Since the day after the 2017-18 college basketball season ended, rankings for the 2018-19 season have proliferated. They all came with a “Way Too Early” preamble attached, and that was truth in advertising. It was way too early.
But now that we know which players are going pro and which are coming back to campus, it’s no longer way too early. It’s time. And so I read four top 25s from basketball writers Thursday with interest, and came to one conclusion:
HoopsWorld is disrespecting Loyola Chicago once again.
Just one of the four preseason top 25 authors included the Ramblers — take a bow, Myron Medcalf of ESPN. He had them ranked No. 19. Everyone else seems to regard Loyola’s 32 victories and Final Four run as an unrepeatable fluke.
Coach Porter Moser, your response to this ridiculous snub?
“I really don’t give a sh–,” Moser said Thursday. “I apologize for being blunt, but I couldn’t care less what anybody predicts.”
This is, of course, the appropriate approach for a coach, so I’ll get outraged on his behalf. We’ll get back to Moser’s musings, and to why this matters more than he wants to acknowledge, in a bit.
Here’s what stands out to me:
The four top 25s all ranked Tennessee very high, anywhere between third and seventh. The Ramblers eliminated the Volunteers in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
The four top 25s all ranked Nevada higher than it has ever been, either fifth or sixth. The Ramblers eliminated the Wolf Pack in the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
They all ranked Kansas State highly as well, anywhere between ninth and 13th. The Ramblers eliminated the Wildcats in the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament. And that game wasn’t close, ever. It was a Loyola beatdown.
To be sure, all three of those teams return flush rosters, highlighted by star players who put their names in the draft but opted to return to school. Between holdover stars and incoming recruits and transfers, Nevada might have more talent than any non-Gonzaga team from outside the Power Six conferences since John Calipari was at Memphis. Tennessee and Kansas State return their entire starting fives from teams that won 26 and 25 games, respectively.
They could and should all get better next season than they were the last. Good for them. But seriously, it’s not like Loyola gave away all those Harry Potter scarves and disbanded since April.
The Ramblers return three starters, including the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, Clayton Custer. All Custer did was lead Loyola in scoring, assists and steals as the perpetual motion hub of an entertaining offense. They return No. 2 scorer Marques Townes, who dropped a team-high 18 points on Nevada in that Sweet 16 game. They return center Cameron Krutwig, a double-digit scorer and skilled low-post player with ample room to improve off his impressive freshman year.
They also have key reserve Lucas Williamson ready to step into Ben Richardson’s lockdown defensive role as a sophomore. And a New Mexico transfer, Aher Uguak. And a couple of freshmen Moser likes. And maybe one more mystery piece that a source told Yahoo Sports “would raise eyebrows.”
Perhaps most important of all, Sister Jean is expected to return for the 2018-19 season. Although, in her late 90s, she’s understandably day-to-day.
What will undeniably be back is the Loyola attitude that carried it so far last year. The rest of the world thought of the Ramblers as a cute little fairy tale; they thought of themselves as a damn good basketball team that could play with anyone.
“Our guys’ mentality after San Antonio, they were pissed,” Moser said. “We felt like we had a chance to play Monday for it all. They’re 100 percent not walking around Chicago entitled, and they’re angry. I’m watching them, watching their demeanor, and I’m excited.”
Fact is, Loyola did have a chance to advance to the Monday title game against Villanova. Which, truth be told, would have been a hideous beatdown — but it was for Michigan, too. The Ramblers led the Wolverines by 10 points with 14 minutes to play in the Final Four semifinal, and were tied with seven minutes to play, and then just unraveled.
It’s not like they were blown off the court by the Big Ten tournament champions. And it’s not like Loyola’s tourney run was blessed with an abundance of lucky breaks. Yes, three of the four wins were close, but let’s review and curtail the revisionist history:
A lot of people reduced the Tennessee game to a fortunate bounce on Custer’s game-winning shot in the final seconds. But the Ramblers led the game for 25 consecutive minutes — including the entirety of the second half — until a Tennessee 3-pointer put it ahead in the final minute and set up the Loyola winner.
The Nevada game was close at the end as well, with Townes hitting a clinching 3-pointer in the final 10 seconds — but the Ramblers never trailed in the final 22 minutes. Nevada was trying to steal it at the end.
The K-State game wasn’t close, ever. It was a Loyola blowout, with the Final Four on the line.
Now, the NCAA opener against Miami? That was one the Ramblers stole at the end on a three by Donte Ingram, much the same way the Volunteers and Wolf Pack tried to steal games from them. But in their other three NCAA victories, and for much of the game against Michigan, Loyola was the better team.
All of which makes these early 2018-19 top 25s perplexing. Loyola was really good last year and should be really good again this year, but power-conference fixation or Cinderella dismissiveness seems to have wiped away the Ramblers’ street cred.
And that gets us to why these rankings kinda-sorta matter. When the media overlooks quality mid-major teams, it signals the NCAA selection committee to do the same. Just in case you forgot, Loyola wasn’t going to make the Big Dance without winning the Missouri Valley tournament, despite a 25-5 regular-season record that included a win at Florida.
Gonzaga has overcome the stigma and become a program everyone remembers to rank, every season. Nevada is getting major mileage out of its 29-8 season, with an added bump from having multiple players drop out of the draft at the last minute.
But Loyola? Hello? Anyone remember the Ramblers?
“We’re not even going to talk about any predictions,” Moser said. “I’m not even going to mention it to them. I won’t even use it as motivation.
“We haven’t talked about repeating as conference champions. We haven’t talked about repeating anything. I just want us to be obsessed about our own team and our culture and getting better. I feel like we’re going to be good.”
Loyola will get a chance to prove it’s still good in late November, when Nevada comes to Chicago for an NCAA rematch that will be a marquee matchup of striver programs. There’s little doubt the Wolf Pack will be a ranked team at that time. Maybe the team that eliminated them last year will be, too.
More from Yahoo Sports:
• Bolt’s perfect Olympic record forever tarnished
• Ugly ‘secret’ of NFL’s ‘alternate’ cheerleaders exposed
• Which first-round QB is already ‘blowing people away’?
• Belichick has perfect answer when asked about ‘fun’