Loyola’s Prospects for A10 Fall Team Sports

The schedules are starting to come out for the fall sports in the Atlantic 10, and Loyola fans who are interested in women’s soccer, men’s soccer, and women’s volleyball are wondering where the Ramblers  fit into our new conference.  So here’s a primer on the level of competition in each sport, where Loyola fits, and the teams to look at as benchmarks for the conference in each sport.

Women’s Soccer

The level of competition between the A-10 and MVC was very similar last year.  The Atlantic 10’s average women’s soccer team had an RPI of 212, and the median was 223.  In the MVC, it was 216 and 221.  But the thing is, Loyola had the best RPI of any women’s soccer team in either of the two conferences, at 46.  There were no other teams in the MVC with an RPI in the top 175. 

In the A-10, only VCU (55) and St. Louis (85) were in the Top 100, but Dayton and UMass were in the top 175.  Going by last year’s numbers, the MVC’s average RPI without Loyola was 237, and the A-10’s average with Loyola added in was 201.  So the Ramblers (who won the MVC four years in a row) joining the A-10 will likely vault the A-10 somewhat clearly above the MVC, and give the Ramblers additional opportunities to build an at-large resume with matches against some top 100 teams.

Under Coach Barry Bimbi, the Ramblers have something pretty good going– four straight years winning the MVC regular season and conference tournament.  Four straight years in the NCAA Tournament, but a lot of tough first round matchups.  In 2021, Loyola (with its regular season and conference tournament championship) got Purdue as a first round matchup and lost.  Saint Louis– with their 85 RPI, second place conference record, and conference tournament win– got Ole Miss as their first round opponent and beat them to advance.

Loyola will be right in the mix to win the A-10 next season, but they’ll still probably have to win the conference tournament to get to the NCAA tournament.  Scheduling, a really good season, and some lucky breaks there and here just might be able to give the league more than one bid in women’s soccer.  Saint Louis, LaSalle, and Dayton are the teams that have done the most damage the past several seasons.

Men’s Soccer

The level of men’s soccer in the Atlantic 10 is substantially higher than the competition in the MVC.  A lot of it is due to the fact that Saint Louis is the UCLA of men’s soccer.  Saint Louis has won 10 NCAA National Championships in men’s soccer, and reached the Final Four 16 times since the tournament started in 1959.  For comparison, UCLA….. the school that is supposed to do the best in sports like this because of history, location, economics, demographics in the LA area, and other factors…. has only reached the Final Four 14 times, but came away with only four titles. 

To be fair, Saint Louis hasn’t won any title as a member of the A-10, but they benefit from the legacy of a soccer culture (one of the first soccer hotbeds in the US) in the early days of the sport’s foothold in the US.  Last year, Saint Louis had an RPI of 12, which earned them a bye and the 10th highest seed in the 48-team tournament (only the top 16 teams are seeded).  The school has supported the program consistently and set high standards through the years. 

But it’s not entirely a Saint Louis story… URI (38), VCU (48), St. Joseph’s (57), Fordham (75), UMass (79), Duquesne (82),  and Davidson (86), all finished better in 2021 than Loyola’s RPI of 99.  The MVC was led last year by Missouri State’s best team in memory, one of the best in the recent history of the MVC, who had a national ranking and an RPI of 21.  

The Ramblers are taking a big step up in competition here, with almost half the teams in the league in the top 100. And with a new coach on the men’s soccer side, it will probably take a few years to challenge for the top spots in the league. 

Something to watch out for– several schools with financial pressures have dropped men’s soccer recently.  One of these schools (although not at all with financial problems) is Richmond.  It seems a shame that one of the highest endowment schools (with a high-achieving conference rival nearby) would end up dropping men’s soccer, but that’s what maintaining football will do to an athletic program.  There are 208 men’s soccer programs at the D1 level.

Women’s Volleyball

This was a big surprise to me– women’s volleyball is not nearly as big a college sport in the Northeast  as it is in the Midwest.  At some Big 10, Big 12, and selected other schools, women’s volleyball is a genuine revenue sport.  In 2018, ten schools averaged over 3,000 fans per match, and four schools averaged over 5,000. In 2018, both UNI and Wichita State drew more than 2500 per match to watch women’s volleyball (sometimes against Loyola).

