Loyola lives up to preseason promise, has clinched share of MVC title
Remember back in November when there was a theme of college basketball is on the rebound in Chicago?
Well, the results have been uneven.
A year after its first NCAA Tournament appearance, Northwestern has been disappointing. DePaul has yet to win a Big East game at its new arena.
UIC has caught fire, though, winning nine of its last 10 games. The Flames are a game behind Wright State and Northern Kentucky in the Horizon League standings and control their own destiny, since both those teams visit the UIC Pavilion this weekend to wrap up the regular season.
And Loyola has lived up to the preseason promise. The Ramblers already have clinched a tie for the regular-season title in the Missouri Valley Conference. They can win the league outright Wednesday, but have a tough task, playing second-place Southern Illinois in Carbondale.
"We're so in the moment right now. It (first MVC title) is not something we've celebrated yet," Loyola coach Porter Moser said. "Our minds were really right to Southern, the hottest team in the league. I know we'll reflect on it and look back on it later and what it means and everything."
Southern Illinois is hot, winning eight of its last nine. But the league's hottest squad is clearly the Ramblers (23-5), who have won 12 of 13.
Actually, while the anticipated Chicago college basketball revival was hit and miss, the rest of the state has improved. Loyola, SIU, Illinois State and Bradley are four of the top five teams in the MVC standings, along with Drake.
Coaches expected a wide-open conference with the departure of Wichita State to the American Athletic, and they got it.
"This has the potential to be one of the most entertaining Valley tournaments you've ever seen," SIU coach Barry Hinson said. "I don't think there will be any games that don't go down to the last seconds. I think it's shown that we're one of the toughest conferences in the country."
Loyola is a relative newcomer to the Missouri Valley, but an Illinois school from the MVC hasn't made the NCAA Tournament since SIU did it six years in a row from 2002-07. Wichita State and Northern Iowa dominated the league in recent years, but now Wichita State it out and Northern Iowa is having a down year.
So that leaves it to Loyola and SIU to settle the regular-season title Wednesday. They are similar teams, with balanced scoring and no true standout.
Both teams got a nice boost at the center position. Loyola freshman Cameron Krutwig, from Jacobs High School, is averaging 10.5 points on the season and scored 18 when Loyola beat SIU 79-65 on Jan. 17 in Chicago. The Salukis have 6-foot-10 junior college transfer Kavion Pippen, nephew of Bulls legend Scottie Pippen, who is averaging 12.5 points.
"They destroyed us there in Loyola, they really did," Hinson said. "It was the most embarrassing game we've had all year long. Krutwig absolutely whipped us inside. What a job they've done in developing him.
"We're going to have to play our best game of the year in order to beat these guys, and we're certainly excited about the challenge."
Even with a loss in Carbondale, Loyola could still wrap up the outright regular-season conference title when it hosts Illinois State on Saturday at the Gentile Center.