Loyola gave coach Drew Valentine a glimpse of its capabilities in one second-half sequence against No. 10 Florida Atlantic.
After a series of defensive rotations following a missed layup by FAU’s Nick Boyd, senior guard Braden Norris corralled the rebound and quickly hurried down the court. After some swift ball movement, graduate student Patrick Mwamba connected on a 3-pointer from the right corner to cut the Owls’ deficit to seven.
But in the end, that’s all it was: a glimpse. The Ramblers couldn’t consistently keep up their high level of play in the 75-62 loss to FAU at the Barstool Invitational at Wintrust Arena.
“In spurts, we showed tonight why I’ve been so optimistic this offseason about this group,” Valentine said. “We knew coming into the game that discipline was going to be what wins the game or loses the game.”
Selflessness and defense were the hallmarks of those magical Final Four and Sweet 16 teams. After a year where the Ramblers ranked 262nd in the country in defensive efficiency and finished last in the Atlantic-10 conference, Valentine has emphasized that his team needs to return to being a stingy unit.
Too many late closeouts. Too many inopportune turnovers. Too many mental mistakes.
With the lead at seven in the second half, the Ramblers failed to convert on two fast-break layup attempts, which would have trimmed the lead to six.
From the opening tip, the Owls pressured the Ramblers, constantly disrupting the Ramblers’ offense. Loyola didn’t make their first field goal until nearly four minutes into the first half. Last year’s leading scorer, Phillip Alston, struggled most of the night: He finished with 12 points on 3-for-11 shooting.
It’s going to take more games for the Ramblers to jell, while FAU is returning 14 of its 15 players from last year’s Final Four team, Loyola played four transfers and a freshman player in its rotation. The lack of familiarity really showed in the runs FAU had after Loyola would cut into the deficit.
“It’s a brand new team,” senior Phillip Alston said. “I feel like FAU is a really connected team. You can tell they’ve been through a lot together.”
Valentine said in the preseason about wanting to play faster. The Ramblers shot 37.5% from the field, 33.3% in the first half and were constantly running their offense deep into the waning seconds of the shot clock. The Owls’ defense disrupted the timing of the Ramblers’ offense.
“I thought our full-court pace when we got stops was actually okay, we just didn’t make shots or take the right shots, Valentine said. “In the halfcourt I didn’t think it was what it needed to be; part of that was my fault.”
FAU turned 18 Ramblers turnovers into 27 points. Guards are crucial at the college level, and the Ramblers need more from their guards as the season continues.
The Ramblers only had seven second-half turnovers — after having 11 in the first half —which came from the staff preaching discipline.
“Our guard play between Jalen, Braden and Greg [Dolan] can’t be like that, or else we’re not going to many games,” Valentine said.
Norris, Quinn and Dolan combined to score 16 points on 5-of-12 shooting from the field. The trio also combined for eight turnovers and four assists.
The Ramblers changed to a more conservative defensive scheme after allowing the Owls to shoot 7-of-14 from the 3-point line in the first half. The Ramblers made a change to drop coverage, and they only allowed 32 second-half points compared to 43 in the first half. The defensive switch allowed the Ramblers to get out in transition, which is Valentine wants to see more of.
The Ramblers fought throughout the game. When it looked as if FAU would run away with the game after a 17-2 lead, the Ramblers kept fighting. Despite some offensive warts, FAU coach Dusty May was complimentary of the Ramblers and high on what they can achieve this season.
“I think they’re going to win a lot games,” May said. “They added some new pieces, and you’re never going to be as cohesive in November as you’re going to be in January, but I think they have a real shot.”