Loyola battles Valparaiso in a Missouri Valley Conference clash that airs on NBC Sports Chicago Tuesday night at 7 p.m.
The Ramblers (10-7, 3-1) are fighting for the top spot in the Valley with the Crusaders (11-6, 4-0) as the top two teams in the conference play an important early league game.
Coming off of an important home win over Illinois State on Saturday, the Ramblers are hoping to make another move by taking a crack at the Valley's only unbeaten team. Veterans Marques Townes, Clayton Custer and Cameron Krutwig are all having strong seasons for Loyola as the Ramblers attempt to position themselves for another potential NCAA tournament bid.
Valparaiso has put together a strong five-game winning streak, including a good road win at Southern Illinois over the weekend. The Crusaders have a balanced group of scorers, led by forward Ryan Fazekas, and center Derrik Smits -- the son of former Indiana Pacers center Rik Smits.
These two teams will also play on Feb. 10 as the Ramblers will make a trip to Valpo for the rematch. For now, this matchup could provide an indication of the team to beat in the Valley.
After a memorable Final Four run that captured the nation's attention, Loyola returns to the court with its 2018-19 regular season debut on NBC Sports Chicago.
The Ramblers open the new campaign with a home game at Gentile Arena against UMKC in a game that tips off at 8 p.m. Tuesday night's opener will also be special as Loyola raises the Final Four banner to commemorate last season.
Loyola is coming off of a 32-6 season that saw them win the Missouri Valley Conference by four games before taking the country by storm with a memorable run in March. The Ramblers lost some key pieces from last season -- including wing Donte Ingram and guard Ben Richardson. But much of the team's core is back for another potential run.
Reigning MVC Conference Player of the Year Clayton Custer is back at point guard for Loyola and the senior is flanked by returning double-figure scorers like senior guard Marques Townes and sophomore center Cameron Krutwig. Loyola is also expecting some role players from last season to make a leap, as expectations are high for sophomore Lucas Williamson entering the season.
The Ramblers hope to extend a 15-game nonconference home winning streak by knocking off UMKC for a second consecutive season. The Kangaroos hosted Loyola last season, as the Ramblers rallied after trailing by halftime to win, 66-56. Coming off of a 10-22 season, the Kangaroos are led by junior guard Xavier Bishop -- a former standout at Springfield Lanphier standout.
Before Loyola takes the floor against UMKC, NBC Sports Chicago will also air Illinois State's season-opening game as the Redbirds will host Florida Gulf Coast at 6 p.m. Both in-state programs will have more games on NBC Sports Chicago throughout the 2018-19 season, as both Missouri Valley Conference programs as expected to compete for the league title.
NBCSportsChicago.com preps reporter "Edgy" Tim O’Halloran spotlights 100 high school football teams in 100 days. The first 75 team profiles will focus on teams making strides across Chicagoland and elsewhere in the state. Starting July 30, we’ll unveil the @NBCSPrepsTop 25 Power Rankings, leading up to kickoff on Friday, Aug. 24.
School: Loyola Academy
Head coach: John Holocek
How they fared in 2017: 12-2 (4-0 Chicago Catholic Blue Conference). Loyola made the 8A state playoff field and defeated New Trier, Hinsdale Central, Marist and Edwardsville. They advanced to the state championship game and lost to Lincoln-Way East.
2018 Regular Season Schedule:
Aug. 24 @ Rockford, Mich
Aug. 31 @ New Trier
Sept. 8 vs Mount Carmel
Sept. 14 @ Brother Rice
Sept. 21 @ St. Ignatius
Sept. 29 vs Montini
Oct. 5 @ De La Salle
Oct. 12 @ St. Rita
Oct. 20 vs Providence Catholic
[MORE - Power Rankings #18 - New Trier]
Biggest storyline: Loyola has been to state five times since 2011. Can the Ramblers reload once again and challenge for an 8A state title in 2018?
Names to watch this season: LB Armoni Dixon, S Jake Gonzalez and WR Noah Jones
Biggest holes to fill: The Ramblers will need to replace 15 graduated starters from a season ago, including eight starters on the offensive side of the football.
EDGY's Early Take: You'll be hard-pressed to find a football program in the Land of Lincoln that has remained as consistent a winner over the past decade-plus than Loyola. The Ramblers will rely on their defense early on this season behind some key headliners, namely: LB Armoni Dixon and senior DB Jake Gonzales (Penn). The offense has playmakers in senior wide receivers Noah Jones and Rory Boos. Keep an eye on junior RB Trevor Cabanban as well. The biggest question for the Ramblers? Did they do enough to reload up front on the offensive and defensive lines over the summer. If so, expect another state championship run to Champaign.