Column: Loyola is stumbling, but it’s not time to panic

Photo credit: Chicago Tribune

Both of the following statements are true: Loyola has lost two straight games, its first losing streak in conference play since 2017. And the Ramblers lost their hold on first place in the Missouri Valley Conference after a gut-punch home loss Sunday, their second loss of the season to Missouri State.

But true as those may be, it’s unwise to read too much into Loyola’s 65-61 defeat to the Bears, who shot 63 percent from the field and nailed 11-of-16 from 3-point land.

Missouri State (15-12, 9-5 MVC) played a near-perfect game against the Ramblers (16-11, 9-5). The Bears dribbled the air out of the ball each time down the court, averaging 25 seconds per possession, and then often proceeded to hit difficult, contested perimeter jumpers.

It almost looked like Missouri State was channeling the ghosts of 1985 Villanova.

“I thought we had some really good defensive possessions,” coach Porter Moser said. “They hit some shots in the last four or five seconds of the shot clock, contested. I’ve got to give my hats off to them.”

But Moser still seemed ill at ease after the Loyola loss, rushing out of the postgame news conference when I asked him about the strong play of sophomore center Cameron Krutwig.

It’s not hard to see why the Ramblers might feel rattled. Right now, only two players are providing the team with consistent offensive production — Krutwig, who scored 24 points Sunday, and senior guard Marques Townes, who added 23 on 14 shots. And Loyola’s defense, its rock throughout a roller coaster campaign in which they’ve lost five of their nine road games, showed some cracks over the weekend.

The Ramblers are thin, beyond a doubt, especially without injured sophomore Lucas Williamson. They can’t shoot it like they did last year. Plus, bottom line, they’re not as talented or experienced as they were when they busted brackets all the way to the Final Four a season ago.

But at the end of the day, Loyola remains in fine shape. A regular-season conference title, still entirely possible, would not get them any closer to The Dance. The conference tournament is the big enchilada.

The Ramblers are better than the rest of the MVC. Despite Sunday’s loss, the Ramblers remain the highest-ranked MVC team in KenPom at No. 126.

The league is down across the board, and while the Bears are trending upward, it’s not a stretch to say Loyola will win its final four games and take the regular-season conference championship. (Missouri State and Drake currently share the three-way tie for first, and the two face off the first weekend of March.)

Williamson projects to return by Arch Madness, and the gifted wing could represent the missing piece for the up-and-down Ramblers. The athletic department said he would miss three to four weeks following his surgery at the end of January.

Loyola is not ready for prime time quite yet. Some defensive screws need tightening, scorers beyond Krutwig and Townes must emerge, and home losses are always deflating. But a windy February hasn’t blown the Ramblers too far off course. Plenty of time remains for Loyola to find a rhythm before the most important games of the season.

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