Through the ‘Valley’ of the Shadow of Depth
The Missouri Valley Conference could finally send multiple bids dancing.
by Scott Gleeson | @ScottMGleeson
Missouri State senior Kyle Weems remembers sitting at his coach’s house and watching Selection Sunday last March. With his teammates by his side, all on pins and needles, the on-the-bubble Bears waited, but ultimately did not hear “Missouri State” roll off Greg Gumbel’s tongue.
“It definitely hurt, we thought we were in,” said Weems, the Missouri Valley Conference’s Player of the Year in 2010.
For the fourth straight year, the Missouri Valley Conference only sent one team to the NCAA tournament, watching Indiana State play as the league’s lone representative in the Big Dance while tournament-worthy Missouri State and Wichita State were left to play in the NIT.
After the Valley shipped four teams to the NCAAs in 2006, the once-dominant Cinderella hotbed has been subject to a one-bid trend. Each season, a Valley team served as one of the “first teams out” on the bubble with Missouri State (2011), Wichita State (2010), Creighton (2009) and Illinois State (2008) getting snubbed.
“Our league is starting to have a sense of urgency to return to a level where we can expect multiple bids,” Commissioner Doug Elgin said prior to the season.
Past the midway point in the conference schedule, it’s apparent that the Valley is in prime position to get multiple NCAA bids. More importantly, the league has rekindled a respectability it once had as a mid-major power conference. Following a year when two mid-majors (Butler and VCU) reached the Final Four, the search for bracket-shattering mid-majors is magnified on the Valley.
“This is the best the league has been in my five years here by far,” Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said. “I’d argue that some of the middle-of-the-pack teams, in previous years, would have won the league. And the good teams are some of the best in the country this year.”
Helping catapult the MVC’s national profile has been No. 14/15 Creighton (19-2, 9-1 MVC), which features one of the best players in the country in do-everything sophomore Doug McDermott, who’s averaging 23.5 points and 8.5 rebounds a game. The Bluejays have been ranked virtually all season and a main reason for that is thanks to a grueling nonconference schedule, which serves as the resume bullet point for the NCAA committee.
“If you look at the RPI of teams from our league, you can see that we went out and scheduled aggressively in the nonconference portion and we’ve been able to benefit from that,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, Doug’s father. “Not many teams are playing true road games against quality teams. We weren’t afraid to do that.”
The Missouri Valley, which faces the Mountain West in an early-season challenge, ranks eighth in RPI out of the country’s 32 conferences, ahead of the Pac-10 and Conference USA. Creighton has a stunning RPI of 13, while Wichita State isn’t far behind with a 24 RPI.
The Shockers (18-3, 9-1) have been flirting with the top 25 rankings for much of the season and remain tied atop the league with Creighton. Last season, Wichita State lost an ESPN BracketBusters game on its home floor to eventual Final Four-finishing VCU. Many analysts pointed to that game as to why Wichita State was ousted and VCU got into the Dance, causing Jay Bilas to lose his mind. After getting snubbed for the second straight season in the tournament, Wichita made a statement by winning the NIT and finishing at 29-8.
“I think we were disappointed with finishing second in the conference last year,” said Wichita State senior center Garrett Stutz, who leads the Shockers in scoring (12.9 ppg) and rebounding (7.7 rpg). “But beating all of those bigger schools [Virginia Tech, Alabama] and winning the NIT proved that we can play against anybody. It set us up for a great season this year.”
And the scary thing is that Wichita State wasn’t even the best team in the conference last year. Missouri State, coached then by Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin, beat the Shockers twice and won the conference regular season title, only to fall in the conference tournament final to a surging Indiana State team.
“Our perspective this year is that you just can’t leave it in the (NCAA committee’s) hands,” Weems said.
Translation: win the conference tournament or play in the NIT or another consolation tournament.
Creighton and Wichita State appear to be shoe-ins to make the Dance this season thanks to their resumes, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be more than two bids.
“I think there’s a high chance that three teams get in,” McDermott said. “The past couple of seasons, the (regular season) champion won the tournament. This year, it’ll be a toss-up. It’s going to be a dogfight. This is a great league from top to bottom this year. It’s much better than anyone anticipated.”
2006 was the Valley’s golden year, shipping four teams to the NCAA tournament—Bradley, Southern Illinois, Wichita State and Northern Iowa. And Missouri State that year was the top snub, boasting the highest RPI to not get a selection.
“I think the conference is as strong as it was that year but what we’re seeing is teams beating each other up,” said McDermott, who was coaching Northern Iowa in 2006. “It happens in every conference, but it hurts mid-majors when we’re fighting to make the tournament.”
After Creighton and Wichita, four teams are tied in third place at 5-5 in league play: Illinois State (13-8), Drake (12-9), Missouri State (12-10) and Evansville (10-10). Then there’s Northern Iowa and Indiana State trailing close behind. Of those teams, none possess the resume to earn at at-large bid in the NCAAs, but all have the ability to win the MVC tournament in St. Louis.
“Any team can win in this league on any given night,” said Evansville coach Marty Simmons. “This is the best the Valley has been in my tenure without a doubt.”
While players and coaches are pleased with the intensified level of play this season, they are adamant that the league has been underrated for some time now.
“This league is no joke,” Weems said. “There’s a lot of physical play, some real underrated athletes. Every night, you gotta bring your A-game.”
“Every year that I’ve been here, I’ve thought the Valley deserved at least two (NCAA tournament bids). This year, if there aren’t multiple bids, something is terribly wrong,” Jankovich said. “What’s happening is, our league is cyclical. Teams grow up. We have teams loaded with talent and experience that always seem to fare well in the NCAA tournament.”
