By Patrick Engel
Aundre Jackson will finally play in his hometown on Thursday in Dallas in the NCAA tournament. If Loyola head coach Porter Moser had his way, though, Jackson’s homecoming would have been much sooner.
“We tried hard to get a game there, but we just couldn’t,” Moser said Sunday.
Loyola’s only the latest team to face this bind. It’s the life of mid-majors once they prove they can play with high-major teams.
Successful mid-majors are a lose-lose opponent for those power-conference teams – too much risk of a road loss, and not enough reward for a home win. The former can damage a résumé, and the latter isn’t enough of a résumé builder. This was N.C. State’s feeling when it bought out a scheduled road game at Loyola this season.
Most “Major 7” teams don’t want those mid-major challenges unless they’re sure it’ll help them. Which won’t be often. Florida was the only Major 7 conference team to subject itself to Loyola this season. The meeting ended in a Gators home loss. It’s hard to blame high-majors for avoiding any risk of such a result.
That’s why Loyola – despite its 27-5 record (7-1 against the RPI top 100) and regular-season title, conference-tournament title and win at Florida – played a non-conference slate ranked No. 264 in strength of schedule.
The Ramblers’ low non-conference strength of schedule, plus their membership in a league that provides few chances for top-50 and top-100 wins, is why they would have been in the NIT had they not won the MVC’s auto-bid. Three sub-100 losses hurt, too. Even with the auto-bid, they were seeded below all 36 at-large teams in this year’s NCAA tournament field. This is the way the Missouri Valley, even as the No. 8 RPI conference this year, is trending in the post-Wichita State era.
“It’s tough, but we obviously had it in the back our minds that we didn’t want to leave it up to the committee,” senior forward Donte Ingram said. “So we were going to take care of our business.”
Loyola’s run to the MVC tournament title did just that. Now, the Ramblers want to take advantage of a Major 7 chance they rarely get. They’d do so by beating No. 6 seed Miami in Jackson’s long-awaited game in his hometown.
“I think he wanted to get TCU,” said Jackson, a senior forward from Kennedale, Texas, said of Moser’s scheduling efforts. “But they didn’t want to play us. So now we get to go to Dallas to beat Miami.”
It turns out N.C. State and TCU would have played a top-25 RPI team. Even though they couldn’t predict the future, a loss to a top-25 team is no death sentence, and a win is a hell of a statement. Entering the NCAA tournament, Loyola is No. 22 in RPI, an unusually high number for a team in a one-bid league that didn’t even send its second-place finisher to the NIT.
Loyola’s conference rival Illinois State can sympathize with scheduling trouble. The Redbirds lost the MVC title game to Wichita State last year and went to the NIT, despite a 27-6 Selection Sunday record and RPI of 33. The big reasons: few top-50 and top-100 wins, a couple of bad losses and the No. 157 non-conference strength of schedule. Their only notable non-conference game was at TCU, which they lost.
“They had a great season and I felt like they should have been in the tournament last year, but it’s tough,” Ingram said. “They’re trying to schedule teams, but they don’t accept it.”
Illinois State’s exclusion provoked head coach Dan Muller into a Twitter rant bemoaning the difficulty of scheduling bigger schools. It famously worked, with Muller and Ole Miss agreeing to a home-and-home over tweets.
Illinois State played the 13th non-conference strength of schedule this year. In addition to Ole Miss, the Redbirds played South Carolina, Tulsa and Boise State on neutral courts. They played Nevada on the road. Muller got perennially strong mid-majors Murray State and Florida Gulf Coast to agree to home-and-homes.
The problem, though, is that Illinois State went 6-6 in its non-conference games this year, negating the purpose. That’s where next year’s Loyola team can differentiate itself, if it plays a similarly strong schedule.
But first, there’s an NCAA tournament to play this year.