Part 1: Into the great wide open   

Updated: February 7, 2007, 2:56 PM ET

  • Comment
  • Email
  • Print
  • Share

Editor's note: This week Page 2 sends editor Kieran Darcy along the highways and byways of the Missouri Valley Conference for a first-person slice of life in the mightiest of college basketball's mid-majors. Upcoming stops: Monday, Northern Iowa; Tuesday, Missouri State; Wednesday, Southern Illinois; Thursday, Evansville.

"Omaha … somewhere in middle America … gettin' right to the heart of matters … it's the heart that matters more."
-- Counting Crows

Grant Seiler and Josh Werth

Kieran Darcy/ESPN.com

Grant Seiler and Josh Werth braved sub-zero wind chills to secure the best seats to see their beloved Shockers.

OMAHA, Neb. -- That song was one of the first things that popped in my head when I got the good news that I'd be spending a week touring the Missouri Valley Conference.

Actually, the chorus sums up quite nicely what I'm trying to do out here, in middle America: get right to the heart of matters … of college basketball.

The Missouri Valley Conference has been one of the most talked-about conferences in college hoops over the past couple years. Why? Because no one's quite sure how to define it.

In terms of name recognition, the Missouri Valley has been lumped in with all the other non-BCS conferences which usually provide a single Cinderella candidate each to the Big Dance. Yet the MVC is actually the second-oldest conference in the country (behind only the Big Ten) and is celebrating its 100-year anniversary this season. Some legendary players have played in the MVC, including Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird.

In terms of quality of play, the Missouri Valley has pulled much closer to the major conferences in the past decade. In each of the past eight years, the MVC has received multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament. Last season the MVC received four bids, with two of those teams (Bradley and Wichita State) making the Sweet Sixteen.

This season, the Missouri Valley is stronger than it's ever been. It's the No. 5-ranked conference in the country, according to the RPI (ahead of the Big East and the Big 12). All 10 teams in the conference have an overall record of .500 or better (the SEC is the only other conference that can say that). At this point, six MVC teams can make a legitimate argument that they belong in the NCAA Tournament.

So, is the Missouri Valley a major conference, or a mid-major? Does it really matter? That's just semantics, as far as I'm concerned. What this New York City native wanted to know was, what's life like in this unique section of the college hoops landscape?

The only way to find out was to hit the road …

Wichita, Kansas
When I landed in Wichita on Friday evening and stepped off the plane, the bitter cold stung like a slap in the face. The temperature was in the teens. Then I remembered what Wichita State sports information director Larry Rankin had told me -- that students had been sleeping in tents outside Charles Koch Arena since Wednesday night, in anticipation of Saturday afternoon's game against Southern Illinois.

ON THE ROAD

I'll be doing quite a bit of driving on this trip, so I thought I'd provide a few tidbits from my time spent in the ol' red Pontiac G6 …
Drive 1: Wichita, Kan. to Omaha, Neb.
Distance: 384 miles
Time: 6 hours, 5 minutes
Diet Cokes: Two 20 oz. bottles, one large McDonald's cup
Song of the drive: "Brimful of Asha" by Cornershop. Forgot how catchy this song is.
Talk radio segment of the drive: Bob Saget discussing hanging out with the Olsen twins on the Howard Stern Show -- thank god for Sirius Satellite Radio.
Random thought of the drive: I cruised through Lawrence, Kan., less than an hour before Kansas and Texas A&M tipped off Saturday night, and I almost made a pit stop to try to finagle my way into the game.
--Kieran Darcy

I had to go meet these brave souls.

I arrived at Koch Arena at 8:45 p.m. and found a group of students -- roughly 75 of them -- clustered by the back entrance. Many of them were carrying sleeping bags, and three tents were still standing off to the right. Krzyzewskiville it was not -- but considering the temperature, I was impressed.

The school was hosting a sleepover in the practice gym -- "Kampout at Koch Arena." The doors weren't supposed to open 'til 9 p.m. But security (mercifully) opened the doors 10 minutes early and began letting students in.

