NORMAL — An assumption around the Missouri Valley Conference this basketball season has been Alize Johnson is almost a lock to win the Larry Bird Trophy as the league's most valuable player.
That might not be the case anymore as the Valley campaign reaches its halfway point Wednesday.
Loyola junior point guard Clayton Custer has thrown himself squarely in the MVP conversation with Johnson, who is Missouri State's double-double machine. Custer has spearheaded the Ramblers' drive to a share of the league lead with Drake, each at 6-2, heading into Wednesday's showdown between the teams in Des Moines.
Custer is doing almost everything that Paris Lee did last season when the Illinois State point guard led the Redbirds to a share of the league crown with Wichita State. Lee was voted the Larry Bird Trophy winner as well as MVC Defensive Player of the Year.
Loyola, which has won five straight games to improve to 16-4 overall, is 14-1 with the 6-foot-1 Custer in the lineup.
Custer, who missed five games with an ankle injury, leads a balanced Loyola attack with a 12.8 scoring average (14th best in the league). He ranks first in the league in assist-turnover ratio (2.4) and fourth in assists (4.1 per game) and steals (1.6).
"He's making everyone better right now," said Loyola's Porter Moser during Monday's MVC coaches teleconference. "He's getting more and more healthy. He had a really nasty injury, but he's getting more and more confident. It's definitely what we expected. He has a high IQ and high passion and just brings it every day."
Custer started his career at Iowa State. He decided to transfer after his freshman year and looked toward Loyola, where his high school teammate from Overland Park, Kan., Ben Richardson, was playing.
"I saw him in high school when we were recruiting Ben, and I just loved him," said Moser. "When he decided to transfer, it was full steam ahead. We saw it in his sit-out year (in 2015-16). Clayton's got the ball in his hand a lot this year, while Milt (Doyle) had it in his hand a lot last year."
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said Custer made a tremendous impact in his first game back from injury on Jan. 7 when the Ramblers beat UNI, 56-50, in Cedar Falls, Iowa, even though he was still hobbling around.
"There's no doubt having an older, experienced guy out there makes a difference," said Jacobson.
Johnson leads the Valley in rebounding at 11.9, which is second nationally, and ranks eighth in scoring (15.2 ppg). His 14 double-doubles include a pair of 20-20 games. But Johnson was held to two points and no baskets in Saturday's 61-58 loss at Drake as the Bears dropped to 5-3 in the league.
Yarbrough questionable: When Milik Yarbrough drove the baseline and went up for a possible dunk against Indiana State's 275-pound Brandon Murphy on Saturday, the Redbird junior forward came out on the wrong end of the collision during the Sycamores' 84-54 rout.
Yarbrough landed awkwardly on his knee, but that wasn't the worst of it. He also injured his toe and had an X-ray or MRI on it Monday morning, said ISU coach Dan Muller.
Results weren't released, but Muller said Yarbrough is questionable for Wednesday's 7 p.m. game at UNI. The Redbirds have lost three of their last four games, dropping to 10-10 overall and 4-4 in the league, tied for fourth place with Bradley and Southern Illinois.
Loyola pair honored: Custer's teammates swept the MVC weekly honors released Monday.
Loyola senior swingman Donte Ingram was named Player of the Week after averaging 18.0 points and 7.0 rebounds and making six 3-pointers in wins over Southern Illinois and Valpo.
Freshman center Cameron Krutwig earned Newcomer of the Week for contributing 14.0 points and 8.0 rebounds while shooting 63.2 percent from the field.
Home cookin': Valley teams are 83-17 at home, which is the third best mark nationally behind the Big Ten and Atlantic Coast conferences. Bradley and Drake are undefeated at home.
Home teams have gone 30-10 during MVC play. Loyola has three of those road victories, winning at UNI, ISU and Valparaiso.
"I don't talk about home and road with our guys," said Moser. "We really never mention we're going on the road and we have to do this and that ... back from my days with coach (Rick) Majerus (at Saint Louis), I don't talk about it and I'll continue not to talk about it."