10 things to know about Loyola basketball

For reasons not entirely clear to me, I’ve been to most of the Loyola basketball home games this season. The crowds understandably grew as the season went on, but that didn’t stop me from getting a good vantage point and watching the team grow from last year’s below-.500 record to this season’s new heights.

But for those of you who had better things to do than spend a dozen nights at Reitz Arena this winter, here’s a primer of what you need to know about the Greyhounds, and what it will take for them to blow up America’s collective bracket Thursday night against Ohio State.

These are not your typical Greyhounds

Past years were marred by lethargic defense and a sputtering offense. This year, especially on the defensive end, it seems like all of the players are buying in. The mental lapses and blown coverages that used to drive coach Jimmy Patsos crazy are fewer and farther between. On top of that, the team’s press — or as Patsos called it after the MAAC Championship game, their militant approach to basketball — is being more effectively utilized. Ohio State surely has the ball-handlers to cope with that, but don’t expect the Greyhounds to sit back and let the Buckeyes take the game to them.

Offensively, Loyola has a Plan B

When the Hounds have the ball, the scoring is spread out, so teams can’t stop the entire offense by stopping one player. Previously, when the first option was shut off, the offense would stagnate. But this year, four players — junior forward Erik Etherly, sophomore guard Dylon Cormier, junior guard Robert Olson and sophomore guard Justin Drummond — all average double figures. Senior forward Shane Walker adds over nine per game as well, meaning that for once, the Greyhounds have a Plan B.

As Erik Etherly goes, so go the Greyhounds

The production of Etherly, who leads the team with 13.5 points per game, is usually a good indication of the team’s fortune. In Loyola’s eight losses, Etherly averaged 10.5 points, with only a 17-point performance in the Feb. 13 loss to Fairfield as the exception. In Loyola’s 24 wins, the 6-foot-7 Etherly averaged 14.5 points and went over the 15-point mark in 10 games. When he’s on -- as he was in a 27-point, 10-rebound win over UMBC, his beast-mode 22-point showing in the home win over Iona, or his back-to-back 21-point games in MAAC tournament wins over Niagara and Siena -- he’s Loyola’s go-to option, and a good one at that.

Dylon Cormier is a different player as a sophomore

The sophomore guard from Cardinal Gibbons looked like he was treading water last year, thanks in large part to a midseason bout with mono. He also saw more minutes than anticipated after senior guard Jamal Barney was buried on the bench midseason. But charged with a leadership role and more offensive responsibility this season, Cormier has thrived. He’s averaging 13.4 points, up from 8.1 as a freshmen, and the Hounds are at ease with him leading the offense. Loyola’s vaunted “stand around the key and look scared” offense has all but disappeared this season.

R.J. Williams is simply fun to watch

This isn’t news to anyone who watched Williams, the 5-foot-8 guard from St. Frances, play in the Baltimore Catholic League over the past few years. He averaged just four points this year, but Williams’ tenacious defense and ball handling make the Hounds a different team than they were in years past. When he brings the ball up-court, Williams allows Cormier to be freed up to run off screens and play for his own shot. His work rate on defense rubs off on his teammates as well.

MAAC Sixth Man of the Year Justin Drummond can make a difference           

I was on press row last year at the Verizon Center when Drummond, a freshman in just his second college game, dropped 21 points on Georgetown. The game was well out of reach by then, but Drummond is always a threat to get hot and start making jumpers. He scored 27 points on 10 of 19 shooting in a December loss to tournament-bound St. Bonaventure, and though his shooting numbers are down across the board this year, Drummond is another weapon in Patsos’ arsenal.

Same goes for Robert Olson

Olson, a junior guard from Silver Spring, can carry the Greyhounds for stretches with his sweet stroke — and I don’t mean his tennis one. He’s shooting 46.7 percent from the field, including a team-leading 44.2 percent from 3-point range, and can score in bunches. Success for teams like Loyola in the tournament hinges on making jump shots, and when Olson’s is falling, it usually means the Hounds are going on a run.

They can survive foul trouble

As evidenced by the first half of the MAAC Championship game against Fairfield, the Greyhounds can survive if Etherly and the 6-foot-10 Walker get into early foul trouble. In 6-foot-9 Julius Brooks, 6-foot-7 Anthony Winbush, and 6-foot-10 Jordan Latham, Loyola has big men who, while challenged offensively, can hold serve and keep the Hounds close when their number is called. Jared Sullinger is a different beast than can be found in the MAAC, but he’ll face able resistance whether Loyola’s starting big men are playing or not.

Bring earplugs — the substitution horn will buzz early and often

Patsos is nothing if not a liberal user of his bench players. When I go to Reitz, I try to sit behind the home bench, which affords me the opportunity to see the coach at work. For Patsos, at work means quickly yanking players out of the game, yelling at an assistant coach about said player’s performance while the player sits next to the assistant coach, then putting the player back in a minute later. During one early-season game, he subbed out all five starters within the first two minutes of the game, only to put them all back in a few plays later. That said …

Jimmy Patsos is more than the borderline-crazy person he’s made out to be

What Coach Patsos did in the past isn’t terribly relevant. While his coaching tactics and sideline (or bleacher) antics have garnered the wrong kind of attention, he has proven this year that there’s an actual basketball coach inside that basketball coach. In covering him for The Greyhound, I’d always walk away knowing I’d spoken to a man who cared about the program and what it could become more than anything. Sure, he used to be a bartender in Georgetown living in Gary Williams' shadow at Maryland. Now, he’s a program-builder who will have his team ready to play Thursday night. He’s coached with and against the greats in tournament situations before, and don’t be surprised if he’s drawing on those experiences and past lessons in preparation for the tournament.

Jon Meoli is a reporter for the Towson Times, a former Baltimore Sun sports intern, and a 2011 Loyola graduate. You can reach Jon at jmeoli@tribune.com or on Twitter @jonmeoli.

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