Loyola coach Porter Moser watched Clayton Custer’s left ankle balloon. Custer thought maybe it was worse than it felt after watching a gruesome replay of the play on which he sustained the injury.
It happened shortly before halftime in the Ramblers’ most impressive victory of the season, a 65-59 road upset of then-No. 5 Florida. They went 2-3 in the five games Custer sat out.
When he returned, the redshirt junior point guard’s impact was evident. The Missouri Valley Conference champions are 23-2 with Custer in the lineup, including 14-1 since the injury that sidelined him from Dec. 9 through Jan. 3.
“He’s the guy who gets us going with the assist,” freshman center Cameron Krutwig said of Custer, who was named MVC player of the year Tuesday. “We always talk about starting the domino. Coach will say that a lot: ‘Who starts the offense? Who gets it going? Who drives by their man so that someone else has to help and kick it for a 3?’ He does it the best on the team.”
Custer is eager to help Loyola knock down more dominoes.
The Ramblers (25-5, 15-3) enter the MVC tournament this weekend in St. Louis as the No. 1 seed after winning the program’s first outright conference championship since 1984-85. They likely need to win the tournament to advance to the NCAA tournament.
“I think we’re an NCAA tournament team,” said Custer, who’s averaging 14.2 points, 4.2 assists and 1.7 steals while shooting 54.4 percent (46.2 percent on 3-pointers). “I wish everyone thought we could get an at-large [bid].
“But from the beginning, we thought we had to win the conference tournament [to get in]. And one of our goals is to win the conference tournament. As long as we do what we’re supposed to do, we’ll be in the NCAA tournament.”
Still, he allowed himself to dream about capping a strong season with an invitation to his first March Madness.
“It would be a dream come true,” said Custer, who transferred to Loyola in 2015 after one season at Iowa State. “I can’t wait to try to get there. I’ll be so happy, I’ll probably cry.”
More accolades rolled in Tuesday for the Ramblers, who open conference tournament play Friday against Evansville or Northern Iowa. Five players received MVC honors, the most since Loyola joined the conference in 2013-14.
Senior guard Ben Richardson, Custer’s longtime friend and teammate from Overland Park, Kansas, was named defensive player of the year and made the All-Defensive team. Krutwig, a Jacobs graduate, was named freshman of the year, and was joined on the All-Freshman team by reserve guard Lucas Williamson from Young.
Custer was named first-team All-MVC, senior swingman Donte Ingram of Simeon, made the second team, and Krutwig was on the third team. And Moser was named Coach of the Year.
Moser pointed out that Custer was not named to the preseason All-MVC first team.
“I’m fired up for him,” Moser said. “He meant a lot to us. You like to see it get rewarded. ... He has been as steady as they come, on and off the floor. When we played those five games without him and then we got him back, we were really starting to click.”