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Stronger MVC hoping for three NCAA bids

It might show consistency or something of a trend, but a run of six consecutive seasons is not a fluke.

Since the 1998-99 season, there has been a constant come March:
The Missouri Valley Conference sends multiple teams to the
NCAA tournament. The Valley sent three teams in '99 and two every season
since then.

In the process, the Valley schools have tormented program after
program from the major conferences. Southwest Missouri State reached the
Sweet 16 in 1999. Southern Illinois did the same in 2002. Creighton and
Indiana State have both won first-round games.

The list of big-school victims is pretty impressive: Wisconsin,
Tennessee, Louisville, Oklahoma, Florida, Texas Tech and Georgia (back
when the Bulldogs were good). And that doesn't even count the teams Valley schools have scared to death.

In 2003, Southern Illinois had a Missouri team that eventually
reached Elite Eight on the ropes before losing by one in the first
round. Last season, the Salukis lost another one-point game to an
eventual Elite Eight team, this time Alabama.

And remember Georgia Tech's run to last season's national championship game? Well, Northern
Iowa had a chance to tie in the final seconds of their first-round game.
If Ben Jacobson's three-pointer had fallen, the Yellow Jackets might not have even
gotten to the tournament's second round.

And here's the scary part for the nation's major conferences: As
good as the Valley has been in recent years, the conference might be even better
this season. As conference play gets fully cranked up across the
country this week, there are few leagues that have had more impressive
starts to the season than the Missouri Valley.

"It's very similar to the '98-99 season," said Creighton coach Dana
Altman, the most experienced of the league's coaches. "We had great
balance that year. ... The league from top to bottom was very tough."

Sounds a lot like the projections for this season's race. While
Altman's Bluejays and the Salukis have dominated recent regular seasons -- they've combined to win or share each of the past for titles -- they have come company this season. Wichita State (9-1) was undefeated in
November and December before losing to Manhattan on Monday. Northern
Iowa (9-2) defeated Iowa State and pushed Cincinnati and Iowa to
the wire before losing. Bradley (8-2) was 7-1 in nonconference play,
defeating DePaul, Butler and Pepperdine.

While national attention will likely focus on Creighton
and Southern Illinois (they play Sunday in Omaha), any of five schools
could win the regular-season title.

"I think our league is extremely strong," Shockers coach Mark
Turgeon said. "We've played extremely well and won some big games.

"I'm proud of our league. I'm proud of the way everyone has
played."

The Valley schools have combined to go 68-25 against
nonconference opponents and eight of the 10 schools entered January
with winning records. With the strong play, the Valley is currently No.
7 in the Ratings Percentage Index, one spot ahead of the West Coast
Conference and two spots in front of Conference USA. Led by Southern
Illinois at No. 22, six MVC schools are in the top 100 in the RPI.

But what's been most impressive has been the Valley's
performance against the six BCS conferences. Thanks in part to 2-0
records against both the Big East and the Southeastern conferences, the
Missouri Valley is a combined 9-8 against the six power conferences.

To put that into perspective, the Big Ten (19-24), Pac-10
(10-12) and SEC (8-20) all failed to post winning records against the
other five BCS schools. Despite having the nation's No. 1 team in
Illinois, the Big Ten failed to win a greater percentage of its games
than the Valley did.

The reason for the success, at least according to the coaches,
is pretty simple: good players. Every team in the conference returned at
least two starters from a year ago while five teams (Drake, Evansville,
Illinois State, Indiana State and Wichita State) return four or five
starters.

So what does this strong start mean for the Missouri Valley?
Well, there are two ways to look at it.

It's possible league play will do more damage than good to
the Missouri Valley. Because the conference is so balanced and there are
so many good teams, there's certainly a concern that no two or three
teams will separate themselves from the rest of the pack and the Valley
will get shortchanged come March. The "eat-your-own" theory is very
popular in the Mid-American Conference, where several coaches contend the
league's balance has kept deserving MAC teams from reaching the NCAA
tournament.

However, league strength should help the Valley from
dropping too far in the RPI. While the MVC might get passed over the next
two months, staying at No. 7 in the conference RPI would be crucial.

Over the past decade, the seventh-rated conference in the RPI
has averaged four berths in the NCAA tournament. Five times the No. 7
conference has received five or more invitations in the tournament while
only once (the WAC in 2001) did the seventh-best league advance fewer
than three teams. Last season, the No. 7 Mountain West received three
invitations.

Three is something of a magic number for the Valley coaches this
season. The way many of them figure, a league that has received at
least two bids for six consecutive seasons should receive a third bid in
a good year.

"We've proven we can compete with anybody," Southern Illinois
coach Chris Lowery said.

"We could be deserving of getting three depending on how we do
in league play. And because of what we've done against the BCS schools
in comparison with the other mid-majors and the other BCS conferences."

And why not? It is, after all, anything but a fluke.

Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.