SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Loyola-Chicago’s miraculous run to the Final Four will be remembered for clutch shots, the “Wall of Culture,” a couple of guards who have been playing together since grade-school and, of course, Sister Jean.
Regardless of whether the Ramblers beat Michigan (32-7) in the Final Four on Saturday night at the Alamodome to become the lowest seeded team to reach the national championship game, they have been the stars of this NCAA Tournament. Coach Porter Moser hopes his team’s legacy is more than just memorable moments. Maybe the Ramblers’ success can help turn around a troubling trend for programs from mid-major conferences that are finding it increasingly difficult to secure at-large NCAA bids.
The Ramblers (32-5) are the fourth No. 11 seed to reach the Final Four. The last two were George Mason in 2006 and VCU in 2011. Both of those underdogs came from the Colonial Athletic Association, but unlike the Loyola, they didn’t win their conference to earn an NCAA Tournament bid.
“Those story lines wouldn’t have happened in today’s day and age because they wouldn’t have got in,” Moser said.
In 2006, eight at-large bids went to teams from conferences other than the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conference. And that was when the field had still had only 64 teams. In 2011, when the field expanded to 68, seven at-large bids went to teams outside college basketball’s big six conferences. This year, that number was down to five.
Loyola won both the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament and regular-season titles, but had the Ramblers stumbled in the league tournament there is a decent chance they would have been left out of the NCAA field. That’s what happened to Middle Tennessee this season. The Blue Raiders went 24-7 overall and 16-2 in the Conference USA, but were upset in the league’s tournament and relegated to the NIT. Meanwhile, Marshall, which won the C-USA tournament, ended up winning a first-round NCAA game against fourth-seeded Wichita State.
The problem, as Moser points out, is the selection committee’s emphasis on schedule strength gives major conference teams a built-in advantage. Syracuse can go 8-10 in the ACC, but simply by having more opportunities to face what is considered better quality opponents the Orange can accumulate more impressive victories than a team such as Middle Tennessee can.
“The thing that bothers me the most is us getting blamed for not having a tough schedule when we’re trying our tails off,” Moser said.
Moser said getting games against teams in the power conferences — even in preseason tournaments — is becoming more difficult. Loyola played at Florida this season and beat the Gators in a buy game, when a power conference team cuts a check to the opponent instead of playing a future game at their place. The Ramblers success this season will make even those games harder for Loyola to get.
“To get bought now is tricky,” Moser said.
Third-seeded Michigan has been playing the underdog card for much of this season. The Wolverines were unranked nationally to start the season, predicted to finish in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten and stood at 19-7 on Feb. 6 after losing at Northwestern. The Wolverines have not lost since, winning 13 straight, including the Big Ten Tournament as the fifth seed.
Against Loyola, Michigan will play the heavy favorite trying to spoil an all-time feel-good story. But the Wolverines also want to make clear they see the Ramblers, who have won 14 straight, as equals.
“They’re not a Cinderella team,” Michigan’s Charles Matthews said. “That is not a good way to explain it. They are a good team. They are a legit team. You can’t keep saying this is luck. This is who they are.”
The Ramblers introduced themselves to the country by winning their first three tournament games by a total of 4 points, each time with a winning-shot in the waning seconds . The middle of the three came from Clayton Custer, the Iowa State transfer who was convinced to come to Loyola by childhood friend and fellow Ramblers guard Ben Richardson.
Basketball fans have gotten to know Moser’s Wall of Culture, a collection of catchy phrases such as “Through You to the Rim” and “Reach for the Lights” he uses as teaching tools.
And of course, Sister Dolores Jean Schmidt, the 98-year nun and Loyola super fan, stationed courtside in her wheelchair near the Ramblers bench. Sister Jean held a news conference Friday at the Alamodome, packing a meeting room with reporters and cameras.
Moser hopes Loyola’s performance will open the door for more mid-majors to get an opportunity to be the next Loyola, but, really, there will never been another bunch quite like this.
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