The Horizon League schedule is designed such that you really get a chance in the middle to reboot your conference season. Some teams take advantage of it and have a much better second half. Others falter as teams see them for a second time.
The hope is that a veteran team like Loyola
will be able to do just as well, if not better, the second time through the league and get some much needed victories. Well, the Ramblers started off in the right way on Thursday night with an 84-71 victory over Youngstown State.
"Very happy with the win," Jim Whitesell said. "We're playing better and we've got a big one on Saturday."
It was Loyola's (13-8, 4-6) third win in a row. This was the first time I'd seen the Ramblers in person in a while and it was easy to see how the team has improved. I want to touch on a few things that I thought were particularly good signs and then two that still bothered me.
The biggest improvement in Loyola's game is how the Ramblers attacked the paint early. There was a concerted effort to get Ben Averkamp the ball in the paint against a smaller Youngstown State lineup. Averkamp thrived off of it, scoring the Ramblers' first eight points. He also wound up with his first career double-double with 19 points and 12 boards. It was an efficient performance from the sophomore forward.
"Some of it was just my teammates hitting me with the ball right away," Averkamp said. "Even just getting fouled, getting to the line, getting two points and getting a little bit of confidence. A lot of it was my teammates finding me in good spots. That's half the battle right there, just getting good looks."
Another thing that Loyola is doing well right now is moving the ball. The Ramblers had 17 assists on 29 baskets, which isn't superb, but it's not bad either. All but one player that appeared in the game had at least one assist. Andy Polka, who also scored 12 points, led the way with four and Terrance Hill had three.
The shooter that benefitted from those passes the most, besides Averkamp, was Geoff McCammon. For some reason the Penguins left Loyola's best shooter open beyond the three-point arc on a number of occasions, and he made them pay by shooting 5-10 from long range. Once they started crowding him McCammon drove and shot 6-6 from the free throw line. Overall he finished with 27 points on 14 shots, an excellent ratio.
McCammon's efficiency in the catch-and-shoot game leads me back to one of the things I don't like about Loyola's offense, which is how it stagnates when Hill gets the ball. I really like Hill the defender and Hill the passer, he does both at a very high level, but he forces up too many bad shots off of one-on-one action. Bad shots are almost as bad as turnovers because they can lead to run outs and transition. Hill scored 19 points on Thursday, but he also took 17 shots to get there. That said, 6-6 from the free throw line and six boards from a guard make for a strong game. You have to take the good with the bad with Hill and this game was certainly a positive overall.
Then there were the turnovers. A better team would've capitalized on a stretch midway through the second half when Loyola played very carelessly with the basketball. The final tally of 11 in 73 possessions (15% TO%) is okay, it just felt like a lot of them were bunched together into a time when Loyola could've put the game away.
Now is the time for Loyola to start getting ready for the run I thought they could make before the season started, hopefully we'll see more of it going forward.
"Going into the Horizon League stretch you want to be the best team you can be by March so that you can make a run," McCammon said.
Overall this was a good game for the Ramblers and it was easy to see how they could be a dangerous team for the rest of the conference season. The real tests start Saturday when Cleveland State comes to town.