A year ago Clayton Custer was as much of a solicitor as he was a basketball player.
With struggling attendance at Loyola Chicago’s games, Custer and his teammates spent last preseason in student dormitories handing out fliers to advertise the team’s upcoming schedule.
That won’t be a problem this season.
Fresh off a Cinderella run to the Final Four, the former Blue Valley Northwest star and his teammates enter the season with another core group that could be a tough out in the NCAA Tournament.
Despite the losses of star player Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson, another BV Northwest grad who is now playing overseas, the Ramblers return Custer and fellow senior Marques Townes and are the preseason favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference.
Custer had a breakout season in 2017-18, as he averaged 13.2 points, 4.1 assists and 1.5 steals per game en route to honorable mention All-America and conference player of the year honors. He also won the Lou Henson Award, given to the nation’s top mid-major player.
Despite an impressive season, Custer said he left a lot on the table offensively and defensively. He spent the offseason shooting threes off the dribble and finishing through contact after film showed he was passive — the defense was giving him more opportunity to score than he realized.
Defensively, he thought he was decent, but wants that part of his game to be his calling card.
“I think I was solid on the defensive end last year but I want to take the next step,” Custer said. “I want to be known as a really good defender and as a guy that’s hard to score on.”
Instead of handing out fliers like last season, Custer and Townes are now local celebrities who get asked about their game-winning shots vs. Tennessee and Nevada, and the health of Sister Jean. The 99-year-old nun is the team’s liaison who became the face of the program during March Madness.
While he appreciates the notoriety, Custer said the team is done talking about last season.
“We can’t continue to celebrate last year,” he said. “We don’t want to be thought of as a one-hit wonder who just disappears after one good year.”
Custer said that despite the losses of Ingram and Richardson, the Ramblers should be able to keep their style of play but will likely be better defensively, especially with the maturity of sophomore center Cameron Krutwig.
“We’re going to be able to switch a lot,” he said.
The Ramblers opened practice on Saturday and hope they can turn into a program like Butler, which used two straight appearances in the NCAA championship game to vaunt itself onto the national scene and eventually receive an invite to the Big East Conference.
So can Loyola make another NCAA Tournament run?
It’s certainly built for it with the addition of New Mexico transfer Aher Uguak and the road to the conference title should pass through Chicago, but Townes and Custer are only worried about their next practice.
“We’ll worry about the end of the road when we get there,” Townes said.