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The Other Top 25 Preseason Rankings: No. 3 Loyola University Chicago Ramblers

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Ramblers are deeper than ever before.

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Loyola vs Michigan
Cameron Krutwig leads a senior laden Loyola Chicago Ramblers team.
Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

2019-20 Record: 21-11 (13-5 MVC)

Key Returning Players: Cameron Krutwig (15.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 4.2 apg), Tate Hall (12.7 ppg), Keith Clemons (10.4 ppg, 43% from deep), Lucas Williamson (9.0 ppg), Marquise Kennedy (9.2 ppg), Aher Uguak (5.7 ppg), Franklin Agunanne (2.3 ppg)

Key Losses: None

Key Newcomers: Cooper Kaifes, Braden Norris and freshman Baylor Hebb

Seniors Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson were key pieces to the Ramblers’ 2018 Final Four run and are the undisputed leaders of this year’s Loyola squad, but there is more to this team than memories of former glory. Krutwig is the most versatile big man in college basketball and Williamson is the Valley’s top defender. Their credentials are undeniable.

The supporting cast is also loaded. The returners include third-team all-conference wing Tate Hall, the Valley’s best sixth man Marquise Kennedy, and starters Keith Clemons and Aher Uguak. All five returning starters are seniors.

Cooper Kaifes missed last season with a hip injury but was named to the Valley’s 2019 all-freshman team. Kaifes averaged 5.7 points per game and converted 47% of his three-point attempts. The 6’3 guard also converted 81% of his free-throws.

Former Horizon League all-freshman team member Braden Norris also joins Loyola. The Oakland transfer led the Horizon in assist-turnover margin (2.75) and averaged 8.4 points and 5.2 assists per game. Head coach Porter Moser believes he has three proven point guards in Norris, Clemons and Kennedy.

3 things to watch for

Distribution of playing time

With so many quality players, how Moser works his rotation is critical. Keeping his players happy with limited game time will be challenging even for the ever-positive Moser. Last season, Williamson, Clemons, Hall and Krutwig all played over 30 minutes per game. Moser admits having a seven- or eight-man rotation is easier to manage, but this abundance of talented players will force him to navigate the season differently.

Moser’s “team first” culture will need to hold. The Ramblers led the Valley in scoring defense (61.8 ppg), steals (8.0), turnover margin (+3.9) and offensive field goal percentage (49%) because of that All In (the title of his recent book) mantra.

Free throw shooting

While Loyola Chicago is the Valley’s top shooting team, it is the worst from the charity stripe (63%). The Ramblers aren’t even close to Indiana State’s ninth-place number of 71%. Seven of the Ramblers’ 11 losses were by five or fewer points and in six of those games, LUC didn’t top 67% from the line.

For all of his versatility and hard-work Krutwig has free throw line struggles. His 56% conversion rate is not good enough to win critical games. During Loyola’s season-ending conference tournament loss they converted just 14 of 27 free throws in a one-point, overtime loss to Valparaiso.

Finding non-conference games

COVID-19 landed at Loyola Chicago. Despite the program religiously following health guidelines and LUC students studying from home, the coronavirus has affected several Rambler players. Moser announced a pause of program activities on Nov. 16. and as of this writing, Loyola has canceled every previously scheduled non-conference game.

How quickly the team can begin to practice, schedule, and play non-conference games is up in the air. Missouri Valley Conference play begins after Christmas and with the revamped conference schedule (announced Nov. 20), Loyola’s task of scheduling other opponents is extremely difficult.

The lack of non-conference opponents will hinder the Ramblers’ national notoriety.

X–factor

Keith Clemons and Marquise Kennedy

Loyola is deep, has experience and has won. An X-factor is the combined play of Clemons and Kennedy. LUC was 17-7 when Clemons was in the lineup and 4-4 when he wasn’t. Moser describes Clemons as a player that does “point-guard kind of things” and says the senior “makes a lot of hockey assists.”

Kennedy is one of the fastest and most explosive players Moser has ever recruited. He was voted to the Valley’s all-freshman team and was the league’s Sixth Man of the Year award winner. He is another in the long list of Chicago natives to land at Loyola.

His explosive athleticism can create game-changing plays. Loyola plays its offensive system to a tee, but Clemons and Kennedy are two players that can win games on their physical abilities alone.

Over the past three years, the Ramblers have won two conference titles, one Arch Madness crown and been to the Final Four. They have topped the 20-win plateau all three seasons. Moser’s team knows how to win. His roster is inundated with players who have won high school state championships and in Clemons’ case, a national junior college title.

This is Moser’s deepest and perhaps his most athletic team, and it’s loaded with seniors. The Ramblers seem uniquely positioned for significant success.

During Krutwig’s freshman season, his team won four NCAA Tournament games. Last year, he recorded a rare statistical achievement, finishing in the top seven in five different Valley statistical categories.

If the Ramblers can capture a similar passion for selfless basketball as the 2018 team did, they may close Krutwig’s storied career with perfect bookend seasons. He experienced tremendous NCAA Tournament success as a freshman and could perhaps enjoy a similar run as a senior.