Loyola won 18 games last season, their second-highest total in a decade and fourth-highest since 1985, the year of their last NCAA Tournament appearance. The Ramblers were good but top-heavy and thin, with senior guard Milton Doyle leading four players who averaged at least eight points per game, along with junior forward Ben Richardson, one of the best defensive players in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Doyle was the only notable departure from a team that shot well (17th nationally in field-goal percentage, 28th from three) and interrupted passing lanes but struggled on the glass and getting to the free-throw line. Richardson was back, as were fellow to-be seniors Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson and junior Clayton Custer, not to mention to-be sophomore guards Bruno Skokna and Cameron Satterwhite, who, despite the loss of Doyle, might give Loyola adequate backcourt depth.
Still, I was not convinced seventh-year head coach Porter Moser and the Ramblers would flirt with 20 wins — and most certainly not barrel through the Missouri Valley to an 11-seed.
Satterwhite and Skokna might take small steps forward but they'd be fringe rotation guys at best. No chance Donte Ingram shoots 46 percent from deep again (or Aundre Jackson 45 percent) and he'll struggle without the attention on Doyle.
Clayton Custer had a nice first season after transferring from Iowa State and will improve but the assist-to-turnover ratio isn't great (1.7), nor is one personal foul per 13 minutes for a guard. Their height issues are terrifying (no returnee over 6-foot-6) and though 6-foot-9, 260-pound incoming freshman Cameron Krutwig has potential, he's not an immediate-impact player. And Marques Townes, a transfer from Fairleigh Dickinson, will be good, not great.
EL – OH – EL.
Yes, Ingram and Jackson's three-point shooting came back to earth (40 and 35 percent, respectively), Jackson's overall shooting clip dipped nearly 10 points without Doyle and Satterwhite and Skokna didn't make big impacts.
Now, buckle up.
Ingram and Jackson were still dangerous perimeter threats and combined for 23 points in fewer than 50 minutes per game. Custer bumped his assist-to-turnover to 2.1 and trimmed back the fouls. Cameron Krutwig averaged 10 points and seven rebounds in 24 minutes as MVC Freshman of the Year.
And Marques Townes. Oh Marques, I owe you a steak dinner. Townes was sensational after sitting out last year. He shot 38 percent from deep, played much bigger than his 6-foot-4, 210-pound frame on a team that needed size and was invaluable on both ends of the court.
Five months later, Loyola is 30-5 (the most wins in program history) and two wins away from the Final Four. They are not the 191st-best team in the country.
I blew that one. Big time.