- Jeff Shelman
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We understand that the world outside of the Midwest was probably a little stunned when the NCAA Tournament pairings were unveiled last March.
We realize that it takes a slightly more educated college hoops fan to truly understand that the Missouri Valley Conference isn't just another one of those conferences where the league champion is thrilled to get their brains beat in in a first-round game and go home, and that when the Valley got Creighton, Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa into the field a year ago, it wasn't a fluke.
We know that not everybody knows the Valley has had more than one team in the NCAA Tournament each of the past seven years and that major conference schools UCLA, Oklahoma State, Illinois, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Louisville, Oklahoma, Florida, Texas Tech and Georgia have all lost NCAA Tournament games to Valley schools in recent years.
So, we're here to enlighten you. Actually, enlightenment isn't really the right word. We want to prepare you and warn you -- because when the tournament pairings are announced a little more than two months from now, we don't want you to again wonder why the Missouri Valley gets two or three or maybe even four teams in the NCAA Tournament.
Don't be surprised. It's going to happen.
The reason? If anything, the Valley might be even better this year than a year ago.
Prior to the beginning of conference play, the Missouri Valley schools were a combined 61-22 against nonleague opponents and a respectable 7-9 against the Big 12, Big East, ACC and SEC. The Valley schools were a combined 5-1 against the Mountain West and Atlantic 10.
"Having a good nonconference year does reinforce things," Creighton coach Dana Altman said.
The list of name victims is pretty impressive: Iowa, LSU, Dayton, Providence, DePaul, Indiana, Nebraska, Xavier, Purdue and Saint Louis.
Playing well against leagues that are perceived to be above the Valley in the college basketball food chain has lead to a very surprising result in the Ratings Percentage Index. For much of the nonleague season, the Valley has ranked second or third in the RPI. Earlier this week, the Valley was second, but the conference has since slipped to fifth. Even so, it's still currently ahead of the Big 12 and Pac-10.
According to Collegerpi.com, Northern Iowa and Missouri State are both in the top 15 in the RPI. In addition, four teams are in the top 50 and seven teams are in the top 62.
"We've had some big wins across the board," Northern Iowa coach Greg McDermott said. "And we've had some near misses. Drake led Boston College for most of their game and Wichita only lost to Illinois by one."
What all of this means is that the Valley will be well-represented in the NCAAs -- again.
When the Missouri Valley holds its conference tournament in March, it will have the feel of a major conference event. At least a couple teams will arrive in St. Louis feeling pretty good about their chances, regardless of what happens. A couple of teams will be trying to play their way in. And the rest of the schools simply will be trying to win the automatic bid.
What's a realistic number? That's a little difficult to know at this point. That said, if you're a fan of a midlevel major conference team, you might not want to read the rest of this sentence: the Missouri Valley is closer to being a four-bid league than a one-bid league.
However, that's exactly what the Valley coaches and administrators want to hear.
"Hopefully more people realize this isn't a one-and-out or two-and-out thing," Bradley coach Jim Les said. "This is a premier basketball league.
"We don't want to be a one-year wonder. We want to raise the bar and strive for excellence."
Several Missouri Valley teams have a legitimate chance of reaching the NCAAs. Missouri State -- the school formerly known as Southwest Missouri State -- returned five key players from last season's team. Northern Iowa, which has played in each of the past two NCAA Tournaments, also returns five regulars from a year ago. Bradley has two talented players in Marcellus Sommerville and big man Patrick O'Bryant. Wichita State is in the mix with conference wins over Bradley and Indiana State and a nonleague win over Providence. And then there are league stalwarts Creighton and Southern Illinois.
If the first week-plus of league play is an indicator, it will be a battle to see which teams have a chance to play into March. Even though teams have played no more than three conference games, only Southern Illinois has an unblemished MVC record.
"We've got good ball clubs in this league," said Drake coach Tom Davis, who is in the unenviable position of having an improved team, but also having little chance to improve on last season's seventh-place finish. "The RPI and other recognition is well deserved. Now we're paying the price because we're playing each other."
And as we saw in the nonconference season, nobody really wants any part of playing a Missouri Valley team.
Remember that come March.
Jeff Shelman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune (www.startribune.com) is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.