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Preview: Drake and Loyola are getting set for the series of the year in the Missouri Valley

National television and national ramifications for these two.

NCAA Basketball: Drake at Dayton
Drake coach Darian DeVries leads Bulldogs into biggest series of the season.
David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports

Two of the most important Missouri Valley Conference games in the last six years will be played this weekend. No. 22 Loyola University Chicago visits 19-1 Drake (RV) in a battle for first place in the conference and for national recognition. The Ramblers and Bulldogs will play before a national television audience and both games have national ramifications.

Drake was ranked 25 prior to last weekend’s upset loss at Valparaiso. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has both teams in his current NCAA Tournament bracket. Both teams are ranked in the top 35 in the NET and in the top 65 of KenPom.

Both games can be seen on ESPN2, Saturday’s at 11 a.m. CT and Sunday’s at 2 p.m.

College basketball fans are aware of the Rambler program that was every mid-major basketball fan’s favorite team during their 2018 Final Four appearance. Loyola (17-3, 12-1) has won 10 straight games and Drake won 18 in a row prior to the loss at Valpo.

It’s been six years since two different Missouri Valley Conference teams have been nationally ranked during the same season. What makes these teams special?

Elite coaches

LUC’s Moser has a growing national reputation and his teams play energetic, winning basketball. His last three teams have won two regular season titles and finished second once while playing amazing team defense. This will be Moser’s fifth straight winning season and the Ramblers have won 108 games over the past four-and-a-half seasons.

LUC is first in the nation in scoring defense and third in offensive shooting percentage. The Ramblers win with defense and selfless offense. Only all-Valley center Cameron Krutwig averages double figures in scoring while the team is 11th nationally in assists.

After 20 seasons on the Creighton staff, Darian DeVries has completely changed Drake’s fortunes. Drake had not had a winning season since 2012 and hadn’t won 20 games in a season since 2008. DeVries’ first two teams finished with 24 and 20 wins respectively, shared the 2019 title with Loyola, and the Bulldogs are now on the verge of another 20-win season. When that happens it will be Drake’s first three-season stretch of 20 or more wins since 1969-71.

Veteran Rosters

Each of these Valley contenders’ rosters are littered with senior leadership. The center Krutwig and wing Lucas Williamson played important roles as freshmen on the Final Four team and now carry the Rambler leadership mantle. Other seniors Aher Uguak, Keith Clemons, and Tate Hall are all significant contributors.

Krutwig was the Valley’s 2018 Freshman of the Year and has been a first-team performer ever since. He is the program’s sixth-leading scorer (1,679) and ninth-leading rebounder (852). ‘King Krut’ may be the best passing big man in America.

Drake senior Roman Penn is the Valley’s best point guard. He leads the league in assists (5.5 per game), averages 12.7 points per game and sets up fellow seniors Shanquan Hemphill (14.4 ppg), Darnell Brodie, and Tremell Murphy, and junior D.J. Wilkins.

The Bulldogs are fifth nationally in scoring defense and ninth in offensive field goal percentage. These two teams mirror one another well. Only Penn and Hemphill average double figures for Drake.

But the Bulldogs’ hopes sustained a major blow Wednesday night when leading scorer Shanquan Hemphill went down with an injury. He was seen limping to the locker room and later returned to the Drake bench with his foot in a boot. DeVries said the injury was of “the ankle/foot variety” and he expects to know more by Friday.

Depth and versatility

Moser talks about having “seven starters” and has nine players that get prominent game time. Drake goes seven deep without missing a beat. Primary substitutes Joseph Yesufu and Garrett Sturtz both average better than eight points per game. The 6’3 Sturtz is second on the team in offensive rebounds and is tied for the team lead in steals.

Loyola’s second- and fourth-leading scorers come off the bench.

Keys to the game

1. Can Brodie handle Krutwig?

Brodie, a Seton Hall transfer, started slowly, but has filled the gap left by the transfer of Liam Robbins nicely. During Valley play he is third in rebounding (8.7 per game) and leads the league with 6.9 per game off the defensive glass. But Krutwig is a different animal. Krutwig ranks in the top 10 in the MVC’s scoring, rebounding, assists and steals categories. His footwork is elite.

2. Which Loyola defender guards Penn?

Williamson is arguably the Valley’s best on defense. He is simply a shutdown defender. If Moser chooses to use Williamson in this way, then Uguak, another great defender, would contend with Hemphill. That means 6’1 Braden Norris and 6’3 Keith Clemons get matched up with 6’12 DJ Wilkins and 6’6 Tremell Murphy. Those may not be beneficial matchups for LUC.

3. Does home-court matter?

Valley home teams are a pedestrian 35-27 during this pandemic-altered conference season and these games are being played at Drake. The two teams split their games last season, each earning narrow victories at home. Drake was 14-2 at Knapp Center last season. Loyola is 7-2 on the road this year and was 9-1 during the historic 2018 campaign.

While this isn’t the final weekend of the season, it may be the biggest Valley weekend since 2014-15 when Wichita State (30-5) knocked off Northern Iowa (31-4) for the league title. The Panthers went on to win the MVC Tournament and both teams went to the NCAA Tournament.

This scenario seems eerily similar.