Stronger MVC hoping for three NCAA bids

Originally Published: January 5, 2005
By Jeff Shelman | Special to ESPN.com

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.

Ben Jacobson
AP PhotoBen Jacobson (17.6 ppg) is the Missouri Valley's leading scorer for 9-2 Northern Iowa.
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.