When I say men's 2018 NCAA Tournament, what comes to mind?
There are three answers.
One is Villanova 3-point balling and Donte DiVincenzo'ing its way to a second national title in three years. Another is UMBC's unprecedented upset as a 16 seed, knocking off No. 1 overall Virginia -- -- in the first round.
The third, of course, is Loyola-Chicago's stunning run to the Final Four. As charmed a March fable as we've ever seen, one aided by buzzer-beaters and some help from the divine in the form of Sister Jean, a 98-year-old nun who became a global star as the Ramblers pulled off an unforgettable push to college basketball's ultimate weekend.
As follow-up, it would be ideal for college basketball to put Loyola on the main stage and give the Ramblers a few chances against name programs in 2018-19. It would be nice to turn on the television in November and December and catch Porter Moser's squad matched up against a top 25 opponent, to see Loyola with a few chances to punch up at the big boys.
To remind the nation about these guys.
This is a program coming off a school-record 32 wins, a Final Four for the first time in 55 years and its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 23 seasons.
Unfortunately, college basketball and its cadre of cautious coaches has failed itself. Loyola released its 2018-19 non-conference schedule this week: It features just one game against a 2018 NCAA Tournament team (Nevada) and just one game against a school from a power conference (Maryland).
"I had a little more optimism [in the spring] that I was going to get some more home-and-homes against some power conferences," Moser told CBS Sports. "I feel like our schedule is noticeably better than last year, and I think that -- I hope -- the [selection] committee considers, 'Look what he's done since the Final Four, what he's tried to do.'"
Regrettably, scheduling paranoia from the major-conference illuminati has struck again. Rather than see an opportunity to play against a trendy/name mid-major and potential top-50 team, nearly two dozen big schools balked in fear. Loyola reached out to approximately 20 teams from the ACC, Big East, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. All of them, except Maryland, said no.
And before we give Maryland too much credit, you should realize that the Terps wouldn't agree to a home-and-home. This will be a one-time thing, and Loyola, of course, will be the one that has to travel for the game. If it should win, it won't even have the benefit of earning a road victory; the game will be played in Baltimore and therefore officially logged as a neutral-site contest.
"We were trying to get those kind of games on our schedule," Moser said. "Maryland stepped up. It's a one-time deal, they're not returning. It's not ideal for me. You can't build great schedules on getting bought. Here I am, a Final Four team, getting bought."
Since April, Moser lobbied for home-and-homes with just about any top-75 team.
"I couldn't do it," Moser said. "I literally was told [no] by Power 5 conferences, and I'm not the only school. ... It's blatantly told to us."
Here's the Ramblers' 2018-19 non-conference slate. Numbers in parentheses are where each team finished in KenPom last season.
Nov. 6: vs. UMKC (276)
Nov. 9: vs. Furman (95)
Nov. 14: vs. Niagara (205)
Nov. 16: vs. Grambling State (295)
Nov. 19: vs. Richmond (181) [Fort Myers Tip-Off]
Nov. 21: vs. Boston College (77) or Wyoming (118) [Fort Myers]
Nov. 27: vs. Nevada (25)
Dec. 1: at UIC (182)
Dec. 5: vs. Ball State (173)
Dec. 8: vs. Maryland (39) [in Baltimore]
Dec. 16: vs. Norfolk State (312)
Dec. 19: vs. Benedictine (D-II)
Dec. 22: at Saint Joseph's (116)
It got so bare, Moser was reduced to scheduling a local D-II before Christmas. Even the Boston College/Wyoming game probably won't afford the Ramblers an outcome against a 2019 NCAA Tournament team. The underrated opponent is the home game against Ball State, which should contend as a top-three team in the MAC, but even then the Cardinals are no sure thing to make the NIT.
"I only got that game because they had open dates and couldn't get teams to play them," Moser said.
Moser found himself stuck in the worst possible place: having a talented mid-major team, but not established enough over the long-term to get good programs to schedule you. That meant Loyola had to look across the landscape and try to find a team to schedule that hopefully wouldn't torpedo its team rating.