The MVC had all 10 of their schools participating in women’s volleyball last season, but the Atlantic 10 had only nine of their 14 schools putting teams on the court.  UMass, LaSalle, St. Joseph’s, St. Bonaventure and Richmond don’t have women’s volleyball at all.  And some of the A-10 schools don’t put much effort into it.  Dayton and VCU have dominated women’s volleyball in the A-10 for the past ten years.   Last year, Dayton (37) was the only A-10 team to make the top 100 in RPI.   VCU (109) and St. Louis (189) were the only other schools in the top 200.

For comparison’s sake, the MVC had three teams in the top 100:  Valpo (46), Illinois State (64) and Loyola (65).  But more significantly, the MVC had eight of their ten women’s volleyball squads come in with a better RPI than the third best A-10 team.  Overall, the A-10 teams had an average RPI of 218, and a median RPI of 262.  The MVC’s average was 128 and their median was 118.  Over the past several years, the MVC has had multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament.

Loyola has been on the rise in women’s volleyball for the past several years, and benefitted a bit last year from the rebuilding at UNI.  The higher level of competition from the Horizon League to the MVC has kept Loyola back in women’s volleyball, but also because of the competition the program has finally fought its way into a Top 100 position. Loyola might finish in the top 3 in the A-10 this year, even with it being Loyola’s first year in the league.

Loyola Joins the Atlantic 10 Conference July 1

Loyola’s move to the Atlantic 10 Conference– announced suddenly on the afternoon of Nov. 16, 2021– came as a surprise to almost everyone. Even many A-10 insiders said it was a thing of wonder to have it announced as a near total surprise, without any scuttlebutt or leaks.  It took me so much by surprise that I had to verify it three times over before I believed it myself.

The Ramblers had experienced some impressive success in the MVC, and the conference had already announced the addition of a respected program– Belmont– to next year’s lineup.  This might seem like a time where the MVC is on the move upwards, especially considering the addition of Murray State, another perennial tournament-level team.  Many Loyola fans from downstate and neighboring rural areas were initially disappointed.  Frankly, I initially thought it was something of a lateral move with worse travel.  But after some investigation it makes a whole lot of sense– even considering the MVC had been a positive, healthy home for the Ramblers for nine years, and the road trips were nearby and fun.

Over on the East Coast, the decision immediately made perfect sense to A-10 fans.  Rambler fans– after getting over the “out of the blue” surprise of the announcement– were mostly in favor of the decision, but there were a few (mostly location-related) reservations.  Here’s why Loyola’ move to the A-10 make a whole lot of sense:

Loyola’s move to the Atlantic 10 matches up the largest Jesuit school in the nation with many peer schools and former conference rivals.  Although the other schools in the A-10 are primarily on the east coast and will require more travel time and expense, A-10 schools have a markedly higher academic reputation, most of the schools have endowments that promise consistency in their academic and athletic investments, and the yearly funding levels for athletics more closely matches what the Ramblers have been spending in the MVC.

At the beginning of the 2021-22 basketball season, the MVC’s 10 member schools (including Loyola) had an average men’s basketball budget of $2,917,454, while the average of the 14 Atlantic 10 schools was $4,991,756 (Note: These are 2020 numbers, the latest numbers available).  But Loyola was far and away the leader in men’s basketball expenditures with $4,348,837– more than $570k above the second leading team (Bradley) in the MVC, and $1.4 million more than the average budget.  In the Atlantic 10, Loyola’s 2020 budget would rank 9th among the 15 schools as of 2020.

Loyola was also far-and-away the leader in university endowments as the MVC was composed at the start of the 2021-22 season: $1.072 billion.  The league average was $269 million. Without Loyola, the other nine schools averaged an endowment of only $180 million.  Belmont and Murray State were both below the average MVC endowment when Loyola was factored in.  Meanwhile, over in the A-10, Loyola’s endowment is just a few million more than the average A-10 endowment, and quite a bit more than the median endowment of $610 million.

Saint Louis University and Fordham are fellow Big City Jesuit schools, with similar enrollment, endowment, and academic reputation profiles.  St. Joseph’s is also an urban area Jesuit school with a fine basketball tradition.  Loyola was briefly conference mates with La Salle, Duquesne, and Dayton–three private schools with rich basketball histories.

