Men's Basketball 2019-20 Season Recap
Building a legacy
With the infusion of a few key transfer players, the Ramblers record another successful season and look ahead to championship glory
In the spring of 2018, Tate Hall watched with considerable interest as Loyola University Chicago stormed through the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, sinking buzzer-beaters and stealing hearts. Then a Division II standout at the University of Indianapolis, Hall had just received his waiver to transfer; his ideal landing spot was a Division I college that blended high-level academics with hardwood success. Loyola head coach Porter Moser was making his case in real-time, on the biggest stage imaginable.
Shortly after the Ramblers fell to Michigan in the Final Four, Hall received a call from Loyola’s staff asking if he’d make an official visit to Chicago. He committed within three weeks. Agonizing for some, Hall’s decision was painless. “After the Final Four?” he asks. “I’m definitely going to be interested in [this university].”
The sheen of that sensational postseason still hadn’t worn off the following spring, when Keith Clemons was entertaining thoughts of his own relocation. At Vincennes University in southern Indiana, the point guard lead his squad to the 2019 National Junior College Athletic Association Division I national championship. And as Loyola’s coaches made clear to him in the immediate aftermath, they were losing two graduating Rambler mainstays in Clayton Custer and Marques Townes—each of whom won the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year award (Custer in 2018, Townes in 2019) after they’d transferred (from Iowa State and Fairleigh Dickinson, respectively). Minutes on the court were available for a club on the rise.
Wouldn’t Clemons like to claim them? “I wanted a place that felt like home,” he says. “And I was coming from a JUCO that had a history of winning. I wanted to come to a program that already had a winning foundation.”
That foundation grows sturdier every passing month. In its 99th season, the men’s basketball team (21-11) is further establishing itself as a mid-major power. They’ve won at least 18 games in each of the last four seasons, the first such streak at Loyola in 70 years. This winter, they fell a single game short of their third-consecutive conference regular season title. Junior Cameron Krutwig could easily win the MVC’s player of the year award, following in the footsteps of Custer and Townes. And the Ramblers are well-positioned to qualify for their third-consecutive postseason tournament; the last time the Ramblers pulled off that feat, Lyndon Johnson was president.
This unprecedented run is driven, in part, by players who gained precious experience as freshmen on that Final Four team. The offense is still Krutwig-oriented, and with good reason: try finding a big man as creative and skilled anywhere else in the country. Thanks to his lightning-quick feet and guard-like vision, Krutwig is averaging a robust 15.3 points, 8.0 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game. On the other side of the floor, Chicago-native Lucas Williamson anchors the Ramblers’ steady defense, which closes out possessions—distracting shooters without fouling, forcing turnovers, collaring loose rebounds—at an elite level. These dudes have been around the block.
But there are plenty of new faces in Moser’s locker room, too. On the analytics site KenPom.com, the Ramblers rank a lowly 247 out of 353 DI teams in a statistic called “minutes continuity,” which tracks if players who saw action the previous season are also playing in the current season. A handful of freshmen from the most talented incoming class of Moser’s tenure—namely, Marquise Kennedy and Paxson Wojcik—have already worked themselves into the rotation. Then there’s Hall and Clemons, who replaced Custer and Townes in the starting lineup without missing a beat. The former is a hardheaded lefty with ramrod posture and a smooth shooting stroke. The latter is an undersized but streaky scorer with loads of confidence.
Between the two of them, they’ve canned 87 three-pointers (first and second on the team). Hall is registering the highest scoring average (13.0 points per game) by a Loyola newcomer since Aundre Jackson in 2017. Both are secure with the ball, despite logging heavy minutes. That reliability gives Moser license to deploy his freshman judiciously, without leaving the youngsters overexposed. It turns out that recruiting in the wake of a headline-generating March romp—be it in high schools or on college campuses—has its obvious benefits.
Starting fresh in a new city on a new team does come with challenges, it should be said. Early in his Loyola tenure, Clemons struggled to pick up Moser’s distinctive verbiage on the fly—could somebody please remind him what “Spain action” meant? Plus, D1 players are bigger and faster than those he encountered on the JUCO circuit: “Here—every game, every night is a battle.”
Hall, for his part, was required to sit out the entirety of the 2018-19 season to comply with NCAA transfer regulations. Playing 32 minutes per game in Indianapolis was followed, overnight, by constant bench-riding. “But I had good guys ahead of me, guys who had done it before,” Hall says. “I could pick their brains, see how they went through a redshirt. I really became a sponge.”
Having won six of their last seven heading into the conference tournament—including a thrilling overtime upset of top-ranked Northern Iowa in mid-February—the roster is gelling at the right time. On defense, they’ve got active hands and energy to spare. On offense, they put themselves in sound positions to score and knock down shots with regularity. (Loyola ranks ninth nationally in effective field goal percentage.) “I think we’re really connected,” Hall says. “We play well together.”
On a snowy Tuesday in late-February, Senior Night offered a pleasant reminder of the Ramblers’ rising stock. The student section was jammed and energized, 10 rows deep. There were scarfs courtside, in the rafters, and everywhere in between. Before tip-off, Moser and the home crowd gave Bruno Skokna a spirited (and Croatian-inflected) send-off. The club’s lone senior soaked in the applause and hustled back to the huddle all by his lonesome. Waiting to maul him were Hall, Clemons, and a host of players who are slated to return next season, ready for more.
The Loyola Ramblers are racking up championships in more than one sport. Find out how other Loyola teams have been dominating their divisions.