The real work begins now for Loyola

INDIANAPOLIS - APRIL 05: Zach Hahn #3 of the Butler Bulldogs passes the ball against the Duke Blue Devils during the 2010 NCAA Division I Men's Basketball National Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 5, 2010 in Indianapolis, Indiana. Duke won 61-59. (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)

It was like deja vue in the Joseph Gentile Center on Wednesday night. Butler and Loyola traded punches like two heavyweight boxers. And while it seemed like the Bulldogs had delivered the knock out on a few occasions, the underdogs took the blows until the end, only to lose by decision. 

The thing is, I could've written that exact same lead after Butler's appearance in Chicago last season's when Loyola dropped a 48-47 game. Tonight's was pretty similar, except the Bulldogs upped the margin to two 65-63.
Down the stretch Brad Stevens made the mathematically correct choice to foul when up by three with 3.3 seconds remaining. When Shelvin Mack wrapped up Courtney Stanley it essentially sealed the Ramblers' fate.
Now Loyola is 7-1. Last season the Ramblers were 12-6 when they lost to Butler. They'd win just two more games the remainder of the season and finish at 14-16 overall. Why is this season different?

Well for one, it's earlier. The Ramblers have a while to recover from this, though they do have to buck up and take on Valparaiso on Saturday. Also, this game doesn't seem like a fluke. Both teams brought a lot of effort and if Loyola had won no one would've said they got lucky. Then there's health. Right now the Ramblers have it. Well, with the possible exception of forward Walt Gibler. That's very important.

"I think we've got a lot more experienced guys," said Loyola head coach Jim Whitesell afterwards. "I think one of the things you have to remember. Plus our whole team's not injured at the end of the year. Last year's over. My whole thing is like we've got a big game on Saturday. Whether we win or lose on Saturday my whole focus is not worry about all that stuff. We've got a healthy team of guys so we're ready to play and we've got no excuses."
And while that's true, the Ramblers will have some issues to address. Here's a couple that I saw against a talented Butler team that does have the ability to take a team out of its stuff.
  • Courtney Stanley still doesn't have a reliable backup. - For a guy that played 37 minutes Stanley made some incredible plays to help Loyola stay in the game. He had two turnovers and five assists in 37 minutes. One of those turnovers happened in a big moment, but otherwise he played very well. Still, those minutes are going to pile up if he has to play 35 plus every night. He came into the game averaging 31 minutes per game, but as Whitesell's bench shrinks he'll play more minutes. You can't burn him out now. Gabe Kindred played three minutes against Butler and the team struggled. Apparently he was a difference maker in two road games though. We'll see how this plays out moving forward.
  • The team forgot to go inside for a half. - In the first half Butler was bottling up Loyola's offense and forcing tough shots, but the Ramblers didn't force the ball inside. In the second Loyola went straight to the paint and Andrew Smith and Matt Howard both had to deal with some foul situations. Not only that, but Loyola started getting some easy basket and foul shots. With bigs like Andy Polka, Ben Averkamp and Gibler the Ramblers can't get outside shot happy.
  • The Ramblers have to defend the perimeter. - Butler shot 9-of-18 from three-point range and some of them were backbreakers. The Ramblers will have to get out on shooters more. Howard went 2-2, but more troubling was Zach Hahn's 4-5 performance. Howard's new three-point shot might have been surprising to defenders, but Hahn is a known quantity that Loyola had to account for and didn't.
Still there were also some good things to take away from this game. The scoring was balanced, Averkamp was a force in the paint on defense with four blocks and Hicks had two as well. Butler shot just 32 percent from the field in the second half. 
This wasn't a game Loyola had to have in order to have a successful season. For instance, Ken Pomeroy had Butler winning 68-65, but the Ramblers finishing with a 21-8 record coming into the night. Still, it would've been nice to have instead of feeling like the Ramblers just missed one last punch.

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  • Deja vu indeed... such an exciting game. What was frustrating to me was that it was so winnable: with the amount of missed free throws, three point shots and easy shots forgone for unsuccessful passing combinations we easily could have come out of this game at least 6 or 7 points ahead.
    However, this did get me excited for the Valpo and K-State games. I hear Valpraiso has been doing well in the HL and obviously Kansas is a powerhouse, but I think Loyola has the capacity to step it up as the teams get tougher.
    Thanks for your commentary!

  • Why no mention of the fact that Butler is not nearly as good as last year, with Hayward gone? They've gone from a top 10 team last year to, according to one of the 2 weekly polls, not even "also receiving votes" this year. Maybe that's a major reason for the close game?

  • In reply to RichN:

    Butler is still a really good basketball team. They're ranked 49th in Ken Pomeroy and sure Gordon Hayward is gone, but there is still a ton of talent between Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack, etc.

    Missing Ronald Nored probably had an impact on this game, but Loyola always plays Butler close and I expect it wouldn't have been much different if he had played.

    Unless Butler upsets Duke they're probably going to need to win the Horizon League Tournament to make the NCAA Tournament, but they shouldn't have to. That's an NCAA caliber team still.

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