Dramatic change of direction
Back in October, Loyola received a vote for first in the Missouri Valley Conference and was picked fifth in the preseason poll.
The first-place vote, from the student newspaper, was wildly optimistic. The fifth-place ranking represented real progress for the Ramblers in their third season. They earned it by finishing sixth in 2015, winning a game in the MVC Tournament and winning the College Basketball Invitational. Seven of the top eight scorers returned.
Then Loyola lost its first five MVC games, including at home 54-53 to woeful Bradley. The Ramblers also lost by two points at Illinois State and by two against Missouri State.
If there is ever a motivation for dramatic change, a home loss to Bradley is it. Coach Porter Moser started four different players at Northern Iowa on Saturday and the Ramblers won 51-41.
“I don’t think any team in the country needed a win more than we did,” Moser said. “We simply haven’t played like I think we can.”
Loyola lost at Evansville 74-66 on Tuesday. Regardless, the scary thing for the rest of the MVC is that the team that was picked fifth is still in there. If it can find its way, the Ramblers can shake up the second half of the MVC race.
Guard Milton Doyle came off the bench and scored 12 points. So did forward Montel James, who scored 14 points and grabbed 12 rebounds. Sophomore Ben Richardson started and scored 10 points.
“We played a lot better, and we’re going to need to to get back into this,” Moser said. “Some of them just needed to have a different perspective about what they’ve got to do. Maybe coming off the bench was helpful for them.”
Doyle needed the change in outlook more than any other player. He started the season with high expectations after injuries slowed him in 2014-15. He hasn’t given the Ramblers the leadership needed, as evidenced by a scoreless game against Indiana State. Against Bradley, he took four shots and scored five points.
Moser often speaks about the need for an alpha dog to emerge. Doyle needs to be that force. So does James.
“Clearly (James) and Milton are our two most gifted offensive players and they just haven’t played to that capability,” Moser said. “I really like the way they’ve approached practice the last couple days. They were ultra-positive coming off the bench. They came in and their play reflected it. If we’re going to make a push to improve and move up the standings, (James) has got to be a key guy to establish some things inside.”
▪ The departure of star guard Marcus Marshall early in the 2014-15 season threw Missouri State’s rebuilding off track. Coach Paul Lusk is relieved that his current group of young talent appears to be of a different mind.
The Bears are one of many hard-to-figure MVC teams, owning wins over Oklahoma State and Oral Roberts and a home loss to Southeast Missouri State. The MVC schedule handed them a tough start with games against Illinois State, Evansville, Northern Iowa and WSU. But the Bears shook things up with a win over the Panthers and followed that with wins at Loyola and Bradley.
Freshmen Obediah Church, Ryan Kreklow and Jarred Dixon are starting, along with transfer Dequon Miller and return Camyn Boone. Lusk planned to redshirt Kreklow before injuries lightened his roster.
“From Day 1, we threw (Church) into the fire,” Lusk said. “He comes to work every day. He’s developing a low-post game. He’s very coachable. The thing I like the most about all three (freshmen) is that they really want to be here, they care, they’ve let us coach them.”
▪ Bradley won its first MVC game at Loyola a week ago, snapping a six-game losing streak. The Braves hadn’t defeated another NCAA Division I team since Nov. 13.
Following that proved difficult. Missouri State held the Braves to 26.8-percent shooting in a 61-42 win on Saturday.
“Getting a conference win, especially getting a road win, is really nice for this young group,” coach Brian Wardle said. “But the consistency part, building off that, obviously, we’ve got to improve on.”
Freshman center Callum Baker averaged 11 points and 11 rebounds in two games last week.
“It all has to with he he’s got a little more confidence because he’s not in foul trouble,” Wardle said. “He’s a very physical young man and he’s trying to learn how to keep his hands off and not foul as much. Now we’ve got to get him the ball.”
▪ Wichita State is 41-1 in MVC play the past two-plus seasons, the best mark in the nation. Stephen F. Austin (39-1 in the Southland Conference), Villanova (38-4, Big East) and North Carolina Central (33-4, MEAC) trail the Shockers.
Missouri State plays at Drake on Wednesday with a chance to win its fourth game in five outings. The Bears held Northern Iowa, Loyola and Bradley under 60 points.
Illinois State hauls a three-game skid into Wednesday’s game at Bradley. The Redbirds should get well against the Braves, but a 3-0 start in the MVC is wasted. Poor shooting — 39.9 percent in six MVC games — is weighing down Illinois State.
Get to know an MVC neighbor
Q: How many Northern Iowa players won the MVC’s Player of the Year award?
A: Three. Jason Daisy (1997), Adam Koch (2010), Seth Tuttle (2015).
One to watch
Indiana State (10-8, 4-2 MVC) at Southern Illinois (16-3, 5-1), 7 p.m. Wednesday (ESPN3.com) — The Sycamores are grinding through a tough stretch that started at WSU, journeys through SIU Arena and ends with Sunday’s home game against Evansville. This stretch could determine if Indiana State is one of the Valley’s top three, or middle-of-the-pack.