Look at the overall picture and Valley's fine

Updated: February 27, 2006, 1:32 AM ET
By Joe Lunardi | Special to ESPN Insider

I've heard the snickering. I watched the reaction when the Missouri Valley Conference went 5-5 in BracketBusters. There's no way, everyone suddenly thinks, that the MVC will get a record four (or even five) NCAA Tournament bids.

The argument goes something like this:

• Wichita State lost at home to George Mason.
• Southern Illinois lost at home to Louisiana Tech.
• Northern Iowa nearly lost at home to Bucknell.
• Only Northern Iowa (Iowa, at LSU) has significant non-conference wins.
• Those two games are elevating everyone in the MVC and other non-majors who play Valley teams.
• There's no way the Missouri Valley is better than the ACC, Big 12, or Pac-10 (four projected bids apiece).

Short of also blaming the MVC for the war in Iraq, most of this is still a reach. And I believe it stems from a mind-set that evaluates the Missouri Valley in mid-major terms.

What does that mean? Mainly, it means we are looking for reasons to exclude additional Valley teams instead of reasons to include them in the NCAA field. We're just conditioned to think that way about conferences outside the BCS brand.

Most of the time, this thinking is reasonably correct. Most of the time, the fifth-best team in the ACC, Big 12, or Pac-10 is going to have a far better profile than its Missouri Valley counterpart. All of the time, the BCS "bubble team" gets more benefit of the doubt than its non-major cousins.

But this isn't one of those times. Through no more than coincidence, the MVC is having its best year at the exact moment the major conference bubble is, to be kind, pretty dreadful. Look at the "best" teams currently just missing the bracket from the major conferences and you'll see what I mean:

• ACC/Maryland (0-5 vs. RPI Top 25, 1-5 on the road)
• BIG 12/Iowa State (4-8 conference record, 3-7 in last 10 games)
• BIG EAST/Syracuse (1-8 vs. RPI Top 50, 4-6 in last 10 games)
• BIG TEN/Indiana (2-7 vs. RPI Top 25, 3-7 in last 10 games)
• PAC-10/Stanford (13-10 overall record, RPI No. 100)
• SEC/South Carolina (13-11 overall record, 5-7 SEC record)

Short of Syracuse, which I think will eventually play its way into the field, it's not like the big-timers are breaking the door down with quality teams. And the current bracket already includes suspect majors such as Colorado, Michigan, Arizona and Arkansas, not to mention two teams each from Conference USA, the CAA, the Mountain West and the WAC.

In other words, there is plenty of room in this year's bracket for anyone with a halfway-decent NCAA profile. And the five Valley teams currently in the field more than fit the bill. To that end, let's answer point-by-point the original argument above:

• Wichita State lost at home to George Mason;
• Southern Illinois lost at home to Louisiana Tech;
• Northern Iowa nearly lost at home to Bucknell
The best Missouri Valley teams were so highly rated coming into BracketBusters that they drew virtually all of the high-level challengers in the field. And several of them (George Mason and Bucknell, in particular) were playing for their at-large lives against teams pretty much guaranteed NCAA berths.

• Only Northern Iowa (Iowa, at LSU) has significant non-conference wins;
• Those two games are elevating everyone in the MVC and other non-majors who play Valley teams.
This is correct as far as it goes. For one, the trickle-down effect isn't as great as some seem to think. And, more importantly, there are major conference teams every single year who pile up impressive non-conference records against suspect competition before boosting the RPI of fellow conference members once league play begins. You can't fault the Valley for beating some of the majors at their own game.

• There's no way the Missouri Valley is better than the ACC, Big 12, or Pac-10 (four projected bids apiece)
Always remember that individual teams, not conferences, are what the NCAA tournament committee evaluates. Individually, only one Valley team (Missouri State) had a "must" game this past weekend. The Bears won at Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and that's the only reason the MVC still projects to five NCAA bids. Missouri State could still miss the NCAAs, of course, as could fading Southern Illinois, but it won't have anything to do with the relative merits of the MVC in comparison to the BCS heavyweights.

A quick history lesson before we move on: In both 1997 and 1998, the nation's No. 7 conference sent five teams to the tournament but had no legitimate Final Four contender. This is essentially the case for the Missouri Valley in 2006, which compares favorably (if not a little better) to what happened at least twice in the last decade:

Five for the Valley?
1996-97 1997-98 2005-06
Conference Atlantic 10 Atlantic 10 Missouri Valley
Conf. Rank No. 7 No. 7 No. 6
Teams (RPI) St. Joe's (12)
Rhode Island (23)
Xavier (28)
Temple (38)
UMass (45)
UMass (20)
Rhode Island (22)
Xavier (23)
Temple (26)
GW (34)
No. Iowa (22)
Wichita St. (24)
Missouri St. (26)
Creighton (30)
So. Illinois (36)

Just think, I could make a case for Bradley as a sixth Missouri Valley team! Maybe next week.

Joe Lunardi is the resident Bracketologist for ESPN, ESPN.com and ESPN Radio. Comments may be sent to bracketology@comcast.net.

Joe Lunardi | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com