Loyola's goal for MVC tournament: leave nothing to chance
Even if Loyola coach Porter Moser could go back in time and improve his team's strength of schedule, he'd probably get the same result.
Moser said he tried to schedule major conference opponents, offering to play on the road, and Florida was the only school to accept. The Ramblers took advantage of that opportunity, beating the Gators, ranked No. 5 at time, 65-59 on Dec. 6.
"I had a high major team this year in the ACC buy out of a contract, to decide not to play, and they're supposedly in the (NCAA) field," Moser said. "We get criticized for not playing the (tougher) games, but it's hard. I get it, why it's so hard to get the games, but I don't like it."
It's possible none of that will matter. After winning the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title for the first time, Loyola (25-5) can clinch a spot in the NCAA Tournament by winning three games at the conference tourney this weekend. The Ramblers open on Friday at noon against the winner of Evansville and Northern Iowa. Their last NCAA appearance was in 1985.
Lose and it's anyone's guess whether Loyola will earn an at-large bid to the NCAA. Right now, their RPI is reported at No. 32, which could be good enough. Florida's RPI is now 43 for its 19-11 season. But how far would the Ramblers drop if they lose to an MVC team this weekend?
"I try not to think about it too much, because if I do, it makes me mad," said junior guard Clayton Custer, who was named MVC player of the year this week. "I think we're an NCAA Tournament team no mater what. I think we pass the eye test, probably, if you watch us. The way we move the ball, the way we can score it. The way we defend, too.
"I think it just keeps that chip on our shoulder and that edge we've had the entire year. We know we're still chasing. The biggest goal for us was to go to the NCAA Tournament and we haven't done that yet."
The competitive balance of the MVC changed dramatically with Wichita State leaving for the American Athletic Conference. Loyola took advantage, posting a 15-3 record in the league and finishing four games ahead of second-place Southern Illinois. The Ramblers finished the year winning 13 of their past 14 games, losing only a 2-point decision at Bradley.
Balance has been the dominant trait offensively. Custer, senior forward Donte Ingram, junior guard Marques Townes, senior guard Aundre Jackson and freshman center Cameron Krutwig all average between 14.2 and 10.8 points. Loyola is tied for fifth in the nation in overall field-goal percentage.
Krutwig was named MVC freshman of the year and senior guard Ben Richardson won defensive player of the year. On Thursday, Moser was honored as coach of the year.
Heading into the conference tournament as a clear favorite, Moser essentially wants his players to keep doing what they have all season. No need to hit the reset button.
"If you start out the beginning of the year and all your thoughts are on the NCAA Tournament, you're going to miss out on what you need to do along the way," Moser said. "We're a team that's gotten better all year long.
"So the process now of winning the championship comes with some distractions, comes with some attention, comes with accolades. Those are all good things, but we can't forget how we got to this point. We got to this point by staying together, focusing in on what's right in front of us and getting better."