With seven minutes left in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament quarterfinals, Loyola Chicago was fighting for its NCAA tourney life against Northern Iowa.
The score was tied. Conference Player of the Year Clayton Custer was scoreless, struggling with an injured ankle. Another futile Loyola possession in a game full of them was reaching its end, with the shot clock closing in on zero. The pressure was mounting on a 25-5 team that ran away with the MVC regular-season title.
Out of options, guard Ben Richardson rose up and drained a long 3-pointer as the shot-clock horn went off. Loyola never trailed again on its way to winning that tension-drenched contest, 54-50.
The Ramblers then won the next game. And the next. And, since then, four more in the NCAA tournament. Now they’ve reached the Final Four, and will proceed to San Antonio with aspirations for a fairy-tale national title. They’ve become the best story of March Madness.
But it’s not hard to think back to that Friday afternoon, March 2, and wonder what would have happened if Richardson had missed and Loyola had faltered and Northern Iowa had pulled the upset. This feel-good story would have died before it was born.
In the weeks leading up to Selection Sunday, none of the media bracketologists gave the Ramblers any shot as an at-large tournament team. To the consternation of the Ramblers themselves.
“In our heads we were like, ‘Come on, man, we’re a good team,’ ” Custer said Saturday night, standing on the court with a piece of South Region net threaded through his hat.
They were a good team that would have been in the NIT with a single loss in the MVC tourney. Now the question is whether Loyola’s breakout run can alter the dynamics of a system rigged against mid-major teams and in favor of those from the power conferences.
As colleague Pete Thamel noted earlier this month, the number of at-large bids for teams outside the top seven conferences – ACC, American, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC – has fallen to just three in each of the past three NCAA tournaments. In the previous six years, the average number of at-large bids from those leagues was more than eight. As recently as 2013, conferences outside the top seven received 11 at-large bids.
The NCAA selection committee gave George Mason an at-large bid and a No. 11 seed in 2006, and the Patriots went to the Final Four. Same with VCU (also an 11 seed) in 2011, and Wichita State (a nine seed) in 2013. Today, those teams might not get an invite.
“If you look at recent trends for at-large teams outside the power conferences, it’s a pretty discouraging landscape,” said Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin. “For the good of the tournament, you’ve got to include teams like Loyola that are worthy.
“No matter what the model, you’re going to always leave out teams that could have and maybe should have been in. But I certainly think [Loyla’s run] is testament to the fact that you’ve got really good teams from conferences [outside the high-major echelon] that are worthy of multiple bids.”
To reverse the current exclusionary trend, it might be necessary for the makeup and protocol of the selection committee itself to be altered.
For 12 years earlier this century, Greg Shaheen was the NCAA’s vice president in charge of the management of tournament. Operating largely behind the scenes, he was Mr. Big Dance – in the room with the committee every March during the selection deliberations. He’s seen a few built-in flaws in the system.
One: the makeup of the 10-member committee skews in favor of the bigger conferences. There are six members from schools in the 10 FBS leagues, and four are from schools in the 21 non-FBS leagues.
“These are honorable people,” Shaheen said, “but it is hard to entirely overlook that 60 percent of the votes come from 10 conferences.”
Another major (and eternal) flaw: non-conference scheduling. Getting some teams to play road games is hard. Getting them to play road games against mid-major or low-major opponents is harder. In the case of Loyola, one high-major opponent backed out of the return game of a home-and-home deal this season.
The Ramblers ended up playing six home games, four on the road and two at neutral sites. They went 10-2, with a signature victory at Florida and losses at Boise State and Milwaukee. Committee members certainly looked askance at the two losses, but consider the blowout loss at Boise: It was the fourth game in eight days, with the two previous being at a tournament in Savannah, Georgia.
How many teams are going to play well in their third straight game away from home, just three days and 2,400 miles removed from the previous two? How many high-major teams would ever bother with such scheduling?
“Why is it much more difficult now to earn an at-large bid than it was 10 years ago?” asked Elgin. “You have to point to scheduling. That’s an issue that has to be addressed.”
Said Shaheen: “The hardest change to implement is getting the big guys out on the road to play anyone. With media contracts and modern venues, the incentive to avoid being sedentary is not sufficient enough.”
Along those lines, he has some radical ideas: home games against a team in the 300s in the RPI would nullify that program’s top-ranked home game; an RPI bonus for flipping a contracted home game to make it on the road against a low-major opponent; requiring every FBS team to play at least one non-conference game on the road against the defending champion of a non-FBS opponent.
“The issue isn’t what Loyola accomplished,” Shaheen said. “It’s that the committee hasn’t more clearly taken steps to insist that the reach of the game be a 351-team-deep obligation.”
The power schools aren’t feeling much obliged to help anyone other than themselves. Which can leave really good teams – like Loyola – playing for their NCAA tourney lives in their own conference tourneys.
Think about this epic March Madness story that would never have been told if the Ramblers had lost on that tense Friday afternoon in St. Louis. Sister Jean would be an unknown. Nobody would be hearing about the pioneering 1963 Loyola team. And a deserving squad never would have had its chance to beat the big boys and compete for the national title.
The game would have been poorer because of it. Which is why the NCAA tournament selection process must be fixed.
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