Chicago, IL – America was introduced to Loyola last year when the Ramblers upended Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State in the NCAA tournament on their way to an appearance in the Final Four. Turning the page to the current season, Marques Townes, Cameron Krutwig and Clayton Custer, the three returning starters from that Final Four team, combined to score 57 points on Saturday night in leading Loyola to an 81-68 home victory over Bradley to give the Ramblers a share of the Missouri Valley Conference championship. Loyola finished the conference season with a 12-6 record and shares the championship with Drake. Because the Ramblers swept the Bulldogs in their two meetings this season, Loyola enters this week’s conference tournament as the number one seed.
Playing before an energized capacity crowd of just under 5,000 fans, most of whom came early to honor Townes and Custer in a pre-game senior night ceremony, both teams opened the game pushing the ball and looking for scoring opportunities early in the shot clock. Bradley’s Luuk van Bree knocked down a three-point shot to give the Braves an early 8-3 lead. But Loyola responded with a 20-9 run to take a 23-17 lead, expanded the lead to 48-29 at halftime and played with a double-digit lead the entire second half in going on to the win.
Townes needed only 14 shots to score a game-high 26 points. A redshirt-senior who started his career at Fairleigh Dickinson, Townes stands 6-4 with a muscle-ripped body. He opened the game’s scoring by knocking down a three-point shot off the catch and finished with three made triples in five attempts. Later in the first half, he made his defender pay for going under a ball screen by making a pull-up jumper to his left from behind the arc on the left wing. Townes can also get downhill off a screen to attack the rim and use his strength to finish in traffic. Townes, who finished the night with a team-leading 15.9 scoring average and heard “MVP” chants directed at him in the second half, is considered one of the front runners for the Missouri Valley Conference player of the year award.
Custer won that award last year as a junior. The Kansas City area native shook off a scoreless first half to score 15 second-half points in helping to keep the Braves at arm’s length. Like Townes, Custer started his career at another school, Iowa State, before transferring to Loyola. He’s a 6-1 guard who does much of the Loyola ball-handling and assisted on five baskets. He scores in midrange off the bounce and served the role of weak side sniper when he made two triples in the second half after the Bradley defense was forced into rotation and teammates found him with skip passes. Custer’s numbers are down from last season and his name is not being bandied about in player of the year discussions, but as Loyola Coach Porter Mosser spoke of Custer after the game right before his players cut down the nets, he called him the “heart” of the team.
Custer’s five assists were second on the team to Krutwig, a 6-9 sophomore with a unique skill set, who handed out six assists. Krutwig is a one-level scorer in the paint, but he steps out into the midrange to impact the game in a big way with his passing and screen setting. Along with Ethan Happ of Wisconsin and Dean Wade of Kansas State, Krutwig is one of the best passing bigs not only in the midwest, but in all of college basketball. Moser likes to run his offense through Krutwig. By making the entry pass to Krutwig at the elbow, usually the left elbow to play better off Krutwig being a left-hand dominant player, Loyola runs a guard, often Townes, around Krutwig from the wing to receive a handoff pass. If Krutwig’s defender fails to hedge hard and quickly enough, the Loyola guard continues to the basket. Should Krutwig’s defender leave him and commit to the guard, Krutwig rolls hard to the basket for a pass deep in the paint and a scoring opportunity at the rim.
Krutwig and Happ both grew up in the Chicago suburbs. They’re both back-to-the basket bigs who play with an understanding of angles and advanced footwork. They use both hands to finish on both sides of the rim, and by utilizing ball and shot fakes at a high level, they are adept at drawing fouls. Krutwig is well-schooled to keep the ball high when he catches or rebounds it above his head. While limited in rebounding range, Krutwig is an effective position rebounder who reads shot flights and estimates caroms off the rim of missed shots. His 7.3 per game rebounding average is fourth best in the conference.
Bradley was led by guard Darrell Brown’s 16 points. A 5-10 junior, Brown scored 11 second-half points in attempting to rally the Braves. Entering the game shooting almost 46 percent from behind the arc, Brown made 3 of 5 attempts against Loyola, shooting mostly contested shots from distance. Bradley Coach Brian Wardle had to take solace after the game in the play of freshman Ja’Shon Henry, a versatile 6-6 wing from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan who scored seven points in seven first-half minutes and finished with 15 points. Henry is as athletic as any player in the Missouri Valley. He attacks the rim in transition and on the offensive glass and uses an explosive-jumping ability to finish above it with two hands. He has the quickness/strength combination to guard positions one through five. In fact, he guarded Krutwig for a stretch late in the game and during that time forced a turnover by poking the ball away from Krutwig.
With a paucity of high-level non-conference wins on its resume and an overall record of 19-12, Loyola would likely need to win the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in order to punch a return ticket to the NCAA tournament. Loyola gets things going on March 8 when it plays the winner of the Indiana State-Valparaiso game. Bradley also starts tournament play on March 9 when it hooks up with Missouri State. All conference tournament games are played in St. Louis.