Within a few minutes, the students got comfortable. Several were munching on free pizza. A few others were shooting hoops. A couple guys were playing "College Hoops 2K7" on a big-screen television -- Wichita State vs. Southern Illinois, of course. Another handful of students was planted in chairs in front of a large projection screen, staring intently at a highlight video from Wichita State's Sweet Sixteen run a season ago, when it knocked off Seton Hall and Tennessee before falling to George Mason.

With four starters returning from that squad, expectations were high for this season. And the Shockers got off to a great start. They won their first nine games, including wins at LSU and at Syracuse, and rose to No. 8 in the national rankings. Then they lost six of their first nine conference games before winning three in a row prior to Saturday's matchup with the Salukis.

The team's struggles clearly hadn't dampened the spirits of those attending the sleepover Friday night. After wandering around the practice gym for a while, I found the two guys who had occupied the second tent in line -- sophomore Grant Seiler and freshman Josh Werth. They had been outside since 10 a.m. Thursday morning, wanting to score the best possible seats for Saturday's game.

"It was terrible," Seiler said about sleeping outside in the frigid temperatures -- the wind chill was below zero Thursday night. "I lost complete feeling in my body around 1 a.m. But it'll be worth it tomorrow."

RELATED CONTENT

Missouri Valley standings
Bradley clubhouse
Creighton clubhouse
Drake clubhouse
Evansville clubhouse
Illinois State clubhouse
Indiana State clubhouse
Missouri State clubhouse
Northern Iowa clubhouse
Southern Illinois clubhouse
Wichita State clubhouse

Werth also got a new pair of sneakers out of the deal. He'd left his shoes outside the tent when he went to sleep, and when he woke up his shoes were gone. But Shockers forward P.J. Couisnard came to his rescue. "P.J. came out of practice and talked to us," said Werth. "When he heard what happened he asked me, 'Do you want a pair of shoes?' I thought he was kidding. But he went back inside, and sure enough he came out with a pair of sneakers for me."

When I arrived back at Koch Arena on Saturday afternoon, an hour before tip-off, I saw Seiler and Werth in their front-row seats behind one of the baskets, faces painted black and yellow, looking happy as could be. Soon Koch Arena was packed to the gills. It seats 10,478, but based on the noise level when the Shockers took the floor, you would have thought the entire city of Wichita was inside -- and Wichita's the largest city in Kansas! The cheers literally sent an electric charge through my body. It was the loudest arena I've ever been in.

The crowd was probably a little extra juiced because the game was being televised on ESPN2 -- still a big deal for the Missouri Valley. But Southern Illinois' defense quieted the crowd considerably. Wichita State has some talented offensive players -- 6-foot-8 senior Kyle Wilson and Couisnard (a 6-4 junior) can score from both the paint and the perimeter, and 6-2 junior Sean Ogirri is a dangerous outside shooter. But the Salukis played stifling man-to-man defense, contesting every pass, let alone every shot. The Shockers managed only five field goals in the first half, and trailed 32-19 at the break.

The Shockers applied full-court pressure late in the game and made a bit of headway, but Southern Illinois was never in serious danger and wound up with a 54-46 win, remaining in first place in the conference at 10-3. Wichita State dropped to 6-7 in the Valley, very much in danger of missing the NCAA Tournament.

Pop-a-shot

Kieran Darcy/ESPN.com

Wichita State fans enjoyed the festivities at
the Kampout at Koch Arena last Friday night.

Seiler and Werth looked dazed and confused as they quickly fled Koch Arena. Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon, Wilson, Couisnard and Ogirri looked equally devastated in the press room after the game.

"I knew the crowd was going to be great today," said Turgeon. "Sometimes at home there's more pressure on these kids … we might have just tried too hard."

"The crowd support was awesome," Wilson told me. "We know a lot of people cheer their butts off for us. We just didn't have enough today."

With that said, Wilson walked through the tunnel back onto the court, where his family was waiting, and gave his father a hug.

Omaha, Nebraska
The congregation wasn't quite as big as usual at Sunday morning's 10:30 a.m. Mass at St. John's Church on the campus of Creighton University, according to Father Ted Bohr.

