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After early struggles, Loyola basketball surging once again at right time

Guard Clayton Custer, seen here in a November game against Nevada, remains the face of a Loyola team seeking to repeat their 2018 magic. | AP Photo/Matt Marton

Ten months after upsetting Tennessee to advance to the Sweet 16, Loyola is picking up steam again and back atop the Missouri Valley Conference.

The Ramblers, who look to be the favorites again to win the MVC, routed Valparaiso 71-54 on Tuesday to tie the Crusaders atop the conference standings at 4-1.

“As the season goes on — and the same thing happened last year — we start to find a groove,” sophomore guard Lucas Williamson said Tuesday. “We start to lock in and key in on all the little things that help us win, and that’s just a part of our culture.”

Last season, Loyola started 1-2 in MVC play before winning 14 of its final 15 regular-season games, sweeping through the conference tournament and beating Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State in the NCAA Tournament on the way to a Final Four appearance.

The return of key guards Clayton Custer and Marques Townes and center Cameron Krutwig and now-famous team chaplain Sister Jean from that Cinderella squad seemed to set up the Ramblers for another special season. Chicago Magazine named the team “Chicagoans of the Year.” Loyola scheduled a rematch against Nevada, a neutral-site game against Maryland and a trip to the Fort Myers Tip-Off tournament to fuel the hype.

“Going into this year, we believe that we can beat anybody that we can play,” Custer said in early November. “That’s the big thing for me, honestly. [The run] gave us a confidence going into this year that we can beat anybody.”

The Ramblers, though, got off to a rough start. They lost by double-digits against the Wolf Pack and Terrapins, fell to Boston College in the Fort Myers championship  and suffered embarrassing defeats at home against Furman and Ball State.

After a heartbreaking road loss to St. Joseph’s on Dec. 22 to conclude nonconference play, Loyola — at 7-6 — had lost its perceived status as the team to beat in the MVC.

But the Ramblers regrouped, routing Indiana State 79-44 in their Jan. 2 conference opener, and have beaten Drake, Valparaiso and rival Illinois State, losing only to Evansville on the road. Loyola is up to 85th in KenPom’s national rankings, 30 spots higher than any other MVC team.

Williamson’s return from a hand injury has played a major role in the turnaround. The former Young star, who is one of the team’s best defenders, had 11 points and seven rebounds Tuesday. Freshman sharpshooter Cooper Kaifes also has made an impact. He’s 6-for-9 in three-pointers in the last two games.

“When Lucas got injured, some of the guys like Cooper and [transfer forward Aher Uguak] got a lot more playing time,” coach Porter Moser said Tuesday. “That’s what you want this time of year, January and February: getting depth.”

The biggest reason for the Ramblers’ surge has been their ability to do the little things well, a key in their Final Four run.

The Ramblers rank 275th nationally in turnover rate and 307th in free-throw percentage, but they are starting to turn things around. Between Saturday’s win against Illinois State and Tuesday’s victory against Valparaiso, the Ramblers shot 77 percent at the line and committed only 18 turnovers (they’d averaged more than 13 turnovers per game).

National buzz has subsided tremendously, but the buzz in Rogers Park remains. Students lined up hours before tipoff for Loyola’s first two games this season, prompting several arena policy changes to accommodate the increased demand. The student section has been packed consistently, even in the cozy venue.

Loyola will play Saturday at Indiana State, its first of two consecutive games on the road, before returning to Gentile Arena for an already sold-out game against Southern Illinois on Jan. 27.