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Loyola's Final Four run shows plight of smaller programs

Loyola-Chicago team chaplain Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt speaks to a packed news conference at the Final Four.

Moving stories abound at this Final Four. Michigan's Austin Hatch, Kansas' Udoka Azubuike and Villanova's Jalen Brunson.

A student assistant for the Wolverines, Hatch survived two plane crashes that killed his father, mother, stepmother, brother and sister.

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Azubuike hasn't seen his mother since he came to the United States from his native Nigeria six years ago, but she's traveling to San Antonio to see Saturday's semifinal against Villanova.

Brunson is not only the consensus national Player of the Year but also Big East basketball's Scholar Athlete of the Year.

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But THE story of this Final Four and tournament is Loyola of Chicago, the fourth No. 11 seed to reach the national semifinals — the Ramblers play Michigan on Saturday — and the first with a captivating, 98-year-old chaplain.

Complete with her own bobblehead, Sister Jean Dolores-Schmidt has gone viral during Loyola's march to San Antonio, and her standing-room-only news conference Friday, Good Friday mind you, was unlike any the Final Four has ever seen.

But given the Ramblers' low seed, chances are they wouldn't have even made the NCAA field had they not won the Missouri Valley Conference tournament and accompanying automatic bid. More than ever, such is the plight of programs that don't play in college basketball's most acclaimed leagues.

Many consider the increasingly lopsided allocation of the tournament's 36 at-large bids an indictment of the NCAA selection committee's composition and process. But the issue is far more nuanced.

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"I get the fact that, in most cases, teams in power leagues have better athletes than teams outside," said Missouri Valley commissioner Doug Elgin, a selection committee member from 1999-2002. "That's a given. … But there are teams … that clearly have high-level talent and are capable of competing.

"Everyone will have an argument and complaint. I honestly believe in the integrity of the process, but the frustration right now is in the trends you see. Ten, 15 years ago it seemed like there was a greater recognition of achievement."

This marks the third consecutive season that the selection committee awarded only three at-large bids to teams from outside seven major conferences: the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific 12, Southeastern, Big East and American Athletic.

In 2002, Elgin's final year on the committee, seven teams from outside the power leagues received at-larges. In 2013, the number was 11.

But rants about conspiracies and money-grabbing — tournament bids are lucrative, and Elgin said Loyola's run will net the league $8.5 million from the NCAA over six years — lack context.

For example, among the at-large teams in 2002 were Marquette from Conference USA, Utah from the Mountain West and Tulsa of the Western Athletic. Those schools now reside in the Big East, Pac-12 and American Athletic, respectively.

The 2013 at-large group included the A-10's Butler and Temple, and Missouri Valley's Wichita State. Butler has since joined the Big East, Temple and Wichita State the American Athletic.

On the flip side, the Big East's Butler, Xavier and Creighton earned at-larges in 2017 and '18. They once anchored the Horizon League, A-10 and Missouri Valley, respectively.

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In short, the impact of conference realignment on this topic can't be overstated.

Moreover, the selection committee's composition is hardly a deterrent for less-renowned leagues and programs. As mandated by NCAA membership, the 10-member panel includes six from Football Bowl Subdivision schools or conferences and four from schools or conferences that either don't play football or play in the Championship Subdivision.

But among this year's FBS members is Ohio University athletic director Jim Schaus, whose school competes in the Mid-American Conference. So the committee includes five affiliated with a basketball power conference: Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart, Stanford AD Bernard Muir, Northwestern AD Jim Phillips, Creighton AD Bruce Rasmussen and Duke AD Kevin White.

Even if so inclined, half the committee wouldn't have the leverage to award a preponderance of at-large bids to traditional powers.

All that said, teams such as Conference USA's Middle Tennessee State and the West Coast Conference's Saint Mary's had legitimate questions over their exclusion this year, especially given the inclusion of teams such as Syracuse, Arizona State and Oklahoma.

"The frustrating part for programs in leagues like ours," Elgin said, "that have good teams that are capable of winning games in this tournament, is that they can't get the schedules they need. The argument from the other side is, how hard did you try?"

Elgin cites Loyola as a program that tried. Last season, in the first game of a contracted home-and-home against North Carolina State, the Ramblers lost by two points. But in the wake of a coaching change — Kevin Keatts replaced Mark Gottfried — the Wolfpack canceled this season's return game in Chicago and paid a buyout.

"The thing that bothers me the most is us getting blamed for not having a tough schedule when we're trying our tails off," Loyola coach Porter Moser said Friday.

On Selection Sunday, Loyola was a stout No. 22 on the NCAA's Rating Percentage Index and boasted an impressive road win at Florida. But had the Ramblers lost in the Missouri Valley tournament, they'd have likely been in the 30s, and with a non-conference schedule ranking of 264, in peril of NCAA exclusion.

Instead, Loyola survived its league tournament and defeated Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State to reach San Antonio and join George Mason, VCU and Butler among the ranks of Final Four intruders.

The Ramblers (32-5) won the Missouri Valley regular season by four games. They shoot 50.9 percent from the field and 40.0 from beyond the 3-point arc. Led by Clayton Custer and Donte Ingram, five Ramblers average between 13.2 and 10.3 points per game.

"I think we've seen this with VCU," Michigan coach John Beilein said. "We saw it with George Mason. We saw it with Butler. These teams are good. … (And) we're going to see more of it, and it's what makes college basketball great."

But the chances of more Loyolas, VCUs and George Masons may be dimming. Leagues such as the ACC and Big Ten are bumping their conference schedules from 18 to 20 games, which will reduce opportunities for teams such as the Ramblers to enhance their credentials.

So what to do? Expand the NCAA tournament? Make a .500 conference regular-season record — five teams with losing league records received at-large bids this year — mandatory for consideration?

Both options merit consideration. For now, embrace Loyola and the wide-eyed wonder of its players.

"Every time I see a Final Four symbol around," freshman Christian Negron said, "I get chills."

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Teel can be reached by phone at 757-247-4636 or by email at dteel@dailypress.com. For more from Teel, read his blog at dailypress.com/teeltime and follow him at twitter.com/DavidTeelatDP.

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