Fighting to break a big-school bias that many college basketball analysts exude is never easy, especially when the NCAA committee analyzes every last detail. The MVC serves as a perfect example.
“Teams improve as the season goes on. I always get frustrated when a BCS team loses to a mid-major and you hear, ‘wait until they play in February.’ Mid-major teams get better as the season goes on as well, which is why it’s not always fair to judge based on nonconference games,” McDermott said.
While conferences such as the Mountain West have come close to dropping the “mid-major” tag, the Missouri Valley is more on pace to separate itself as the top mid-major conference in the country. What seems to set the MVC apart is the passionate fan base and top-tier venues. Creighton (drawing over 16,000 fans) and Wichita State (original building from 1953) provide some of the most unique college basketball atmospheres in the country.
“I tell our recruits that we’re in one of the best leagues in the nation, a top 10 conference, with great talent and incredible coaches,” Simmons said. “But what separates us from other mid major conferences is the type of environment that we play in. The arenas that we play at provide a big-time college atmosphere with great fan support.”
A Glance at the Valley
Creighton (19-2, 9-1 MVC)
The Bluejays are a lock for the Big Dance at this point, but how high of a seed they get is contingent upon their finish on the home stretch of the Valley season and their performance in the conference tournament. They coughed up a bad loss to St. Joe’s and lost their conference opener to Missouri State but have gotten things together since. Soon-to-be All-American McDermott is far from alone on this squad, as Antoine Young (11.7 ppg, 4.3 apg) and Gregory Echenique (9.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg) provide assistance.
Wichita State (18-3, 9-1 MVC)
The Shockers have the perfect recipe for NCAA tournament success: a senior-laden, experienced team with depth. Their balanced scoring attack features six players averaging over 8 points a game. Toure’ Murry (12.3 ppg) provides the athleticism while the 7-footer Stutz does the dirty work. They lost twice in November, but have only lost to Creighton since.
Missouri State (12-10, 5-5 MVC)
Despite returning one of the conference’s most lethal players in Weems (15.9 ppg, 7.4 rpg), the defending regular season champ Bears haven’t had the same type of success as last season under new coach Paul Lusk. Missouri State has lost a handful of close games—losing to Illinois State and Evansville in overtime and to Creighton and Northern Iowa by one point.
Illinois State (13-8, 5-5 MVC)
The Redbirds have one of the least experienced teams in the conference but that hasn’t stopped Jankovich’s young crew from making noise thanks to the right amount of team chemistry. The ‘Birds made SportsCenter with a buzzer-beater to knock off Evansville and are in contention to finish third in the league. Jackie Carmichael (13.4 ppg, 8.6 rpg) is coming into his own while freshman point guard Nick Moore (9.1 ppg, 3.8 apg) has given ISU a little-engine-that-could tenacity the team has lacked in years’ past.
Evansville (10-10, 5-5 MVC)
The Purple Aces’ record doesn’t look pretty, but considering they’ve played teams such as Indiana and North Carolina, it’s not hard to tell why they’re only at .500. “It gives us a good barometer,” Simmons said of playing a team like UNC. (The ‘Aces got obliterated 97-48). Evansville started off the season on the right foot, knocking off Butler 80-77 in overtime, but has been inconsistent, losing mostly close games. Colt Ryan (21 points a game) is the conference’s best player behind McDermott.
Drake (12-9, 5-5 MVC)
The Bulldogs have one of the best inside-out games in the league behind Rayvonte Rice (17.2 ppg) and Ben Simons (15.6 ppg).They’ve been awfully streaky, losing three straight, then winning four straight, then losing two in a row. But if they hit their groove towards the end of the season and are clicking on all cylinders, they’ll be a dangerous postseason team.
Northern Iowa (14-8, 4-6 MVC)
It seems like yesterday that Ali Farokhmanesh drilled a clutch trey help Northern Iowa beat Kansas and put the Missouri Valley on the map. Now, the Panthers are fighting mediocrity at 4-6 in the Valley. After finishing the nonconference schedule 10-2, UNI appeared poised for a strong MVC season, but perhaps the team’s inconsistency is a testament to the strength of the league. Anthony James (13.7 ppg) and Jake Koch (10.1 ppg) pace Ben Jacobson’s methodical offense.
Indiana State (12-9, 3-7 MVC)
Indiana State is a perfect example of a team that scheduled smart and finished its nonconference schedule strong at 9-2. But then the conference season hit the Sycamores like a brick wall. Coming off an NCAA tournament appearance and returning a bulk of the talent, the Sycamores were picked to finish third in the league. At 3-7, that prediction seems way off now. Sophomore point guard Jake Odom (9.9 ppg, 5.5 apg, 5.5 rpg) pilots an offense that hasn’t caught fire yet.
Southern Illinois (7-14, 4-6 MVC)
SIU coach Chris Lowery’s job security continues to dwindle with each loss. The Salukis are certainly not the Salukis of the mid-2000s, but they have progressed significantly over the course of the long season and they’ve been playing decent in conference play. Senior Mamadou Seck (12.9 ppg, 8.1 rpg) is playing like an all-league player but no one else on Southern is doing much.
Bradley (6-16, 1-9)
First-year coach Geno Ford didn’t exactly walk into a perfect situation, but he isn’t exactly righting the ship at a rapid pace. Bradley has become the Valley’s only punching bag in a year when easy wins are hard to come by. Senior Taylor Brown (16.7 ppg, 7 rpg) is back after an injury and breathing life into an often lifeless squad.