2020-21 MVC PREVIEW PART III: THE MAGNIFICENT
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
We finish up the 2020-21 MVC preview with the two teams I believe will have the best shot to compete for a league title this season. If you’re a big enough MVC fan to be reading this blog, you should definitely not be surprised by who they are.
2.) Loyola (2019-20 Results: 21-11, 13-5, BPI: 103): In 2013 when Loyola was added to the MVC I was not a fan of the decision. It seemed to me like the league didn’t have its priorities straight. Power conferences like the B1G were looking at adding markets and cable TV fees, adding to the value of their TV deal. It seemed like the Valley was needlessly following suit. Despite years and years of mediocrity, a small fanbase, and little media interest, we were going with the Ramblers just because they were in Chicago. “Big markets like Chicago are not what make the Valley great!”, I probably said out loud to someone at some point. Owning our small midwestern towns and being the biggest show around was what differentiated MVC programs and gave them strength. TV contracts don’t mean a lick to conferences like the MVC, and do you think we’ll really be able to demand more money because we have a random school in Chicago?
Seven years later, I still stand by that. Just kidding. I was clearly very wrong. Loyola has emerged as one of the best programs in the MVC, and in many ways a like-for-like replacement for Creighton (and in many ways not, for better and for worse). They have had as much success as any current Valley school since they joined the league, they do still have a relatively small fanbase but it is growing and their small venue is perfect for their niche. The Ramblers still have to fight for media attention in a crowded Chicago sports scene, but they can hold their own much better these days. And on top of that, their success and notoriety (not necessarily their location) most likely played a role in the Valley being able to secure TV deals with ESPN and CBS despite the loss of the BJs and Shockers (really sexual names, those two have). So, wrong on all counts!
It didn’t always look like I was going to be so incredibly wrong. Much like MVC fans these days clamor for Murray State while watching Valpo, I clamored for Valpo while watching Loyola. During the first few years of Loyola’s tenure in the MVC, the Ramblers struggled to four consecutive losing MVC seasons and mediocre overall records (although they did win a CBI title). That shouldn’t have been surprising since they hadn’t had a winning record in the Horizon for six years before their MVC arrival and had finished with a winning league record only thrice since the Reagan administration. Meanwhile Valpo, another private school MVC candidate not far from Chicago, was dominating the league Loyola had just left.
Then two things happened in the 2017-18 season. Valpo joined the MVC and promptly finished last, and Loyola broke their streak of losing seasons. In fact, they did so well they won the regular season title. They also won Arch Madness. They also won their first and second round NCAA Tournament games. And their Sweet 16 game. And their elite eight game. And OMG you guys Loyola went to the Final Four. With that, the addition of Loyola seemed like the smartest move the Valley ever made and the program was transformed. The next season Loyola won a share of the league title but ended up playing in the NIT after losing in the Arch Madness semifinals. Last year, they finished a game back of UNI and became just the second team of the millennium (and second team that day) to lose an Arch Madness quarterfinal game as a one or two seed. Even so, Loyola has certainly been the best MVC team of the last three years.
My pick of Loyola as the #2 team was made more by my heart than my head. Full disclosure, I am a UNI alum and my gut was telling me to pick the Panthers #1. But there are a lot of reasons why, on paper, Loyola is the better choice. The first is that they did not lose anyone from last year’s team. That is an awfully good launch point and something that UNI cannot say.
Returners include all five starters and also basically a sixth, maybe even a seventh. The headliner is first-team all MVC performer, senior leader, and only remaining starter from the Final Four team Cameron Krutwig. He is quite possibly the best player in the MVC, and if not, he is one of the best. He averaged 15 points and eight boards a game last season (as well as 4 assists). Tate Hall, third-team All-MVC, also returns for his senior year after averaging 12 points a game. Keith Clemons, another senior who averaged double figures will start. The other two presumed starters are ALSO SENIORS. Lucas Williamson was on the all-defensive team last year and averaged 9 points a game. Aher Uguak is also going to be a senior starter if they keep the lineup intact. Beyond that, the Rambers return All-Freshman team member Marquise Kennedy, as well as Cooper Kaifes who was lost last year to injury but was penciled in to be a starter preseason. That doesn’t even include all the other fricken guys who made contributions last year and return.
That also doesn’t include the OTHER guy who will likely play a role. That would be Oakland transfer Braden Norris who averaged 8 points 5 assists as a freshman at Oakland two years ago. You know, just in case you didn’t think what they had already was enough. They also add one true freshman. Good luck to him getting playing time. Indiana transfer Damezi Anderson will likely sit out the year as a transfer.
Bottom line, even though I don’t have Loyola at #1 you cannot go wrong with them as your pick. No one in the Valley has as much experience or depth as Loyola, and I am one who highly values experience and depth. You can’t get more experienced than five senior starters including a guy who started in the Final Four. Nor can many match the depth the Ramblers have. It isn’t just raw depth and experience, they also have some of the best players in the league on the roster starting with Cameron Krutwig. They are destined to be a great team in the Valley this year, and I hope they get the chance to prove it on the national stage just like they did in 2018.
1.) Northern Iowa (2019-20 Results, 25-6, 14-4, BPI: 64): Of all the schools currently in the MVC, I think it is fair to say that UNI has had the best run of the last 20 years. There isn’t anything particularly special about UNI on paper. They don’t have a larger fanbase than the rest of the league. They have good facilities, that have improved in recent years quite a bit, but it isn’t like they dwarf the rest of the Valley. UNI does not have more resources, awesome weather, a big mysterious donor, a particularly attractive location for recruits, or a standout campus. But despite all this, UNI has remained a step ahead of the rest of the MVC (in its current form) for the last 15-or-so years. Why is that? Well I believe that UNI does have a competitive advantage, but it isn’t inherent to the university. UNI has Ben Jacobson.
Jacobson became the UNI head coach at the start of the 2006-07 season. The Panthers do not have a strong basketball tradition prior to this century. But it wouldn’t be fair to say Jacobson built this from the ground up either. Credit does have to go to Greg McDermott, who took UNI from the MVC doldrums to something competitive. In 2004, 2005 and 2006 McDermott took UNI to its second, third and fourth ever NCAA Tournaments (the first was in 1990 when 14th seeded UNI beat Missouri), two via an at-large bid. That final season had the Panthers ranked in the top 25 for a portion of the year before they fell off the wagon a bit at the end. When McDermott left for Iowa State after his third NCAA season, his top assistant Jacobson stayed behind to become the UNI head coach. He considered going with McDermott to Iowa State, but ultimately stayed. That turned out to be a rather good move. Throughout the years Jacobson’s name has been thrown out for several big-time college basketball jobs, but he has remained at UNI and for that we are thankful.
After a couple of average seasons, Jacobson guided UNI to its first MVC Regular season title in 2009, adding the Arch Madness title as well. In 2010, UNI had one of the best defenses I have ever seen ever, and they rode that to another league title, an Arch Madness title and a win over top ranked Kansas in the NCAA Tournament to get them to the Sweet 16. A few more average years followed (although UNI never fell into the bottom half of the league) but in 2015 UNI had another special season. Ranked in the top 25 for most of the year, and in top 15 for a large portion, UNI actually finished second behind Wichita State in the league but won Arch Madness and had a 5-seed in the NCAA Tournament where they made it to round two. The following year UNI repeated as Arch Madness Champions (and also beat #1 North Carolina and #5 Iowa State during the season), winning an NCAA Tournament game over Texas with a half court buzzer beater (I don’t recall what happened in the next round). In 2018, in his twelfth season as UNI head coach Jacobson added another first to his list, he coached in his first ever Arch Madness play-in game. The remarkably consistent Panthers have been relegated to Thursday only once in his fourteen years. And even that team gave Final Four bound Loyola a run for its money right to the bitter end in the quarterfinals.
Last season was another special one for UNI despite the disappointing ending. AJ Green was the Larry Bird Trophy winner and Austin Phyfe, back from a heart issue a year earlier, was also first team All-MVC. UNI had an 11-1 nonconference which included wins over South Carolina and a ranked Colorado team on the road. The Panthers ended up going 14-4 in the MVC and winning just the second outright title for UNI in team history. Unfortunately for UNI, they played probably their worst game of the year and ran into a buzzsaw at the same time, as Drake came in and whooped the purple and gold with an outstanding effort at Arch Madness. It is the first time the 1-seed has ever lost in the Arch Madness quarterfinals. Jacobson made a passionate plea as to why UNI still deserved an NCAA bid. It seemed like a longshot, but we’ll never know if they would have made it as Covid wiped out the postseason.
Most places have either UNI or Loyola as their top MVC team, and if you have Loyola it is likely because of what the Panthers lost. Isaiah Brown was in many ways the heart and soul of UNI, particularly defensively. His addition of a more dynamic offensive game last season was part of what helped UNI take the next step into the upper echelon of the Valley. Spencer Haldeman was also a key starter who was UNI’s sniper. He hit many big shots for the purple and gold. Justin Dahl and Luke McDonnell weren’t a huge part of what UNI did last year but provided depth in the post that will need to be filled behind Phyfe. At the end of the day, UNI had five guys that averaged 27-35 minutes last year and lost two of them. That leaves a pretty big hole.
On the flip side, the reason why you would pick UNI is the quality of the trio of starters who return. AJ Green averaged nearly 20 points a game and is a legitimate NBA prospect. He returns for his junior year with a Larry Bird Trophy already in his trophy case. He is probably the best player in the league. Austin Phyfe has a first team all-league honor and is either the league’s best or second-best post (YOU DECIDE). Trae Berhow was a shooter who averaged 12.5 points and 6 boards a game and many believe he was robbed of all-league honors as well. No one else in the league can name a trio quite as strong as that at the top. But there are two more starter spots to fill. The first candidate is Tywhon Pickford, the only other player to average double-digit minutes. Pickford is not a scorer, like at all, but UNI hopes he can be the high energy defensive stopper that Isaiah Brown was and perhaps add a little more offensively than he did last year. He will fill Brown’s role but probably wont be able to fill the bucket as well as Brown. Noah Carter has a great chance to start and be a solid 4 for UNI in his sophomore season. He has a big body,can hit from anywhere, and took his conditioning more seriously after averaging 4 points a game in 8 minutes last year. Antwan Kimmons, also a sophomore, brought high energy off the bench and will likely play an expanded role this year as well. James Betz started the year as the backup post as a freshman last year but ultimately lost his spot to the seniors Dahl and McDonnell. He’ll get the first shot to be Phyfe’s backup.
UNI will have some freshmen to provide depth as well, and they’re pretty excited about this class. Bowen Born is undersized but a highly talented shooter in the classic UNI mold. Nate Heise is probably better suited physically to contribute right away. Cole Henry and Ty Anderson will also get a chance to contribute.
Bottom line, UNI is the defending champs and will bring back its three best players. Loyola was a game behind and brings back more than everyone. Loyola has more experience and depth. UNI has some outstanding talent but will need role players to step up. UNI should be very good, but the amount to which they are good will really depend on how much those role players like Pickford, Carter, Kimmons and Betz are able to step up and play big time minutes. If they can do that, UNI is your favorite.
And that is that. All signs point to UNI and Loyola battling it out at the top. That is what I think and that is what most prognosticators think. If you’re feeling good about the Ramblers and Panthers, I’ll just end this with the friendly reminder that most people thought Missouri State would win the league last year.