EVANSVILLE, Ind. -- We see Steve Merfeld every March. That image of him kicking his legs in the air, wild with glee, is now a permanent fixture in CBS's NCAA Tournament intro package.
It was one of the most memorable shining moments in March Madness history -- Merfeld's No. 15-seeded Hampton Pirates upsetting No. 2 seed Iowa State in 2001, setting off that wonderful celebration.
Six years later, Merfeld is in his fifth season as the head coach at Evansville -- and he's still looking for his first NCAA shining moment with the Purple Aces.
Page 2's resident college basketball junkie, Kieran Darcy, hits the road for a grassroots tour of the Missouri Valley Conference.
With all the hoopla surrounding Southern Illinois and Creighton's great success this season and Wichita State and Bradley's run to last season's Sweet 16 and Blake Ahearn's free-throw shooting, and Missouri State's quest to get back to the Big Dance, it's very easy to forget the other teams in the Missouri Valley sometimes.
Evansville is one of those "other" Valley teams. The university, located in a city of approximately 120,000 people on the Ohio River, has a strong basketball tradition. Utah Jazz coach Jerry Sloan played for the Purple Aces from 1963-65. But the basketball team is probably best known for having sleeves on its uniforms, prior to the sleeves being shelved in 2002.
Unfortunately, the uniform change didn't change Evansville's fortunes. The Purple Aces haven't played in the postseason since 1999.
Merfeld's disappointment about that was obvious when I visited with him in his office Thursday afternoon. But he also said he's seen a lot of progress with his team, even if it hasn't looked that way in the standings.
"We've gotten better," Merfeld said, "but the league has gotten way better. If you'd told somebody five years ago that this conference would be ranked No. 5 in the country, nobody would have believed you."
While Merfeld's Purple Aces have played good, the Valley is playing great.
This season Evansville returned all five starters from a year ago, including 6-foot-8 forward Matt Webster, who's once again leading the team in scoring this season at 16.4 points per game. And the Purple Aces have a couple of big wins on their resume, including a 75-68 victory over first-place Southern Illinois on Jan. 17. But overall, Evansville is 12-13, and just 5-9 in the Valley.
The consistency is simply not there -- and Merfeld brought up his team's most recent game on Wednesday night as a prime example. Evansville led 48-34 at halftime at Creighton, which is tied for first place in the conference. But within the first few minutes of the second half, that lead had evaporated, and Evansville went on to lose 79-74.
What's the solution? The same answer as always: get better players. But it's tough going up against the Valley programs that have a national profile now, like Creighton and Southern Illinois.
"And some of it's just plain old luck," Merfeld said. "You try to evaluate talent as best you can. But at the end of the day, with recruiting, part of it is just getting lucky."
Merfeld said he doesn't ponder his shining moment at Hampton very often.
"It's a thing of the past," he said. "I treasure those memories, but it really only pops in my head around tournament time."
Hopefully one of these Marches it will be Evansville's turn to shine.
TERRE HAUTE, Ind. -- So my original Missouri Valley itinerary had Evansville as my final destination. Indiana State was playing at Wichita State Thursday evening -- so I figured I didn't really need to cram in a trip to Terre Haute.
But as the week wore on, I started feeling guilty. And guiltier. I was visiting seven of the 10 Missouri Valley campuses -- and although I couldn't squeeze in visits to Illinois State and Bradley, at least I'd get to see their teams play along the way. Indiana State was the only Valley school I wouldn't visit or see play.
This is what happens when you abuse your rental car.
On Thursday morning I canceled my hotel reservation in Evansville, and made one in Terre Haute. It just felt like the right thing to do.
After meeting with Merfeld in Evansville, I hopped back in my car for one last drive on my Missouri Valley tour. I lost an hour when I crossed into the Eastern time zone, and rolled into Terre Haute at just after 6:30 p.m. It was already getting dark.
I took a quick drive through campus -- but it was hard to notice much in the darkness. So I figured I'd stop for a beer in a watering hole around campus, and see if there was any Sycamore talk going on. I drove by Imperial Lanes and Al's Sports Bar, right across the street from an entrance to the campus. I didn't know if it was an Indiana State hangout -- but it was close, and there were plenty of cars in the parking lot. I figured I'd give it a shot.
There were a lot of people in the bowling alley but very few in the sports bar. And it didn't look like a college crowd. Oh well. They had a college hoops game on TV, but it was DePaul-Notre Dame. The Indiana State game was tipping off in about 20 minutes, but unfortunately it wasn't being televised.
I sat down, ordered a beer, and started watching the Blue Demons and the Fighting Irish. But my heart wasn't in it. I kept thinking about Wichita State-Indiana State. How would the Shockers bounce back from that brutal loss to Southern Illinois I saw Saturday? How loud would Koch Arena be for the game against the Sycamores? Where were Grant Seiler and Josh Werth sitting?
Next thing you know, I was back in my car, headed for my hotel, to listen to the game on 92.7 FM.
On the way back, I heard Indiana State coach Royce Waltman being interviewed on the Sycamores' pregame show. The host asked him about playing in Koch Arena. I expected the typical coach response, about how tough it is to play there and how rough the home fans can be.
Drive 5: Carbondale, Ill., to Evansville, Ind., to Terre Haute, Ind.
Instead, Waltman said, "I love when we play there. It's probably my favorite place to play in the entire league."
Just one more reason to love the Missouri Valley.
Over the past five days I've tried to give you a small glimpse of each of the Missouri Valley's 10 teams. In the process I hope I've painted a larger picture of how special this conference is. I would have loved to spend more time at each school, with each team. I especially would have loved to visit Illinois State and Bradley -- nothing personal guys, this was just the only way I could make the schedule work. I promise, on my next tour of the Missouri Valley, I'll kick things off in Peoria and Normal, Ill.
Pretty soon we'll all be obsessing about the NCAA Tournament. And us Valley junkies will be fixated on speculation about which teams will get a bid.
But for now, I'll leave you with a message I saw in the Missouri State team meeting room on Tuesday, written on a sign above a doorway: "Enjoy the journey."
I certainly enjoyed this one.
Kieran Darcy is an editor for Page 2. You can e-mail him at Kieran.email@example.com. His Missouri Valley tour may be over, but he's not heading home just yet. He's making a couple more pit stops. Want to know where he's going next? Check out Page 2 on Monday.