After a Final Four run, Loyola in a fight for another Missouri Valley Conference title

NORMAL, IL - FEBRUARY 02: Loyola-Chicago Ramblers guard Clayton Custer (13) walks across the court during the Missouri Valley Conference college basketball game between the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers and the Illinois State Redbirds on February 2, 2019, at Redbird Arena in Normal, Illinois. (Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

CHICAGO — Topping the drama that took place nearly a year ago in March was going to be a tough proposition for Porter Moser even before the season started.

No longer would his Loyola team fly under the radar either locally or nationally, as the eyes would be on his program in Rogers Park right from the start of the 2018-2019 season. On top of that, he was losing critical leaders in Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson, who were critical in the Ramblers’ unexpected run to their first Final Four since their championship season in 1963.

It hasn’t been an easy road, with an up-and-down conference season along with a hand injury that’s kept guard Lucas Williamson out most of the year. Yet with a few weeks to go in the Missouri Valley Conference season, Loyola is in the thick of a wild regular season title race.

On Sunday, the Ramblers watched Southern Illinois go on a 15-4 run against them to finish off a 63-53 victory in Carbondale. It’s the third loss in the last four games for Moser’s team, who fell back into a first place tie with Drake and Missouri State in the conference.

Loyola won both of their regular season games against the Bulldogs but lost both to the Bears, which could have an effect on a tiebreaker for seeding in the Missouri Valley tournament in St. Louis March 7-10. Head-to-head results are the first factor looked at by the conference when seeding the tournament, with the second tiebreaker being the NCAA’s N.E.T. ranking.

Winning that will be the only way that the Ramblers get back into the “Big Dance” since their overall 17-12 record won’t get them an at-large bid. Two games remain for Loyola to finish the regular season, and they come against two teams that are playing their best down the stretch. They’ll head to Northern Iowa on Wednesday, facing a team that’s won their last four games, then finish out the regular season at home against Bradley Saturday, who has won five of their last six contests. That included a win over the Ramblers in Peoria on Feb. 13.

Marques Townes (15.6 points per game) and Cameron Krutwig (14.9 points per game) figure to carry the load down the stretch as they have most of the season with reigning MVC Player of the Year Clayton Custer helping to start off the Ramblers on another memorable March run. But they’ve got some work to do first before a critical couple of days in St. Louis.

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