CHICAGO — When Matt Chastain was a freshman at Loyola in the 2016-17 season, sellout crowds at Gentile Arena weren't the norm. Far from it.
Chastain played only three games for the Ramblers before suffering a torn ACL in his knee that ended his year. He decided to transfer closer to his home in LeRoy after the season and enrolled at Illinois State.
While Chastain sat out last season at ISU as a transfer, Loyola took off. The Ramblers won their first conference title in 33 years and were the talk of the nation in putting together an amazing run to The Final Four.
Meanwhile, Chastain has worked his way into the Redbirds' starting lineup and provided an energy that was missing when the Missouri Valley Conference season began. He'll now step onto Gentile Arena against his former teammates for the first time at 1 p.m. Saturday in front of a sellout crowd.
"I don't know what kind of reception I expect or anything, but I'm happy to go up there and see a lot of old friends I haven't seen since I've been up there," said Chastain after Friday's practice in Normal.
ISU and Loyola both carry 9-7 overall and 2-1 records in the MVC into the nationally televised ESPN2 contest.
The Ramblers lost three of their top six players from last season, but were picked as the favorite in the MVC preseason poll followed by the Redbirds. Like ISU, Loyola struggled through the nonconference but seemed to get on the right track by winning its first two MVC games by a combined 46 points.
But on Tuesday, the Ramblers went to Evansville and were overwhelmed. The Purple Aces took a stunning 67-48 victory. Loyola's three losses in MVC games last year were by a combined 11 points.
While ISU — which slipped past UNI, 70-69, on Tuesday — has the motivation from losing three times to Loyola last season, including in the MVC Tournament championship game, the Ramblers would like to remove the sting of their first league loss.
"We haven't talked about revenge," said ISU junior Zach Copeland. "We just know we have a chance to beat these guys. We're trying to get a little winning streak going and trying to win games no matter who we play."
Loyola returns senior point guard Clayton Custer (13.9 points, 2.9 assists per game), who won the Larry Bird Trophy as the MVC's most valuable player last season. Also back from last year's squad are senior guard Marques Townes (13.9 ppg, 5.2 rebounds, 3.8 apg) and 6-9, 255-pound sophomore center Cameron Krutwig (13.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg).
Sophomore Lucas Williamson (8.0 ppg, 6.5 rpg), who was a top reserve last season, returned Tuesday after missing eight games with a broken hand. But the Ramblers graduated Donte Ingram, Ben Peterson and Aundre Jackson.
"They run the same stuff, they execute very well and they are efficient," said ISU coach Dan Muller. "They play the right way. Krutwig is better, Townes and Custer have been awesome and those younger guys are getting better."
Custer remains the key. Chastain knows better than most what makes Custer click.
"He's a great leader. He knows how to play the game," said Chastain. "He knows when to make the right pass and when to take the right shot. He just gets every teammate involved. He really makes you believe you can win any game."
ISU's improved defensive effort after returning from Christmas break should be tested, especially at Gentile Arena where the Ramblers are shooting 61.4 percent from the field and 46.4 percent on 3-pointers while averaging 78.0 points in their last three home games.
Muller said Chastain's insertion into the starting lineup has helped the Redbirds, who are allowing 173 points in three MVC games, the fourth lowest-such total in ISU's 38 years in the league.
But Muller pointed out a bunch of Redbirds who have improved defensively, including Copeland.
"It takes some getting used to," said Copeland, a junior college transfer, of Division I basketball. "It's a different level, and you've got to get used to playing against better players. You've got to stay locked in more and focus. With a lot of practice I found out, OK, it's time to knuckle down and get after it as much as I can."
Bruninga out again: Muller said ISU sophomore forward Taylor Bruninga suffered a setback during Thursday's practice with his left foot and won't dress for the game.
Bruninga hasn't played this season because of a stress fracture and could be in line for a redshirt season.
"He wants to play badly. but that particular area of his injury is really a delicate one," said Muller. "That navicular bone, if it breaks. it's bad news. Unfortunately, we're inching closer to that (redshirt) decision possibly, but it hasn't been made yet."