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Why a mid-major interloper at the Final Four isn't as uncommon as it used to be

SAN ANTONIO — The architect of the first mid-major Final Four team of the NCAA tournament’s modern era never believed that run would be one-of-a-kind.

Ex-George Mason coach Jim Larranaga predicted from the start that subsequent teams from outside college basketball’s power structure would match the Patriots’ achievement and perhaps even capture a national title.

Nine months before 11th-seeded George Mason toppled juggernaut UConn to advance to the 2006 Final Four, former NBA commissioner David Stern won a key provision in labor negotiations with the player’s union. The NBA’s 2005 collective bargaining agreement mandated that prospects had to be at least 19 years old and one year removed from high school to be eligible to enter the draft.

Larranaga had the foresight to realize that the onset of the one-and-done era would only narrow the gap between high-major and mid-major programs. Tradition-rich programs would still boast the most talented rosters just like before, but more of their most promising players would be freshmen and sophomores.

“High-major teams were always battling for the top 50 guys,” Larranaga said. “I knew a lot of them would get a lot of attention and leave after their freshmen or sophomore year, meaning that the high-major team that lost them would still replace them with more young guys. The best mid-major teams were usually ones that had a lot of experience returning. Our George Mason team had three seniors and two sophomores in its starting lineup, and all five had started the year before.”

In the 12 years since George Mason’s Final Four run, the Patriots have proven to be more of a trail blazer than an anomaly. Five other so-called mid-major teams have reached college basketball’s biggest stage culminating in 11th-seeded Loyola-Chicago’s stunning run to this weekend’s Final Four in San Antonio.

The unifying thread between Loyola’s Final Four team and its five mid-major predecessors is that each were junior- and senior-laden. George Mason, 2010-11 VCU, 2012-13 Wichita State started at least three seniors, as did the second of Butler’s back-to-back national runner-ups. Loyola’s starting five includes a pair of seniors and two fourth-year juniors. Only Butler’s 2009-10 team is a bit of an exception as the Bulldogs featured three talented sophomores in their starting five along with a junior and a senior.

“When you can have a mid-major, low-major with a great culture, you can beat anybody,” said Michigan coach John Beilein, whose team will face Loyola in the first of Saturday’s national semifinals. “We’ve seen this with VCU, we saw it with George Mason, we saw it with Butler. These teams are good. And it’s just the counter to what happens in many power conferences where we have such young teams.”

Loyola-Chicago head coach Porter Moser, right, talks to his team during a practice session for the Final Four NCAA college basketball tournament, Friday, March 30, 2018, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

It’s no accident Loyola boasts a veteran roster. The Ramblers make it a priority to never have to rely on freshmen and sophomores.

Two of their three leading scorers are transfers who Loyola coach Porter Moser targeted when they left their initial schools. Clayton Custer left Iowa State in search of more playing time after getting stuck behind All-American point guard Monte Morris. Marques Townes was one of Fairleigh Dickinson’s most productive players as a sophomore but left in hopes of challenging himself at a higher level.

Loyola’s bench also includes some players plucked from other schools. 7-foot senior Carson Shanks is a graduate transfer from North Dakota, junior guard Adarius Avery spent the previous two seasons in junior college and forward Aher Uguak is redshirting this season after transferring from New Mexico.

The first-round matchup between Loyola and sixth-seeded Miami was a perfect example of experience overcoming talent. The Hurricanes have several NBA prospects on their roster, but freshman and sophomores logged 65 percent of the playing time in their 64-62 last-second loss.

“One thing we want to do at Loyola is stay old, whether that’s through transfers or through junior college players or whatever we can do,” Loyola assistant coach Drew Valentine said. “At our level, the best teams in our conferences are all older teams. It definitely helps that we’re a veteran team.”

Another advantage that Loyola had over similar teams from 15 years ago is proof that the Final Four was a realistic goal for mid-major programs. The Loyola staff could point to Wichita State’s 2013 run as evidence that an experienced Valley team consisting of transfers and lightly regarded recruits could make it all the way to the Final Four.

“That’s a huge difference,” said Chris Caputo, an assistant coach at George Mason in 2006. “When we were in that locker room, there was nowhere for us to point in modern basketball. We couldn’t tell them, ‘We can do it because George Mason did it. We can do it because VCU did it.’ There was nowhere for us to reference back to.”

Loyola’s ascension from middling mid-major to 32-win power arrived at a perfect time for its conference. The Missouri Valley Conference entered the season with a power vacuum at the top after losing Creighton to the Big East five years ago and Wichita State to the American Athletic Conference last year.

While few outside the Loyola locker room envisioned NCAA tournament victories over Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State, there were signs that the Ramblers were capable of a memorable March. They won at Florida in December, they captured the Valley title by four games and three of their five losses this season came while Custer was injured.

The timing of Loyola’s run should reopen the debate over whether elite teams from one-bid conferences receive enough respect from the NCAA tournament selection committee. Here the Ramblers are in the Final Four, yet their seeding suggests they would not have made the field had they lost in their conference tournament

“What was disturbing to me was that Loyola wasn’t in the conversation,” Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin said. “The bracketologists weren’t giving them the respect that I thought they deserved. The general bias in the system is such that they don’t always recognize a great team if the brand isn’t a recognizable brand. Teams that don’t get a lot of opportunities to play high-major competition don’t have a lot of chances to show that.”

Over the past year, college basketball’s leaders have pressured the NBA to change the one-and-done rule and allow prospects to enter the draft out of high school again. Will that impact the potential for more mid-major Final Four runs in the future? Not even Larranaga is sure.

Said Larranaga, “Before you can anticipate the degree of difficulty, you have to know what the model is.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!