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.