That might have been because people were sleeping off the events of the night before.

I arrived in Omaha late Saturday night, and checked out a place called The Holiday Lounge. The Holiday, from what I'd heard, would likely be full of Creighton fans because it sponsored a bus trip to the Bluejays' game at Drake (about two hours away in Des Moines, Iowa) earlier that evening. Fifty-five bucks bought you a ride to and from the game, as well as food and drink on the bus.

Holiday Lounge

Kieran Darcy/ESPN.com

The Holiday Lounge in Omaha is a popular place to get together and talk Creighton basketball.

Sure enough, The Holiday was packed with fans. And they were a happy bunch -- with good reason. The Bluejays had come from behind to knock off Drake 67-62, and they were now tied with Southern Illinois for first place in the Valley.

Creighton is a Catholic university founded by Jesuit priests in 1878 in Omaha, the largest city in Nebraska. It has been ranked No. 1 among Midwestern colleges by U.S. News and World Report for three straight years -- but it's perhaps best known for the success of its men's basketball team. The Bluejays have made the NCAA Tournament six of the past eight years and are the first team in Missouri Valley history to win 20 or more games in eight consecutive seasons.

The Creighton campus has been energized by the basketball team's success again this season.

"You can tell, just by walking around, if the team's doing well," Father Bohr told me. "There's just a buzz. It really brings everybody together."

But the team's extremely important to the entire community as well. Creighton now plays its home games at the four-year-old Qwest Center in downtown Omaha, which seats 17,272 people. Despite representing a university of less than 7,000 students, the team often fills the Qwest Center. "The university and the city have been so supportive," said Creighton coach Dana Altman. "We have a team that the people of Omaha have grown to love."

Altman, now in his 13th season at Creighton, has revitalized the program during his tenure. When he started here, the team was averaging about 3,000 fans per home game. Now Creighton draws crowds that would make some NBA teams jealous.

This year's squad got off to a bit of a rough start (by Creighton standards), going 6-4 in the nonconference portion of its schedule, with losses to Nebraska, Dayton, Fresno State and Hawaii -- although all four of those losses occurred on the road. The Bluejays have picked it up in conference play -- they're 10-3, and those three losses have been by a combined seven points.

Nate Funk

AP photo/Nati Harnik

Crieghton senior guard Nate Funk
is the top scorer in the MVC with
an average of 17.4 points per game.

Creighton is led this season by 6-3 senior guard Nate Funk, the Preseason MVC Player of the Year, who's averaging 17.4 points per game. The other key player is 6-9 senior center Anthony Tolliver, who's averaging 13.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.

Altman gave his team the day off on Sunday after the win at Drake. But I caught up with reserve guard Nick Bahe early Sunday afternoon at Pauli's, a well-known sports bar in Omaha. Bahe has an interesting perspective on Creighton because he grew up in Nebraska, but went to Kansas and rode the pine there for two years before transferring to Creighton.

I asked Bahe about the difference between playing at a school such as Kansas and one such as Creighton.

"The biggest difference," said Bahe, "is that at a place like Kansas, the thought of not making the NCAA Tournament never enters a Jayhawk's mind. But that's on our mind every game here. Every game in this league counts so much. You never know what the [selection] committee's gonna look at."

Later I asked Bahe about the best part of playing for Creighton.

"People come up to you constantly," said Bahe. "I'll be pushing my grocery cart, or going into a movie, and people will come up to you and say, 'Good win last night,' or 'You're doing a great job.' It's absolutely incredible.

"Creighton's in a big city, but it feels like a small town. Everybody seems to care a little more … and it makes you feel accountable. These people care so much, and they deserve your max effort."

Suddenly the pain on the faces of Mark Turgeon and the Wichita State players on Saturday made a lot more sense.

COMING TUESDAY: Is this heaven? No, it's Iowa …

Kieran Darcy is an editor for Page 2. You can e-mail him at kieran.d.darcy@espn3.com.


Comments

You must be signed in to post a comment

Already have an account?