The Ramblers have a 24-22 all time record against St. Louis, a former MCC conference mate in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  Dayton was also in the MCC from 1988 to 1993, and Loyola is 15-33 all time against the Flyers.  Loyola is 3-2 all time against St. Bonaventure, 0-5 against La Salle, 6-11 against Duquesne, 3-2 against George Washington, 1-1 against Fordham, 2-1 against St. Joseph’s, 1-1 against Richmond, and 0-2 against Davidson.  The Ramblers have never played Rhode Island, UMass, George Mason, or VCU– which are the public schools in the A-10.

Through its history, the A-10 has had some legendary tournament success.  As a member of the A-10, Temple University went to the tournament 17 out of 18 years from 1984 to 2001, getting to the Elite Eight five times in that stretch.  Xavier left the MCC for the A-10 in the 1995-96 season, and reached the NCAA Tournament in 13 of 18 years in the A-10 before joining the Big East.  Butler– who missed out on the tournament their last year in the Horizon League– played one year in the A-10 before the formation of the new Big East, and their only year in the A-10 they got an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament with an 11-5 conference record (tied for third place).

Having closely watched the quality of basketball in the MVC over the past nine-plus years, it might seem like the there’s not such a big difference between the two conferences.  After all, Loyola and Wichita State both made the Final Four in the past decade, and both the Ramblers and Shockers added another Sweet 16 besides their Final Four finishes.  UNI has a Sweet 16 and two first round wins since 2010. 

Nevertheless, the A-10 has had 45 NCAA Tournament bids since 2007-08, while the MVC has had 19.  That’s 3.2 bids per year for the A-10 and 1.35 per year for the MVC.  Since Temple, Butler and Xavier left the conference in 2013, the A-10 has had 24 bids while the MVC has had 11.  Saint Louis had three first-round wins in a row from 2012 to 2014; LaSalle had a Sweet 16 in 2013; VCU has made the NCAA Tournament seven of nine opportunities since it joined the A10 in 2013 (and notched two first round wins); Rhode Island had consecutive first-round wins in 2017 and 2018; and Dayton has had an Elite Eight and two first-round wins since 2009.  Add up the A10’s tournament wins on top of their 45 bids since 2008, and the A10 has had a record of success that spreads across the conference and improves the reputation of the league. 

The A-10 has had five at-large bids in the past four tournaments, while the MVC has had one.  From 2008 to 2018, the A-10 never had fewer than three bids to the tournament and had four, five, and six bids from 2012 to 2014.  Meanwhile, the MVC hasn’t had three bids in a single year since 2006. 

And here’s something really, really important– what if you win the league, but don’t win the tournament?  Over the past nine years in the MVC (since Loyola joined), the regular season conference champion has missed the tournament 5 times (UNI in 2022, UNI 2020, Drake and Loyola 2019, and Illinois State 2017).  No regular season champion has missed the NCAA Tournament in the A10 since St. Joseph’s in 2005 (when the conference had uneven East and West divisions). 

We all know AP rankings are very subjective, but no one can deny that they’re an important benchmark of recognition of a college basketball program.  Wichita State made it to a #2 national ranking (and a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament) in 2013-14 as a member of the MVC.  The Shockers made it into the AP Top 25 each of their next three years in the MVC before leaving for the American Athletic Conference.  But since then, the only MVC members  to crack the AP Top 25 in the past five years are Loyola (six weeks in 2021, one week in 2022) and Drake (one week in 2021). 

Meanwhile, in the last three years, six different A-10 teams have made it into the AP Top 25 rankings.  And seven different A-10 teams (Davidson, St. Bonaventure, Saint Louis, Richmond, VCU, Dayton, and Rhode Island) have been ranked in the past five years.  Since joining the A10 in 1995, Dayton has appeared in the AP Top 25 rankings ten times, culminating in a #3 ranking to end the season in 2020.

But Loyola is not just recruiting for men’s basketball players and other student-athletes through their A-10 affiliation– Loyola is looking to expand their academic recruiting and national profile by playing in New York City, New England, Philadelphia, Washington, St. Louis, Charlotte, Richmond, Dayton, and Pittsburgh.   Almost 50% of Americans (47.6%) live in the Eastern time zone as opposed to 29% in the Central.  And the A-10 has a presence in four of the top 10, and seven of the top 26 US television markets– with multiple schools in the DC and Philly metros.  Add the Buffalo area with many St. Bonaventure fans (#53), Richmond (#56), and Dayton (#65), and the A-10 has a massive potential audience compared to the MVC.  The Missouri Valley has UIC/Valpo in the Chicago metro (#3), Belmont in Nashville (#29), and Drake in Des Moines (#68).

