn’t a clear favorite to win the conference tournament.

Loyola hasn’t played well enough this season to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament, so winning the MVC tournament is the Ramblers’ only shot of getting there.

Can Loyola do it again?

‘‘I think so,’’ center Cameron Krutwig said. ‘‘I don’t think there’s one guy in here that doesn’t believe. So when you have a group of guys creating a force like that, it’s hard to stop.’’

The Final Four banner hanging from the rafters at Gentile Arena serves as motivation for the Ramblers, but it also brings expectation. Loyola was supposed to be the team to beat this season, and that reality was overwhelming for the players at times.

‘‘It’s been a roller-coaster ride,’’ said guard Clayton Custer, who’s averaging 11.4 points this season. ‘‘We’ve gone through some ups and some downs just with the added pressure this year and stuff.’’

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The Ramblers had one of the most efficient offenses in the NCAA last season, with five players averaging in double figures. But offensive inconsistency has been an issue for them this season. Loyola is 15-0 when it scores at least 70 points and 4-12 when it scores fewer than that.

Guard Marques Townes, a leading candidate for MVC player of the year, has been a bright spot for the Ramblers. He averaged an MVC-best 18.1 points in conference play.

‘‘He’s had a great year,’’ Moser said of Townes. ‘‘He’s stepped up his mentality. He practices so hard. One hundred percent, I think he should be MVP of the league.’’

Krutwig also has had a strong season. He led the MVC with a .620 field-goal percentage in conference play.

While the Ramblers’ offense can be unpredictable, their defense has been a force. Though they lost one of their best defenders when swingman Lucas Williamson twice went down with a hand injury that forced him to miss 18 games, their defense has held opponents to 60.9 points a game, seventh in the NCAA.

Townes said he thinks the defense can carry Loyola through Arch Madness and beyond.

‘‘When we’re playing at a high level on defense, we’re a really, really hard team to beat,’’ he said. ‘‘Definitely just try to lock in and not worry about our offense too much. We have excellent shooters on this team. You know, shots are going to fall, but defense is going to be our motto going to the tournament.’’

Despite the adversity the Ramblers faced this season, they still managed to come out on top of the conference again.

‘‘It just says how resilient they are,’’ Moser said. ‘‘ . . . You had to be in it to see the amount of pressure every day.

Everything was [under a] microscope. It shows the character of the team to fight through the pressure all year long to get here again. It’s so hard to do it again.’’

But that’s just what Loyola plans to do.