The Loyola-Chicago Ramblers host the Ball State Cardinals tonight in a matchup of two solid mid-major programs. The Ramblers are 5-3 on the season with tough losses to Furman, Boston College, and Nevada. The Cardinals are also 5-3, with all three of their losses coming to major conference teams. The Ramblers are -6-point home favorites. The game total over-under is set at 143.5 points. Tipoff is scheduled for 6:00 PM PST from the Gentile Center in Chicago.
Who could forget Sister Jean and the Loyola- Chicago Ramblers improbable run to the Final Four last season? The Ramblers came seemingly out of nowhere to shock the nation last March. This year, the Ramblers will try and do something even harder than making the Final Four, and that is, doing it again. Loyola-Chicago returns much of what brought them to the promised land last season and they are led by two seniors in Marques Townes and Clayton Custer.
When you look at the Ramblers schedule, it is hard to say just how good they have been. The loss to Furman looked awful at the time, but now that the Paladins are 9-0, with a win over Villanova, and ranked in the top twenty-five, that loss isn’t looking all that bad. The Ramblers also lost to Nevada, another undefeated team that has been ranked in the top ten all season long. Their other loss was to an overachieving Boston College team.
The combined record of the three teams that have beaten Loyola this season? 23-2. Senior guard Clayton Custer returns as the Missouri Valley player of the year from last season and is once again leading his team. Custer has scored double-digit points in all but one of their games this season and is averaging fourteen points to go with three rebounds and three assists. Custer is joined in the backcourt by fellow senior Marques Townes.
Townes has really stepped his game up this season and is leading the team in points per game, fifteen, and rebounds, five and a half, while tied with Custer for the team lead in assists. The Ramblers will need another big performance out of Townes tonight if they want to knock off a better than most people probably think, Ball State team.
Coming into the year, it looked like the MAC would be a two-team race between Buffalo and Ball State. Buffalo has more than held up their end of the bargain as the Bulls are undefeated and ranked seventeenth in the nation. Ball State? Yeah, not so much. The Cardinals have struggled to start the season.
They lost an early season test to Purdue, then went into the Charleston Classic and lost both games. Losing to Purdue and Virginia Tech are both understandable, and even the loss to Alabama isn’t an awful one. But we have yet to see if this Cardinals team is going to be able to beat real teams this year. None of their five wins so far on the year are going to be in the top 200 by the end of the year, and they badly need a resume-building win tonight in Chicago.
Ball State is led by Tayler Persons who is averaging a 17-4-5 slash right now. Newcomer K.J. Walton, a transfer from Missouri, is also making a big impact as he is going for 14-5 himself. There aren’t going to be many opportunities for Ball State to pick up big wins as the non-conference play is wrapping up, and the MAC is a two-bid league at the absolute most this season.
This is a game that both teams need to win. Neither team has a win to hang their hat on yet, and while this one won’t be a top twenty-five type of win, these could be teams that are both on the bubble this year, and this win could make the difference between which team gets in and which one goes home.
I think, in the end, the Ramblers find a way to win and cover. I don’t think Ball State is as good as advertised, and the Ramblers, while not looking like a Final Four team just yet, are loaded with upperclassmen waiting to break out. If you look at last year, the Ramblers didn’t hit their stride until January, so I am not ready to give up on them as a tournament team this season.
I think they win tonight, and that starts a run of several consecutive victories that has them knocking on the door of the top twenty-five. This team has the talent and experience to do it. Give me the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers laying -6-points tonight at home against Ball State!