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Loyola University Chicago may have arrived as a mid-major power

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The Ramblers weren’t a one-hit wonder, and have a team that seems destined for big things yet again.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Loyola Illinois vs Bradley Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

Unlike some teams, Loyola Chicago didn’t have a great unknown hanging over it when the NCAA Tournament was cancelled last March. The Ramblers weren’t holding a ticket to the Big Dance, as they’d been dispatched in the first round of the Missouri Valley Tournament by Valparaiso.

But Loyola does bring one of the most intriguing big picture questions into this coming season.

Two full seasons since the run to the Final Four, the Ramblers haven’t faded into obscurity, with 20 and 21 wins, respectively, and a shared regular season title in 2019. Take away the dizzying heights of 2017-18 and the Ramblers are still enjoying one of the finer stretches in program history. Loyola had not won 20 or more games in back-to-back seasons since 1985, and before that had not done so since their early 1960’s heyday that included a national title.

Add in the 2018 run and Porter Moser has brought unprecedented times to Rogers Park in the modern era. That’s impressive in and of itself but the next question is more interesting: has Loyola’s three-year run put them on the cusp of becoming a consistent mid-major power in the Valley?

If anything, the Ramblers have already proven that the Final Four run wasn’t a complete fluke, not that that was necessarily a given. Despite having a team with three important seniors, the Ramblers relied on a number of players with additional eligibility to have that magical March.

At the center of it was big man Cameron Krutwig, who, as a freshman, had developed into an interior force by the time the 2018 NCAA Tournament rolled around. He was arguably the Ramblers best player in their Final Four loss to Michigan, and hasn’t stopped from there. The senior made the MVC First Team the following year, and is the reigning MVC Player of the Year as he’s done nothing but score, rebound and whiz passes around the Valley.

Krutwig doesn’t represent the only connection to that team that made Sister Jean famous. Porter Moser relied on the then-freshman Lucas Williamson as a defensive presence on the wing to the tune of 23.4 minutes per contest over the Ramblers’ five NCAA Tournament games. The senior guard has grown into one of the Valley’s best defenders, and a steady overall contributor that will likely eclipse 1,000 points for his career this upcoming season.

Moser has been able to restock the program around those two in a variety ways. He dipped into the Division II transfer market to land senior guard Tate Hall from the University of Indianapolis in 2018, and Hall became a steady scorer for the Ramblers last season (12.7 PPG). More conventionally, he signed New Mexico transfer Aher Uguak, who’s been a staunch defender and reliable part of the rotation.

And then there’s Marquise Kennedy, who won the MVC Sixth Man of the Year award this past season and added a punch of athleticism off the bench as a freshman. The point guard, who will pair with senior Keith Clemons, also appears to be another major local recruiting win. The Brother Rice High School star chose to stay home, much like fellow Chicago prep products Williamson, Donte Ingram and Milton Doyle.

The Chicago pipeline has continued to produce, with Moser recently landing DePaul College Prep guard Ty Johnson in the Class of 2025. Johnson talked with the Loyola Phoenix about what it meant to sign with a local school.

“As I really thought about it, staying home and putting on for my city, having everybody come back to watch is just like a big deal,” Johnson said. A lot of people can’t get a chance to do that. … It’s the best choice you could possibly make.”

It all adds up to a 2020-21 team that sounds very much like the one that initially put Loyola on the map. There’s experience in important positions with Krutwig and Hall serving as the team’s offensive pillars, and a frenetic defender in Williamson. And like that team that slipped past three quality teams and then pasted Kansas State to get to San Antonio, there is youth sprinkled throughout the rotation, which starts with Kennedy.

The Ramblers, along with Northern Iowa, are the clear favorites in the Valley with both teams bringing back the vast majority of their respective rotations. That’s something that Indiana State coach Greg Lansing echoed recently.

“We know what we’ve got coming ahead of us,” the Sycamores coach said. “You’ve got UNI and Loyola with everyone back, everybody in the league is always anxious and anticipating a good year. It’ll be like it is every year in the Valley, an absolute slugfest every night.”

It’ll now be the fourth consecutive year that the Ramblers have slotted into that favorite category. Their brand of patient offense that grinds to find high quality looks has allowed them to vault into the Valley’s upper echelon. With the program having fended off interest in Moser from bigger schools — like St. John’s — in recent year, the Ramblers appear poised to continue building off that foundation laid during that magical Final Four run.

This year’s high ceiling, Krutwig-led team could really cement that into reality with another banner season.