"We, like everybody else, have a chance to buy games," Moser said. "Instead of buying a 300-350 team, we were trying to buy the best possible team we could buy."
So that's Furman, which won 23 games a year ago but, like Loyola, loses three key players. Moser also got out of the downmarket Islands of the Bahamas tournament in order to play in a better November exempt event (Fort Myers Tip-Off). But with that, Loyola also inherits home games against low-rated teams, so Grambling State and Niagara factor in.
The road opportunity against Saint Joe's will be big; the Hawks should be a top-three team in the A-10. It's also the closest game to New Jersey that Moser could arrange for senior guard Marques Townes, who is from the Garden State. None of the schools from big conferences in the greater New Jersey/New York City area agreed to play Loyola, which tried to get a homecoming roadie for Townes.
"We expect him to have a great turnout of family and friends for the games in Philadelphia and Baltimore," Moser said in Loyola's press release about its schedule.
Now, that Nevada game? A great one. Not only are the Wolf Pack a preseason lock to be in the top 10, that tilt is a rematch of the Sweet 16 burner that ended with Loyola winning 69-68, thanks to a Townes shot that went in in the closing seconds. But even that game's only on Loyola's schedule because it's mandated. Nevada, which already bought out of its contract and bailed on playing at Rhode Island in 2018-19, is only playing this game because of the Missouri Valley/Mountain West Challenge, which is in its final year.
Plus, as Moser pointed out, one factor working against Loyola -- and all mid-majors -- is the rise of 20-game league schedules in Power 5 conferences. The Big Ten is already there, the ACC will go to 20 next year, with the SEC and Pac-12 potentially following suit.
"In the Big Ten they've got 20 league games, the ACC/Big Ten Challenge, the Gavitt Games against the Big East and an exempt tournament," Moser said.
Moser, of course, wanted to schedule home-and-homes or something close to it. Just get any team to come to Chicago on the back end of the deal. He's resistant to agreeing to two-for-ones because he believes it's not a great way to sustain momentum within your program.
"The A-10 at least were willing to discuss and try to work things out," Moser said, citing VCU and Temple's (which is in the American) attempts to earnestly work something out before scheduling fell through.
Getting a peek such as this behind the politics of scheduling, you get a clearer view of how hard it can be for mid-majors to build up résumés that warrant at-large inclusion for the NCAA Tournament. Get this: Last year NC State bought out of the back end of a home-and-home with Loyola, paying $170,000 to not play the Ramblers. Moser couldn't get anyone to come to his place to make up for the game, so he took a paycheck to play at Florida.
Loyola won that game. That victory undoubtedly secured the Ramblers to the 11 line on Selection Sunday. Beating Florida might have been the win that set up the perfect scenario to enable Moser's team to make one of the most incredible Final Four pushes of all time.
But still, it shouldn't have come to that. And remember, Loyola lost one game between Jan. 3 and Selection Sunday. It made the field thanks to automatic bid. Many believe that, had the Ramblers lost in the MVC tournament, they would have been NIT-bound. So even when things went completely against them and they wound up winning a road game against an eventual 6 seed anyway, it still didn't assure Loyola a safety net.
Because of this, Moser said he spent as much if not more time scheduling over the past five months as he did recruiting -- and he was borderline fantatical about the recruiting.
"I'm trying," Moser said. "You know what kills me … when you hear first five in, last five out, and you're approaching Selection Sunday and you hear people criticize you for your schedule. That kills me at our level. We're out there trying to do it. We're getting teams buying out of contracts, not wanting to play home-and-homes. It's very tough. You see a lot of the inequality."
It's not a good thing for college basketball that one of the greatest stories in NCAA Tournament history is going to follow up this fall with little publicity and television time, thanks to almost no power programs agreeing to play the Ramblers. It shouldn't be like this. For Loyola and so many mid-majors like them, the scheduling game feels as rigged as ever.