The Northern Iowa Panthers could have messed things up for their conference and America.
The Panthers were tied with Loyola Chicago with seven minutes left in their Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball tournament quarterfinal in St. Louis on March 2. Loyola scratched out a 54-50 win and won two more games of Arch Madness to get into March Madness, the NCAA tournament.
Had UNI won that day, the Ramblers would have trudged off to the NIT. Though they would have been 25-6 and the regular-season champs of the MVC, they would not have received an at-large berth in the NCAAs.
Had Loyola lost to anyone in the MVC tourney, it would have watched from the outside as Alabama, Oklahoma and Syracuse — all teams with losing records in their conferences — proceeded to the NCAAs.
Since cutting the nets in St. Louis, Loyola has cut the nets in Atlanta at the South Regional. The Ramblers won four NCAA games to get to the Final Four game against Michigan Saturday in San Antonio. Three of the vanquished were clubs from the ACC, SEC and Big 12, leagues with a combined 24 teams in the tournament.
The deck is stacked. It’s the golden rule. Whomever has the gold makes the rules.
“Things are getting increasingly difficult given the criteria set up by the selection committee,” UNI Coach Ben Jacobson said this week.
Just three teams outside the seven largest conferences got NCAA at-large berths this year, and last year, and the year before. But just five years ago, there were 11.
It’s hard for mid-majors to build resumes, because it’s hard for them to get games against teams from the largest leagues. For instance: UNI and Drake haven’t gotten to play both Iowa and Iowa State each season since 2012. That was the decision of the Hawkeyes and Cyclones.
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Loyola won at then-No. 5 Florida in the nonconference, but didn’t have much else for its nonconference resume. It was scheduled to play North Carolina State at home to fulfill a home-and-home contract, but N.C. State paid Loyola in order to not have to go to Chicago for the return game.
Not long ago, the MVC had a higher profile. It placed three teams in the 2005 NCAAs and four in 2006. UNI was an at-large pick both years.
This is the seventh-straight season an MVC team has won an NCAA game. It’s the third year in the last four in which the MVC has notched at least three NCAA victories.
That only makes playing MVC teams less desirable to the heavyweights. Iowa played three games against teams from the lightly regarded Southwestern Athletic Conference this season. Home gates, home pushovers.
“We’ve done everything we can to play anybody, anywhere, any time,” Jacobson said. “We want to put the best possible schedule together to be in the best position we can be for an at-large bid.”
UNI was 7-11 in the MVC this season, its first losing record in the league since 2003. So it didn’t matter how the Panthers did in nonconference play. But they tried their best to establish a resume in the nonconference. They went 8-4 in that part of the schedule, and three of the losses were to future No. 1 NCAA seeds in Villanova and Xavier and a No. 2 in North Carolina.
The Panthers beat NCAA at-large team North Carolina State in a tournament in the Bahamas.
“Things fell together,” Jacobson said. “We played at North Carolina as a result of Roy Williams’ willingness to bring them here (in 2015) because of Marcus Paige (of Marion).”
The UNI-Xavier home-and-home series was exempt the year before because of an NCAA rule allowing teams in an exempt tournament with three games to play a fourth against another team in that tournament. Xavier and UNI were in a 2016 tourney in Puerto Rico.
What do the Panthers have to do to schedule enough of the biggest teams again next season?
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“That’s a hard one,” Jacobson said. “Nonconference scheduling is so out of whack right now. The Power 5 schools have no reason to start home-and-homes with Northern Iowa or Loyola Chicago. Wisconsin’s got to do what’s best for Wisconsin. Wisconsin, Minnesota — pick a team — doesn’t want to start a home-and-home with Northern Iowa, Illinois State, Loyola of Chicago. We’re behind the 8-ball.”
Yet, here is an MVC team trying to win the biggest tournament. Loyola defeated UNI three times this season, but has at least one big fan in Cedar Falls.
“I think it’s great,” Jacobson said. “To have a team in the Final Four speaks for itself. It’s reminding all of us to know how good basketball is in the Missouri Valley Conference.”
UNI has come fairly close to being in the same spot. In 2010, it clipped Kansas in the second round and led Michigan State by seven points at halftime in the Sweet 16 before losing to the Spartans. In 2015 and 2016, the Panthers won opening-round games in the tourney.
“All three could have played in the Final Four,” Jacobson said. “The ’10 and ’15 teams were good enough, had everything you needed to make it. The 2015 team lost to Louisville in the Round of 32. I still believe we had a better team, but they played better than we did. The 2016 team wasn’t as good, but was playing so well and had so much confidence late in the year.”
You can get to the Final Four from Cedar Falls, and Peoria, and Normal, and the north side of Chicago. But you better win the MVC tourney. Otherwise, you need to have played several so-called marquee teams before league play begins.
“You can’t just play the good teams in November and December,” Jacobson said. “You’ve got to beat them.”
But first they’ve got to play you.
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