They were the darlings of last year’s NCAA men’s basketball tournament – Loyola-Chicago. The Ramblers improbable run to the Final Four is one of 2018’s greatest sports stories. As the program heads into the 2018-19 season, one thing is for certain. Ramblers head coach Porter Moser is feeling the reality of running a mid-major program. It’s something that all mid-major coaches must overcome.
Moser, who had an opportunity to leave Loyola-Chicago after last year’s 32-6 campaign, decided to stay and continue to develop a program that now has a CBI championship, a Missouri Valley Conference title, and a trip to the Final Four. With those credentials, you would think schools from the major conferences would look to schedule a school like Loyola-Chicago. You would be wrong.
Moser found out the hard way that last year’s success meant nothing in the world of scheduling. After searching long and hard for a home-and-home series with a power conference school, all Loyola got was a check from Maryland for a non-conference game in Baltimore. Maryland, from the mighty ACC, and other big-time programs around the nation will offer mid-majors money to play them just once. No home-and-home. The mid-major travels to the major school and collects a paycheck.
St. Bonaventure head coach Mark Schmidt figured he would have the type of team that could compete with some of the power conference teams from around the nation last year. He agreed to a “buy game” with Syracuse at the Orange’s home, the Carrier Dome. The Bonnies wound up beating the Orange and that win helped propel St. Bonaventure to the NCAA tournament. For St. Bonaventure, there is no chance of playing Syracuse at home at the Reilly Center in the bustling metropolis of Olean, NY. That is just never going to happen.
When the at-large bids are given out next March for the 2019 men’s tournament, the number of mid-major schools receiving those bids will be small. Last year, there were 36 at-large bids. Three went to schools outside the top seven conferences – ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, Big East, and American. The other 33 at-large bids went to schools from those seven conferences. Remember Oklahoma? They won four of their final 14 games of the season and then lost in the first round of the Big 12 tournament. The reward for their 18-13, 8-10 in the conference campaign? A trip to the NCAA tourney where they got beat in overtime by Rhode Island.
Mid-major schools also feel it when it comes to television. Playing on prime time national telecasts brings exposure to schools. Consider the exposure at Loyola-Chicago where everyone’s favorite nun became a national phenomenon. While Moser and Loyola couldn’t secure a home-and-home with a power conference school, the Ramblers did land a game with Nevada. The Wolf Pack are another mid-major fighting the battle. Nevada head coach Eric Musselman led the Wolf Pack to the Mountain West Conference title and a berth in the Sweet Sixteen last year. A Final Four team and a Sweet Sixteen team from last season will play in November this season and the game will be broadcast on…wait for it… ESPNews.
If at least one of the opponents was from a power conference, you can bet that game would be served upon a prime television spot. But, that’s life in the world of mid-major basketball. It’s a reality that mid-major coaches have to accept in an effort to hear their schools called on Selection Sunday.