In many ways, the crowning of Marques Townes as the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year on Tuesday seemed inevitable.
The fifth-year senior from Edison, New Jersey, averaged a league-high 18.1 points and third-best 3.2 assists per game during conference play, all while leading Loyola to its first back-to-back conference regular season championships in school history. So it was no great surprise when coach Porter Moser entered the locker room on Tuesday after a team lift to announce the news.
“Everyone jumped up excited, giving me high fives, daps and hugs, it was fun,” Townes said. “I’m happy for myself, there’s no other way to describe it.”
But this result, for both Townes and Loyola, didn’t seem like much of a possibility in early January when the Ramblers stumbled out to a 9-7 record. In diagnosing what led to those losses, one problem Moser kept referring to was the inconsistent or insufficient perimeter shooting. As the team’s leading scorer Townes wasn’t exactly helping, shooting just 31.4 percent from deep over the first 16 games. Over a five-game stretch in mid-December, he missed 12 consecutive threes.
“Last year I felt like we always had four, five guys on the floor who can shoot,” Moser said after one January game. “Obviously right now that’s not the case.”
Then on Jan. 9, something clicked for Townes. Sitting in the film room with assistant head coach Bryan Mullins the day after a 19-point loss to conference bottom-feeder Evansville, a game in which Townes went 0-for-3 from beyond the arc, he looked on as Mullins pulled up video not of himself, but of Klay Thompson.
On the previous night, the Golden State Warriors’ guard scored 43 points and hit seven three-pointers, needing only four total dribbles the whole game to do it. Mullins used his highlights to make a specific point to Townes.
“We just showed him clip after clip, and every time, [Thompson] holds his follow through,” Mullins said. “For Marq, working with him every day, every time he holds his follow through, flicks his wrist and stays in the same spot it looks really good.”
The physical mechanics were used to trigger a mental response, something Townes calls “staying in your shot.” If he holds his follow through and lands on the same patch of floor from which he jumped, it signals Townes has committed fully to the shot and believes it is going in.
The results are substantial. Since the Thompson film session, Townes is shooting 42.6 percent from deep — nearly 47 percent if you remove one outlier 0-for-5 game against Southern Illinois.
In addition, the threat of a three-point shot opened up the rest of his offensive repertoire. Over the summer, Townes was intentional about adding a mid-range jump shot to his game, making him what Moser calls a “true three-level scorer” because of his ability to attack the rim, score in the midrange and now shoot from beyond the arc. The proof is in the box scores: before Jan. 9 Townes had just two games of 18 or more points, and he’s had eight in the 15 games since.
“He definitely brought his game to another level,” said Loyola guard Bruno Skokna. “Because he’s more confident in himself.”
Loyola has needed all of Townes’ production. Before the season, Moser took Townes and fellow fifth-year senior Clayton Custer out to lunch to reassure them they weren’t expected to fill roles any different or greater than the ones they had during the Ramblers’ Final Four run last March.
Yet the numbers, at least in Townes’ case, disagree. Of the 2190 players eligible across the country in the individual player rankings on KenPom.com, Townes ranks in the top eight percent (170th) in percentage of possessions used — meaning his actions end more than one in every four of the team’s possessions when he’s in the game. Along the same lines, he takes nearly 29 percent of the team’s shots while on the court, placing him in the top six percent (133rd) in all of college hoops.
Townes has made the most of those shots, which allowed Loyola to produce a 12-6 conference record. After one final 26-point performance on senior night on Saturday, the Ramblers’ captured a share of the Missouri Valley title with Drake.
“We always knew he was really good,” Custer said after Saturday’s game. “He’s worked his butt off to get to where he’s at; he’s dominating the league.”
Heading into Arch Madness, Loyola is still far from an impressive outside shooting team. One telling number is 33.9, the percentage of the team’s overall field goal attempts that are threes. According to KenPom, they rank 295th in the country in the category. To counteract this, the Ramblers’ coaching staff is using their final practices before leaving for Saint Louis and the MVC Tournament to stress the importance of getting out in transition and playing with increased pace.
Still, the Ramblers will depend on the scoring, and specifically shooting, of their newly-minted conference player of the year to propel them to a second consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance. It’s a role Townes says he takes too seriously to celebrate his award any further.
“I’m happy from a personal standpoint, for myself, the hard work I put in to even be in a position like that,” Townes said Tuesday. “But it’ll feel much better once we win on Sunday.”