Whether or not they win the Missouri Valley Conference tournament this weekend in St. Louis, No. 20 Loyola Chicago seems like a cinch to earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament.
However, the top-seeded Ramblers would like the highest possible seed for what they think may be a run to their second FinalFour in four years. That quest starts Friday with their third straight game against ninth-seeded Southern Illinois.
After dropping the Salukis 60-52 and 65-58 in overtime last weekend to end the regular season and earn the Valley's regular-season title, thanks to Drake's upset loss Saturday night at Bradley, Loyola (21-4) found out Thursday night it would have to play Southern Illinois again.
And it's likely that the Ramblers will get SIU (12-13) without its top two scorers. Not only has Marcus Domask (foot) and his 16.3 points per game been out for two months, but the Salukis probably will play Friday without guard Lance Jones, who injured his ankle Thursday early in the team's 73-63 win over Bradley that started the conference tournament.
The absence of Jones, a sophomore who averages 13.4 points and converts 42.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, would cost SIU an explosive scorer who lit up Loyola for a career-high 30 points on Saturday.
"It's the next man up, and we all believe in each other," Salukis guard Ben Harvey said to the Southern Illinoisan after scoring a season-high 24 points off the bench. "We all stepped up and hit big shots and played good defense and pulled it off."
The same formula may be more difficult to pull off on about 16 hours of rest against the team that allows just 55.7 points per game, the lowest figure in Division I. The Ramblers aren't complicated on defense, but they are physical, smart and don't allow many clean looks or second chances.
Opponents have converted only 40.7 percent from the field and 32.6 percent from 3-point range, and they don't get many chances at the foul line. In fact, Loyola has made more foul shots (302) than the opposition has attempted (290).
With Cameron Krutwig (15 points per game, 6.5 rebounds, 3.0 assists) leading a solid corps of role players who don't make many mistakes, the Ramblers are connecting on 50.4 percent of their shots, even though they've slumped a bit offensively down the stretch.
"Think about all those young guys have had to overcome this year," Ramblers coach Porter Moser said. "The shutdowns, the back-to-backs, no socialization, no fans to get you going. ... This group has been resilient."
While there are no other double-figure scorers besides Krutwig, there are six others averaging between 7.0 and 7.9 points. Sixth man Marquise Kennedy was instrumental in last weekend's sweep of the Salukis, scoring 16 points in the first game and 10 more in the second.
The winner of the Friday game moves into the conference semifinals on Saturday, when it will meet the survivor of the contest that matches No. 5 Evansville and No. 4 Indiana State.
--Field Level Media