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Valparaiso vs. Loyola University Chicago game preview: 2 former Horizon League rivals meet

Valparaiso, unbeaten in the Valley, visits Loyola

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Loyola vs Michigan
Marques Townes & Clayton Custer lead the Ramblers.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

It wasn’t easy getting to this point, but Valparaiso and Loyola are battling for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference. The two private schools took their lumps while switching from the Horizon League to the Valley, but here they are fighting for first place in the conference.

Loyola (Chicago) joined the Valley in 2013 when Creighton left for the Big East and Valparaiso replaced Wichita State last season. Neither team was successful in its first season. The Ramblers’ first year ended with four league wins, and last season Valpo achieved six.

School administrators and coaches knew the Valley was a step up in competition and also in notoriety, but they knew it would be a journey.

Loyola coach Porter Moser says he felt like “a voice crying in the wilderness” while telling anyone who would listen that his Ramblers would grow and become competitive in the new conference. Last season, his team made him look like a prophet as LUC won 32 games, both the regular season and tournament titles, and made a Final Four appearance.

Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich spent all last season telling people that his team was close to fitting in, but his team had to learn to defend at a higher level and become tougher. His Crusaders are passing that test. Valpo didn’t win a conference road game until its final opportunity in 2017-18. The Crusaders have already doubled that number this year and are 4-0 heading into Gentile Arena on Tuesday night. Lottich says his team was close all last year. It just needed to break through.

“Last year we were the youngest team in the league,” Lottich said. “You hope that some guys develop and get better in your program. We’ve had a little bit of maturity. It’s hard to win on the road in the league, particularly when you’re young.”

Lottich’s team has adopted a “playing gritty” mantra and it’s paying off.

After last season’s magical run, the Ramblers (10-7, 3-1) struggled in the non-conference season and in their only league loss, Evansville blew them out. Valley watchers are still trying to know what to make of this season’s team.

Both teams have built their rosters by recruiting the Chicago-land area, making use of Division I transfers.

Loyola’s most notable player Clayton Custer started out at Iowa State and leading scorer Marques Townes came from Fairleigh Dickinson. Valparaiso’s leading scorer is former Providence Friar Ryan Fazekas.

Chicago-area product Cameron Krutwig (last year’s Freshman of the Year) is Loyola’s leading rebounder and has an old school post game. Former high school teammates from Chicago’s Whitney Young, Lucas Williamson (LUC) and Javon Freeman (Valparaiso), will face each other often, both Tuesday night and throughout their collegiate careers.

A key question revolves around Fazekas. He averaged 16 points per game in the first two Valley games and went down with an ankle sprain. He has been listed as day-to-day and missed the Crusaders’ last contest. Insiders tell me they’d be shocked if he didn’t dress on Tuesday night.

The two former Horizon League members also meet in Indiana on Feb. 10.