If the first week of the college basketball season is any indication, then the opening round of the Myrtle Beach Invitational likely will conclude on an exciting note. That’s because the two teams in Thursday’s finale – Loyola-Chicago and Tulsa – have played nothing but close games so far.
Loyola (2-0) opened the season with an 88-82 overtime victory over Fairleigh Dickinson that featured a buzzer-beater by the Ramblers at the end of regulation, followed a few days later by another second-half comeback in a 70-63 win over city rival Illinois-Chicago. Meanwhile, Tulsa (1-1) fell in the final seconds to Oregon State 73-70, then held on down the stretch for an 85-79 victory over Jackson State.
Loyola expects to be in quite a few close games this season, now that the Ramblers have moved from the Missouri Valley Conference to the Atlantic 10 Conference. “This league is tough,” Loyola coach Drew Valentine said. “I love the Valley, but … this league is definitely a step up in weight class.”
The Ramblers will be counting heavily on redshirt senior guard Braden Norris, a preseason third-team all-conference pick. Norris averaged 10.4 points and 3.9 assists per game last season and made 43 percent of his 3-point attempts. This season, he has been on the court for 78 of the first 85 minutes.
“He’s as tough a kid as I’ve ever been around, pound for pound,” Valentine said. “When that’s your leader and he has the ball in his hands and is setting everything up, everybody has no choice but to fall in line with that.
“When you have the talent that we have in addition to how they’re all getting along together, they have a chance to be special.”
As for Tulsa, the Golden Hurricane’s top returner is junior guard Sam Griffin, who averaged 14.6 points per game last season and leads the team through two games this season with 19 ppg. Tulsa also expects big things from Chicago State transfer Brandon Betson, a junior guard who averaged 14.2 points and 2.8 assists per game last season.
But the biggest newcomer also is a returner, sort of. First-year head coach Eric Konkol began his coaching career as a student assistant at Tulsa during the 2000-01 season. He takes over the Golden Hurricane this year after spending the previous seven seasons at Louisiana Tech, where he compiled a record of 153-75 and averaged 22 wins per season.
“We have an energetic group of guys,” Konkol said after his first victory with the Golden Hurricane. “They know how special this place is to me. This is the first step in a long journey for us. We are excited for what we are building, not only this year but beyond.”