Five Valley teams are alive; how many will get in?

Originally Published: February 13, 2007
By Jeff Shelman | Special to ESPN.com

Doug Elgin's theory is simplistic, but it's probably the best way for the Missouri Valley commissioner to keep from going crazy.

With two weeks of regular-season play remaining in the difficult-to-define conference -- you know, the one that looks like a mid-major, but doesn't play like one -- five Missouri Valley teams still have a reasonable chance to reach the NCAA Tournament.

Southern Illinois and Creighton appear to be in the best shape. Missouri State, a team that should have been in last season's Tournament, looks to be a step behind the top two. Bradley and Wichita State? Last season's Sweet 16 teams have enough work to do so that they are all but a misstep from the NIT.

Elgin's take? It's too early to pull out the soapbox and bullhorn to lobby for teams.

"It's unproductive to worry about your teams, you just have to let the season play out and the teams that are really deserving will be in the field," Elgin said. "It's an oversimplification, but I believe in my heart that the teams at the top of our league are going to either play their way in or play their way out over the next two weeks.

"There are arguably five teams in our league that are still alive for at-large consideration."

Some of that don't-sweat-the-small-stuff attitude stems from how the perception of the Valley has changed in the past 12 months. A year ago, there were skeptics that the league's teams were as good as the Ratings Percentage Index indicated. Last Selection Sunday, the tournament selection committee was panned for putting four Valley teams in the field. But a week later, the Valley had two teams in the Tournament's final 16 teams (which was two more than the Big Ten had).

Mark Turgeon
Win McNamee/Getty ImagesMark Turgeon and the Shockers could have a long few days of waiting until Selection Sunday.
"People have a much greater understanding that we really are better than we've been," Elgin said. "I think there's a recognition that we're very good. I think that's a simple statement to make, but last year [CBS' Jim] Nantz said the RPI was goofy or he used a term like that, [how] none of this makes sense, [the Valley] must have figured something out. Now people literally understand that our league is not only very strong, but very balanced.

With less than a month until this season's Tournament field is selected, games become more important and scoreboard watching becomes a much more popular sport. While that's true in almost every multi-bid league, few conferences have the potential for as large a bid swing as the Valley.

While the Valley has the look of a three-bid conference, there are other scenarios depending on the results of the final three regular-season league games, the BracketBuster game and the Missouri Valley tournament.

Add a Missouri State flameout, the top seeds' winning in the Valley tournament and Wichita State and Bradley doing nothing to differentiate themselves, and the MVC could experience the worst-case, two-bid scenario.

Put together Bradley or Wichita State finishing strong and/or a surprise winner at the aptly named Arch Madness and four wouldn't be completely surprising. After all, the Valley still has four teams in the top 50 of the RPI.

Five? That's the five-star sudoku puzzle -- allegedly possible, but extremely difficult to solve. That's especially the case considering the fourth and fifth seeds will play in the quarterfinals of the Valley tournament, a game that could be a loser-out contest.

Part of the reason to pay attention down the stretch is because of the teams that don't have NCAA tournament aspirations, the ones at the bottom of the standings. Illinois State, Drake, Indiana State and Evansville all have a chance to cannibalize the Valley.

Unlike in some leagues -- say the Big Ten and Big 12 for starters -- there are literally no gimmes this season in the Valley. Illinois State beat Wichita State and a Northern Iowa team that has fallen out of contention; Drake is 4-11 in league play, but the Bulldogs are 4-0 against the other three Iowa teams; Indiana State defeated Creighton, Wichita State, Butler and Purdue; and Evansville has victories over SIU and Missouri State.

To put the quality of the bottom of the Valley in perspective, Illinois State has the worst RPI in the conference at No. 140. Of the six so-called major conferences -- the SEC, ACC, Pac-10, Big East, Big Ten and Big 12 -- only the SEC has all of its members ranked better than No. 140 in the RPI. The other five leagues have a combined 11 teams with RPIs worse than the Redbirds.

Down the stretch, the teams at the bottom have a chance to make things interesting. