Loyola Chicago’s greatest luck in recent weeks might have been winning its conference tournament.
The Ramblers have rambled on to the Final Four, perhaps in large part by virtue of winning the Missouri Valley Conference tournament given the NCAA tournament selection committee’s recent overwhelming preference for major conference teams.
Exhibit A, B and C is Arizona State, which made the 68-team field despite going 8-10 in the dreadful Pac-12 Conference. The Sun Devils went on to lose an opening-round game against Syracuse.
“I think we need to continue to find the best way” to select teams, Loyola coach Porter Moser said Friday, “because it was, according to everybody, we weren’t going to get in” without winning the conference tournament.
The exclusion of at-large teams from mid-major conferences would have eliminated the spine-tingling stories generated by George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth, which delighted the nation on the way to reaching the Final Four in 2006 and 2011, respectively. Neither of those teams won their conference tournaments in those years.
“Those story lines wouldn’t have happened in today’s day and age because they wouldn’t have got in,” Moser said. “I think that’s an amazing thought.”
Part of the problem facing mid-major teams is scheduling. Moser said it’s hard to dodge the perception that mid-major teams play a weak schedule because so many power conference teams are reluctant to play them.
“I can tell you right now, the last three weeks, my coach that’s in charge of scheduling, it’s even harder,” Moser said. “We played a buy game at Florida this year and won, fortunately. And that’s even making it harder for us to get bought. To get bought now is tricky.
“ … But I want to continue to hope that this sparks conversations because these are great stories. To think that the VCU and George Mason [runs] might not have happened with the at-large bids. But like I said and I’ll end it there, the thing that bothers me the most is us getting blamed for not having a tough schedule when we’re trying our tails off.”
This is the second Final Four for Michigan senior forward Duncan Robinson. The other one generated considerably less fanfare.
Robinson led Williams College to the Division III championship game in 2014 before the Ephs fell to the University of Wisconsin Whitewater 75-73. The experience was nothing like what Robinson has felt in San Antonio.
“This is just … it’s hard to put into words the differences, quite frankly.”
A crowd of more than 69,000 is expected for the Wolverines’ game against Loyola Chicago on Saturday.
A lovable villain?
Michigan forward Moritz Wagner might be one of the most thoughtful, engaging players in college basketball, speaking nearly flawless English even though he grew up in Berlin.
But those who know Wagner only from his tongue-wagging, exuberant displays of emotion on television might consider him something of a villain, particularly when matched up against the lovable underdogs from Loyola Chicago.
“What else is new?” Wagner said when asked about those who find him loathsome. “I mean, at a certain point you have to embrace it because there’s a certain responsibility there and if you realize people don’t like you for whatever reason you might as well just embrace it and have fun with it.”
This is Villanova’s first Final Four appearance since coach Rollie Massimino, who guided the Wildcats to the 1985 national championship, died in the summer of 2017.
His legacy lives on in the memory of the players and coaches who adored him. Guard Mikal Bridges recalled Massimino’s message to current Villanova coach Jay Wright during the 2016 title game against North Carolina.
“We’re in the championship game, it’s a lot of pressure,” Bridges said. “He looks at coach and tells him to fix his little pocket” square.
Follow Ben Bolch on Twitter @latbbolch