By Patrick Engel
Clayton Custer sat in Loyola’s training room before Tuesday afternoon’s practice, confused by teammate Nick DiNardi’s unprompted congratulations.
“I said, ‘Congrats on what?’” Custer recalled.
DiNardi explained. Custer had just been named the Larry Bird Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. He’s the first Loyola player to win it in the Ramblers’ five seasons in the MVC, and first Rambler to win player of the year in any conference since 1987.
“It’s a huge honor,” Custer said Tuesday. “I’m very humbled by the fact I won this award just because of all the great players that have won it in the past.”
Custer, a redshirt junior from Overland Park, Kan., is averaging 14.2 points per game for Loyola, which won the MVC regular season title by four games. The Ramblers (25-5, 15-3) play their first game in this weekend’s conference tournament on Friday against either Northern Iowa or Evansville.
Custer also averages 4.2 assists, 2.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 54.4 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point range. He is in the MVC’s top 10 in scoring and field goal percentage, and in the top five in steals, assists and 3-point percentage. In addition to Player of the Year, Custer was a first-team all-conference selection.
Perhaps the most important stat is Loyola’s 23-2 record when Custer plays. He missed five games from early December to early January with an ankle injury. Loyola went 2-3 without him. Since he returned, Loyola has lost once.
“Our team grew a lot,” Custer said of his absence. “It got a lot of the younger guys minutes, and important minutes. They got to play in crunch time in games, and I think that was huge for their confidence. Now, when they come into games off the bench, they give us such good minutes.”
Two of those younger players earned MVC awards. Forward Cameron Krutwig was named MVC Freshman of the Year, in addition to earning All-MVC Third Team, All-Freshman Team and All-Newcomer Team honors. Freshman wing Lucas Williamson was also an All-Freshman Team selection.
Krutwig has started 26 of 30 games, averaging 10.8 points and 6.5 rebounds. The latter ranks sixth in the conference. Williamson started in Custer’s absence and is averaging 4.7 points per game while shooting 45.8 percent on 3-pointers. He’s also one of the team’s best defenders.
“That’s kind of what I envisioned when I decided to come here, come right in and make an impact right away,” Krutwig said Tuesday. “These guys have been great about getting me the ball in position to score. Obviously, when you play with really good players, you’re going to fall into some easy layups.”
Two of Loyola’s other veteran players were given awards Tuesday. Senior guard Ben Richardson, Custer’s high school teammate, was named MVC Defensive Player of the Year. Senior forward Donte Ingram was a second-team all-conference pick.
Ingram, a third-team all-conference selection a season ago, is averaging 11.5 points and 6.3 rebounds while starting all 30 games. Richardson is averaging 6.5 points per game and shooting 38.2 percent on 3-pointers. In his last nine games, though, he’s shooting 48.4 percent from deep. He missed 10 games from mid-November to late December with a broken hand.
“Coming back from injury, I was just trying to find my rhythm and do those little things we needed to do to win,” Richardson said. “I wasn’t really concerned about scoring. That kind of just came on in the last eight or nine games.”