Why is Loyola embracing the unnatural rivalries of the A-10?
It didn't take long for Loyola to conquer the Missouri Valley Conference, winning two titles in its first eight years.
So the next move is to leave?
The Ramblers officially announced their switch to the Atlantic 10 for the 2022-23 school year. This was a surprising development first announced Monday.
So what's in it for Loyola? Granted, this is a Midwest-centric perspective, but it feels like ditching games against Illinois State, Bradley and Southern Illinois in favor of Fordham, LaSalle and Duquesne is less than ideal.
Loyola's home court, the Gentile Center, isn't a very big gym, so it's not like the school is hustling to sell thousands of tickets. But natural rivalries in the A-10 are basically nonexistent.
"It will definitely be different," said Loyola athletic director Steve Watson, a Libertyville resident. "What we're hoping is that people here see the quality of the basketball and we'll start to build some of those rivalries. I think we've got some naturals. The Jesuit schools, people here can relate to. SLU and Dayton, I think will be naturals for us. But we're going to have to work on some of the others."
Watson said he's hoping to keep some of the MVC rivalries in the nonconference schedule. Hopefully, there will be room for nonleague games. The Atlantic 10 is a huge conference, with Loyola coming in as the 15th school.
When it comes to NCAA Tournament success, Loyola might help the A-10 more than the other way around. Back in 2014, the A-10 sent six teams to the tournament, but that number has been dwindling. The A-10 has gotten just two invites in the last two NCAA Tournaments.
The Missouri Valley put two teams in the Final Four in the last decade (Loyola in 2018, Wichita State in 2013). Two current A-10 schools have been to a Final Four in the past 20 years (VCU and George Mason), but they were both in the Colonial Athletic Conference when they did it.
In the last six NCAA Tournaments, Missouri Valley teams posted a 14-9 record, while A-10 teams went 7-16.
Listening to Watson and school president Jo Ann Rooney, they see the positives as more national exposure, getting to play in major markets like New York, Philadelphia and Washington, and a good fit with mostly private schools that focus on basketball.
"You see a lot of schools that are like us," said Watson, who was AD at A-10 member St. Bonaventure before coming to Loyola.
The fellow Jesuit schools are Saint Louis, St. Joseph's and Fordham, Loyola used to play Saint Louis, Dayton, Duquesne and LaSalle in the Midwestern Collegiate Conference back in the '80s and '90s.
The Atlantic-10 has a better national TV deal than the Missouri Valley. At the same time, Watson admitted Loyola will have to spend more on travel since all its teams will be flying to the East Coast instead of riding a bus downstate or to Iowa.
This conference move feels a little strange and unnatural. But if new coach Drew Valentine can continue the Ramblers' run of NCAA Tournament success, students and fans will follow, no matter what league they're in. If Loyola falls back into decades of doldrums, which it had before former coach Porter Moser turned things around, the school will struggle to sell anything basketball.
One slogan used Tuesday was Loyola is not running away from the Missouri Valley, it's heading toward an exciting new opportunity. Valid or not, it's easy to wonder why the MVC hasn't turned the tournament success into a better share of the national spotlight.
For local basketball fans, here's hoping the MVC extends an invitation to Illinois-Chicago. That would keep some Chicago ties for the downstate schools, while people can head to Rogers Park for a closer look at Davidson, Richmond or UMass.
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