Amid the slew of COVID-19 postponements and cancellations around men’s basketball, two mid-major programs with gaudy records — desperate to get a game in — are seizing an unexpected scheduling opportunity.
They’re going to play each other.
On Thursday at 2 p.m. ET, San Francisco (13-1) will face Loyola Chicago (9-2) at Salt Lake Community College in Salt Lake City, USF coach Todd Golden and Loyola Chicago coach Drew Valentine told CBS Sports. Broadcast details are still being sorted out, but how about it: a JUCO gym will be playing host to arguably the best mid-major nonconference matchup of the 2021-22 season, and it was all arranged less than three days before the game will get played.
These potential at-large mid-major candidates are capitalizing in whatever way possible, determined to make some scheduling lemonade after a rough start to the week.
USF, which plays in the WCC, is yet to play a conference game due to COVID pauses with other WCC programs. On Monday, the Dons had their highly anticipated road game at Gonzaga, scheduled for Thursday, postponed. The league couldn’t get USF an in-conference replacement, so the Dons were freed up for a nonconference opportunity. Loyola Chicago also lost its would-be Missouri Valley opener — scheduled for Thursday vs. Illinois State — due to ISU going on COVID pause.
The Ramblers went on COVID pause before Christmas, but they’ve been back and waiting to play for more than a week. The Ramblers haven’t played a game since Dec. 10, and if you include an emergency game that was scheduled for Sunday against a non-Division I team, LUC had five games taken off its schedule in the previous three weeks.
“When adversity hits in your life or business or career, you have to find a way to pivot and make things work,” Valentine told CBS Sports. “We preach that to our team every single day. This is another example of what we preach and showing them that adversity is nothing other than a roadblock, but there’s always another way. San Francisco is one of the best teams in the country and Todd Golden is another young and passionate coach. We saw that they had a cancellation just like we did, so we reached out to make it happen and he was happy to try to work something out.”
Valentine is in his first season as the head coach of the Ramblers. He was an assistant last season, when LUC reached the Sweet 16 for the second time under Porter Moser. Loyola Chicago ranks 23rd at KenPom and has wins this season over three power-conference teams (Arizona State, at DePaul, at Vanderbilt).
Golden, in his third season with USF, has his team ranked 33rd at KenPom. At 13-1, it’s the program’s best start since 1976-66, when the Dons got to 26-0 before losing their first game. Both these teams received votes in the latest AP Top 25.
“This is simply an awesome opportunity to compete and it is far too good to pass up,” Golden told CBS Sports. “I have great respect for Drew and his program. He’s continued to raise the bar, as his team currently sits in the top 20 of the NET. When we began working together to figure out a way to play this game, we both agreed we would do everything we could to make it work. He kept his word, and we will head to Salt Lake City on Wednesday.”
While men’s college basketball has taken on huge scheduling hits two seasons in a row, the pandemic has also highlighted just how willing, flexible and opportunistic programs are with scheduling improvisation. There were numerous examples of this a season ago, and recently, just before Christmas, Kentucky scheduled Western Kentucky in a rare home game at Rupp Arena vs. the Hilltoppers after the UK-Louisville game was called off due to COVID.
“This is an incredible opportunity for our team to get to play another high level team in a tournament style game,” Valentine said. “Getting to play this team will prepare us for the rest of our season.”
Heading into their unexpected matchup, Loyola Chicago ranks 18th in the NET and USF is 34th. The schools have met five times prior, the most recent coming in 2010. Loyola Chicago carries a 3-2 edge.