To a certain extent, life on a mid-major college basketball team mimics life in baseball’s minor leagues. One of the shared evils is the mind-numbing bus trips.
With the Horizon League tournament kicking off Tuesday, Loyola and UIC had to hop on their charters and spend much of their Monday rolling east on the interstate toward other American League Central cities.
The 10th-seeded Flames left by 9 a.m. Monday to prepare for their 6 p.m. Tuesday date at Cleveland State. The eighth-seeded Ramblers practiced Monday morning before hitting the road at 11:30 a.m. for their 6 p.m. Tuesday date at Detroit.
I caught up with Ramblers coach Jim Whitesell and Flames coach Howard Moore during their trips. Whitesell seemed a little more cheery than Moore, perhaps because Loyola had just started its journey while Moore already had spent several hours poring over Cleveland State tape.
If you’ve seen Cleveland State senior guard Norris Cole --- the Horizon League player of the year and a finalist for the Cousy Award that goes to the nation’s best point guard --- then you know why Moore wasn’t feeling giddy when we connected.
“I’m sitting here and watching the Old Dominion game,” said Moore, speaking of Cleveland State’s recent BracketBuster game where Cole went off for 35 points. “They can’t control Cole. No one can control him. You pick your poison. You try to guard him with a smaller guy…or you go with a larger guy…you can’t stop him. And they know who they are.”
Moore, wrapping up his first year as a Div. I head coach, is learning who he is and who his players are. UIC enjoyed the delirious win over Illinois on Dec. 18 at United Center…only to lose junior guard Zavion Neely to academic ineligibility three weeks later.
While Neely spends his time trying to hit the books and “get his life together” in Moore’s words, Moore tried to survive in the powerful Horizon League while needing walk-on Corey Gray to start at point guard and walk-on Dipangot Singh to be his first guard off the bench.
“You can’t replace ‘Z,’ ” Moore said. “You lose a defensive talent with the potential to score. You saw him guard a Demetri McCamey and then run and score 10 points. Those guys (Gray and Singh) were on my scout team two months ago.”
That having been said, Gray and Singh have been more than place-fillers for the Flames. Moore calls Singh, a senior from Evanston with one more year of eligibility, his “Microwave.” Singh basically saw junk time until Neely’s issues, but he quickly put up four double-figure games when pressed into the rotation. A recent shooting slump (3 of his last 18 3s) has dropped his long-range accuracy from 50 percent to 38 percent.
Since Gray jumped into the starting lineup 10 games ago --- allowing Moore to move ironman Robo Kreps to shooting guard to avoid “wearing him to the nub” --- he has contributed 4.8 points and 2.3 assists per game.
In search of any last-minute nuggets of wisdom, Moore inhaled four Cleveland State videos during his trip. At one point Moore and top assistant Al Biancalana, who's responsible for the CSU scouting report, were watching the same CSU-UIC video on different laptops.
"We were both groaning about our team's same errors at the same time," Moore said.
Whitesell, like Moore, has dealt with losing key personnel this year. High-flying swingman Jordan Hicks averaged 11.7 points and 4.7 rebounds in the first 9 games, but then he re-injured his foot and was lost for the year. This is his first week out of the walking boot and Loyola hopes the NCAA will authorize a redshirt and preserve two years of eligibility.
Junior post player Walt Gibler (9.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg), last year’s Horizon League sixth man of the year, missed five games this year. That includes four games down the stretch after suffering a concussion when he banged into a teammate in practice.
Gibler finally returned to the rotation during last week’s bus trip to Valpo and Butler. He played 9 minutes in the rousing 20-point win at Valpo, then provided 7 points and 5 rebounds in 18 minutes in the 7-point loss at Butler.
“We’ve missed him,” Whitesell said.
While Hicks and Gibler are big parts of the Ramblers going forward --- sophomore big man Ben Averkamp and junior point guard Courtney Stanley also return next year -- the bus to Detroit carried four seniors. Terrance Hill has been a shutdown defender who unleashed a 3-point touch this year (45 percent on his 119 attempts). Andy Polka, a fifth-year guy, needs 51 points and 24 rebounds to join LaRue Martin and Les Hunter in Loyola’s exclusive 1,000-point/1,000-rebound club.
Then there’s Geoff McCammon, the late-blooming Conant High School graduate and Roselle resident who earned the Horizon League’s Sixth Man of the Year award Monday. McCammon leads the Horizon League and ranks 22nd nationally in 3-pointers (83). He paces the Ramblers in scoring (14.5 ppg) and minutes (30.9 mpg).
In addition to wishing Hill and Polka could have earned spots on the Horizon League’s all-defensive team, Whitesell wanted McCammon to appear on the all-league second team.
“Geoff has finished the season so strong,” Whitesell said. “I wish our league would go to three (all-Horizon) teams. We always leave behind good players. The Big Ten goes three. The Missouri Valley goes three. The MAC goes three. It’s just so good, our level. We’re a top 10 league in the country.”
That’s where Sagarin ranks the Horizon…just one spot behind the Atlantic 10 this year. Pomeroy says the Horizon ranks 11th, but who’s quibbling at this time of year.
The calendar’s turning to March, mid-major wheels are tearing up roads from coast to coast and more than 300 teams still believe they’re going to snag elusive NCAA Tournament berths.
“We’ve gotta be road warriors,” Whitesell said. “It’s the path we lead.”