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Is it Loyola’s time in Valley of opportunity?

With a little depth, the Ramblers could break out.

NCAA Basketball: Loyola-Chicago at Northern Iowa Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Porter Moser has been here before.

Not in a suit, and not in maroon and gold. But if you’re talking about a gradual build in the Missouri Valley, then the seventh-year Loyola Chicago coach has been here before.

As a player, Moser was a four-year guard for Tony Barone and Creighton between 1986-1990. The Bluejays won just nine games his freshman year, and then upped that to 16 the following season. In his final two seasons, the program took off.

“Our era, in the 80s, we won 20 games three years in a row for the first time in Creighton history,” he said. “And the program has kind of been on a complete trajectory to where it is now. I see so many similarities to what’s happening at Loyola.”

The Ramblers, with Moser on the sideline, have seen their arrow point up too. They’ve won 57 games over the past three seasons, the most over a three-year stretch in program history. This run started with a CBI championship following the 2014-15 season, and has all taken place since Loyola moved to the MVC five years ago. Over that time the league’s conference RPI rank has been, on average, five spots better than that of the the Ramblers’ previous Horizon League home.

To create momentum while walking into better competition has been impressive, but Moser sees a common thread among teams that have moved up a level during the realignment frenzy.

Except one.

“You’re talking Xavier, perennial NCAA basketball powerhouse. Look at Butler, two Final Fours. Look at Creighton, multiple NCAA Tournaments. Look at VCU, Final Four,” he said. “Loyola moved up, two winning seasons in 30 years. All these schools were perennial schools that moved up and I think their infrastructure was ready. We hadn’t been to the NCAA Tournament in 30 years and moved up to the Valley.”

He’s doing his best to get the Ramblers back to the big dance for the first time since 1987. Though Loyola’s 1963 NCAA title remains the only one held by a Div. I men’s basketball program in the state of Illinois, it’s been a long drought. That’s why the MVC’s unavoidable 2017-18 storyline couldn’t have come at a better time.

With Wichita State off to the AAC, there’s a scramble to fill the Shockers’ spot at the top of the conference.

“The word everybody is using is opportunity,” Moser said. “I guarantee everyone is using that word in the locker room with their teams.”

Loyola seems like it has a team capable of responding to that message with its first-ever MVC title. The Ramblers were picked third in the league’s preseason poll, and have an experienced, potent starting five.

That was on display in a 66-56 win at UMKC on Nov. 16. Playing within spitting distance of his hometown, Overland Park, Kan.-native Clayton Custer (14.7 PPG) erupted for a personal 11-0 run midway through the second half to pull the Ramblers away from a tight game. The junior guard is joined in the backcourt by senior Ben Richardson, who he played with in high school. Richardson has been a key part of each Loyola team he’s been on, averaging 25.2 minutes per game over his four-year career.

Loyola also has a pair of all-league caliber “forwards” in 6’6 Donte Ingram (13.0 PPG, 4.7 RPG) and 6’5 Aundre Jackson (12.0 PPG, 5.7 RPG). Moser — who said he likes playing small ball — calls both “mismatch guys,” since they can spread the floor with their shooting and also put the ball on the deck.

And though they lost hyper-talented guard Milton Doyle from last year’s 18-win team, they did get Marques Townes eligible after sitting out a transfer year. The physical junior guard started 35 games at Fairleigh Dickinson, and is off to a good start through three games (14.0 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 4.0 APG).

The key, according to Moser, will be depth.

Despite the solid three-season run, Loyola has never finished above .500 in conference play. The Ramblers looked like they’d break that last season, running out to a 6-4 MVC record. But they collapsed down the stretch, losing six of their final eight regular season games to finish at 8-10.

Moser felt part of the reason was that Loyola was too reliant on a handful of players, including Custer, Richardson and Ingram. That makes finding depth beyond the starting five a priority during the non-conference.

“We’ve got to develop depth,” Moser said. “We’ve got to get deeper because depth in this league is going to be a key and that’s why Missouri State is the preseason number one. Because they’ve got depth.”

In the early going, there’s still work to do.

In the UMKC win, each starter played at least 29 minutes. Freshman forward Cameron Krutwig (16 minutes, 6 rebounds) was a bright spot off the bench, helping Loyola right itself in a game they were losing on the glass. This followed up a 17-point opening night performance in a win against Wright State.

Moser will need consistent production from Krutwig, as well as sophomore guards Cameron Satterwhite and Bruno Skokna. Two other players that are currently injured — JuCo transfer Adarius Avery and freshman Christian Negron — should also figure into the rotation when healthy.

If that group can emerge as a solid bench unit, the Ramblers should have the firepower to finish with a winning record in the MVC for the first time, and be a real threat at Arch Madness. Taking that next step as a program would also be a boon for the league as a whole.

With Wichita State gone, Moser said that other programs will need to rise up, much like Northern Iowa has. When the Panthers joined the MVC in 1991, they had been to just one NCAA Tournament as a Div. I program. Since then, they’ve developed into a consistent winner and made seven appearances under March’s brightest lights.

“We’re going to do it again,” he said. “Somebody is going to rise among these teams and the Valley will be back. I said this at media day, there will be teams and players that you’re not talking about that’ll be key guys you’re talking about at the end of the year.”

People were talking about the Ramblers before the season. If their progress continues, they’ve got a team that people will still be talking about at the end of the season too.