So I don’t know if anyone has noticed, but the Loyola men’s basketball team is good — really good. The Ramblers have won seven straight games, have a two game lead over the rest of the conference and have won 18 of 22 games for the first time since 1965.
When any mid-major team has a moderately successful start to the season, the question that inevitably becomes raised is if that team could land an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament.
If the Ramblers win the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) tournament in March, it won’t matter. But, if the team can’t finish the job in St. Louis, will they be able to sneak into the big dance?
Let’s assume the Ramblers win out — which won’t necessarily happen. Winning every game left on the schedule would give the team a 26-4 regular season record and the regular season MVC title. The team is starting to move up the college basketball rankings; the Ramblers are No. 55 in the KenPom rankings and No. 52 in RPI, through 22 games.
Last season, Illinois State University finished the season with a 28-7 record (including Arch Madness). The Redbirds were co-regular season MVC champions and finished the season No. 49 in the KenPom rankings, but didn’t receive an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament after losing to Wichita State University in the MVC championship.
So based on face value, comparing Loyola to a conference rival who was in the same boat last season, the Ramblers won’t be making the NCAA tournament unless they win the MVC tournament.
But, there are a few differences in the Ramblers 2017-18 season and the Redbirds 2016-17 season.
The big one is Wichita State University leaving the conference. Unexpectedly, the MVC has actually gotten stronger after its best team left for the American Athletic Conference. Last year, the MVC’s lowest ranked team in the KenPom rankings was Drake University at No. 258. This season the lowest ranked team is Valparaiso University at No. 172.
The MVC has ironically benefitted from losing its best team; Loyola didn’t beat Wichita State once in the time they were both in the conference. Loyola’s best season in half a century might have been ruined by twice having to play a team currently ranked No. 16 in the country in the Associated Press poll.
The field in the MVC was wide open this year, mostly because of Wichita State’s exit, and this has helped Loyola’s case for an at-large bid.
Loyola also has a top 100 road win. University of Florida is currently No. 23 in the country, but when the Ramblers went to Gainesville and upset the Gators, they were ranked No. 5. Obviously, that’s a huge win and every spot Florida moves up in the rankings helps Loyola’s resume.
Loyola has one weakness in its case for an at-large bid. Other than beating Florida, the team’s non-conference schedule is weak. This isn’t really Loyola’s fault, though.
The team scheduled University of North Carolina at Wilmington (UNCW) and Kent State University — two teams who historically have been good programs and made the NCAA tournament last year — and both UNCW and Kent are having down years. When schedules are being formed multiple years ahead of time, it’s difficult to predict a typically good team having a bad season.
Loyola’s win over current Horizon League leader Wright State University keeps looking better and better, but the huge loss to Boise State University and the loss against University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM) are hard to get past.
Boise State is good this year, but you can’t lose by more than 30 points, and UWM is sitting in fifth place in the Horizon League through 11 games.
So Loyola’s chances to be playing this year in late March are still up in the air. There are things to be encouraged by and things that make the road more difficult. But the only thing the team can do from now on is win — the rest is out of its control — and if it wins at Arch Madness, none of this will matter anyway.