Team preview: Loyola-Chicago

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(Information in this team report is as of October 1.)

The Horizon League has had an elite club level for a while now. Butler and Wisconsin-Milwaukee have been charter members. Illinois-Chicago and Detroit have crashed the party from time to time. That should change in 2006-07. A balanced, wide-open race looms, and that's good news and good timing for Loyola.

The little Jesuit school on the north side of Chicago has been on the outside looking in. The Ramblers may be the only league member -- and the only school in Illinois -- to hoist an NCAA championship trophy (way back in 1963) but that's ancient history. Guys like Blake Schilb were in diapers the last time Loyola even got invited to the Big Dance in 1985.

This could be Loyola's year. The Ramblers return their top four scorers, nearly all their key contributors and have a conference player-of-the-year frontrunner in Schilb.

Coming off a 19-win season that saw them go 8-8 in league play, the Ramblers won't sneak up on anyone this time around. In fact, most publications are picking Loyola to win the league in coach Jim Whitesell's third season.

"It's good to have expectations," Whitesell said, "but expectations don't mean anything. The expectations are good because they increase awareness of our program, but our guys know they better work hard because people will be ready to play you each night."

Whitesell notes that successful programs like Butler and Milwaukee had the tenacity to maintain intensity and play tough down the stretch, when conference titles are decided.
That's what he wants to see from his own guys, who are just becoming accustomed to success.

"This is the most experience we've had since I've been here," Whitesell said. "The Horizon League will be very balanced this year as there are a lot of underclassmen returning. We have a good nucleus of players back and are very excited about our three new recruits. They all have a great chance of playing as freshmen."

Loyola prepped for its high-hopes season with an undefeated August tour in Costa Rica and Nicaragua. The trip provided a chance to enhance chemistry and get some valuable minutes for several players who might be called on to play a bigger role this winter.