On the academic and reputation side, US News ranks eight of the 14 A-10 member schools entering the 2021-22 season as among the top 170 National Universities.  Not only that, but the University of Richmond (with its $3.3 billion endowment) and Davidson College (with its $1.3 billion endowment) were ranked #22 and #13 nationally among the 2000+ Liberal Arts colleges in that category.  That makes 10 of the 14 A-10 schools ranking among the top national colleges and universities, with four schools in the top 103– even before adding Loyola.  The MVC had two schools in the top 170, Loyola at 103 and Drake at 136.  UIC (tied with Loyola at #103) and Belmont (at #162) will help bump up the MVC’s academic reputation, but it’s a far cry from the A-10 profile.

In 2013, when Loyola had the chance to get out of the mismanaged, oppressive Horizon League– a conference that literally changed its conference tournament format as punishment for Loyola reaching the final instead of Butler– the Ramblers had corrected their anemic financial position of the 1990s, bolstered their endowment, and opened a quality on-campus facility. The MVC was a very good regional match for Loyola, and the Ramblers gave the MVC a large market for their broadcast marketing.  But Loyola’s Jesuit educational focus and urban megalopolis setting didn’t always fit well with the other schools in the league.  Loyola’s welcome to the conference was– er, tepid.  If you read the Wichita State message board, Loyola was the worst thing that ever happened to the MVC, and many Shocker fans used Loyola’s admission as a reason for jumping to the AAC.

In contrast to the MVC, Loyola’s move to the A-10 has been perfect.  No one has asked if The Pope is going to coach the basketball team, or if we approve of everything Lori Lightfoot says.  No one has come after us for the capacity of our arena, the liberalism (or conservatism) of the city we happened to be located in, whether our new coach is a capable, or whether we’ll add baseball to make them happy.  No one (that I know of) has posted an irate screed demanding that people in the A-10 head office be fired for even considering us as a member while the University of Nebraska-Omaha is out there.

Let us all appreciate this.


2013-2022: Looking Back on Loyola’s Time in the Missouri Valley Conference

As Loyola leaves the Missouri Valley Conference for the Atlantic 10 on July 1, 2022, it’s a good time to reflect on the Ramblers in the MVC. Loyola sports teams have had phenomenal success since joining the MVC and reversed a lot of negative opinions about Loyola sports both locally and nationally. Even within the Loyola community and the surrounding Rogers Park area, people have started to see Loyola as a more well-rounded school with some viable collegiate sports opportunities and sports as a local entertainment option. The impending move to the A-10 promises to be an even better match for the university both academically and in athletics.

In 1979, Loyola was one of the six founding members of the Midwestern City/Midwestern Collegiate/Horizon League. The other schools were Butler, Evansville, Oklahoma City, Oral Roberts, and Xavier. At various times in the 1980s and early 1990s, the MCC had the makings of a power basketball conference, with Marquette, St. Louis, Dayton, Detroit, La Salle, and Duquesne filtering in and out of the league. But by 1995, all those schools besides Butler and Detroit were gone, and the departures meant the league had lost its auto bid to the NCAA Tournament for the 1992-93 season. To keep afloat, the conference raided the Mid-Continent Conference of six lower-budget public schools that had recently gained Division I status: Cleveland State, UIC, Northern Illinois, UW-Green Bay, UW-Milwaukee, and Wright State.

With six public schools added to Butler, Detroit, and Loyola, the quality of the league, the academics, and the athletic department resources of peer institutions changed in an instant. Loyola suddenly had a fierce league rival in their own media market/recruiting area, peer institutions in their league with Tier III academics, conference rivals who had larger assistant coaching staffs (paid as state employees), and new facilities of competitors constructed/funded by state government. It didn’t help much that Loyola was going through a really bad stretch of men’s basketball in the early 1990s. The university was running a huge deficit while painfully re-organizing their financial structure, and the facilities for athletics were terrible. With sub-par facilities, a tight budget, and little success on the playing field, Loyola remained mired (er, you could say stuck)in the Horizon League for 20 years.

By 2012, Butler also bailed out of the Horizon League, leaving for the A-10 and making Loyola the lone original member of the conference. But by the early 2010s, Loyola had upgraded or improved facilities, set their financial house in order, added coaching staff positions (especially with low-revenue sports), and started to achieve some success on the field. The following year, 2013, saw enormous conference re-alignment; approximately one third of Division I schools changed conferences in one year. And when the Missouri Valley Conference had a spot to fill, Loyola had their bags packed and sitting next to the door.

Since July 1, 2013, when the Ramblers officially joined the MVC, Loyola has had fantastic success in men’s basketball. Three trips to the NCAA Tournament (2018, 2021, 2022), an NCAA Final Four (2018), two NCAA Sweet 16s (2018, 2021), one trip to the NIT (2019), a CBI Championship (2015), three MVC tournament titles (2018, 2021, 2022), and three MVC regular-season championships (2018, 2019, 2021). The Ramblers had three different MVC Player of the Year recipients (Clayton Cuter, Marques Townes, Cameron Krutwig).

In the nine seasons Loyola had in the MVC, men’s basketball compiled a 191-110 (.635) overall record and 96-66 (.593) in conference. The Ramblers were 13-6 (.684) at Arch Madness, and had an 11-4 (.733) record in five postseason tournaments. The men’s squad captured trophies for winning the MVC tournament in 2018, 2021, and 2022, and got a giant NCAA trophy for winning the South Region in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.

Women’s basketball changed coaches a few weeks before it was announced Loyola was headed for the MVC. Incoming head coach Sheryl Swoopes had a Hall of Fame playing resume, but her leadership style turned sour as her teams struggled. She drove away some of her best players before she was replaced, and Kate Achter did a good, but slow, job of rebuilding the program. Loyola was 98-172 (.363) overall and 55-107 (.340) in conference in the MVC. The Ramblers finished over .500 in conference twice, in 2016 and 2022.

Despite some struggles in women’s basketball, Loyola athletics had some great success in other women’s sports. Women’s soccer won their last four straight MVC Championships. Loyola’s women’s cross country ended their time in the MVC with three straight championships. Women’s volleyball reached the MVC Championship game in the 2020 and 2021 seasons.

In nine years in the MVC, men’s soccer had an 84-54-28 overall record, ranking as one of the two best programs in the league over that time. In five of their nine years in the MVC, the men’s soccer squad earned a top-two finish in the conference. The men’s soccer program won the regular season title and secured their first NCAA tournament win in program history in 2016, and the Ramblers played in three consecutive Missouri Valley Conference championship games from 2018-2021, upsetting #9 Missouri State in 2019 to reach the NCAA Tournament for a second time representing the MVC.

After finishing in the bottom two places in five out of their first six years in the conference, men’s golf won the MVC Championship in 2021. Women’s golf finished last their first year in the league, but placed in the middle of the standings most other years.

And lastly but not least, although they don’t play in the MVC, men’s volleyball has had stunning success since Loyola joined the MVC. Only a week or so after Loyola’s move to the MVC was official, men’s volleyball won its first MIVA championship and first trip to the NCAA Tournament. The following two years, Loyola won the National Championship. In the past nine years, Loyola men’s volleyball has finished first or second in the MIVA standings six times out of eight.

Loyola’s time in the MVC was really astoundingly successful. Given where Loyola was in April 2013, it would be hard to rationally imagine the men’s basketball program being any more successful than it has over the past five years. The Ramblers knocked out a #1 seed in the NCAA Tournament (bonus points– it was the Fighting Illini) en route to a second Sweet 16 appearance in four years. Think about this– Loyola had a double-digit lead in the National Semifinal game– in real life…. seriously! It’s still hard to process, even after subsequent success and five consecutive seasons of 20+ wins.

The astounding success in the MVC years has completely, absolutely, 100% obliterated almost all of the “yeah, you’ve got a National Championship, but what have you done lately?” talk that many Loyola fans had to listen to for decades. Moreover, the proud past of Loyola basketball has had a renaissance with newfound appreciation for the school’s role in civil rights, integration, and college basketball history.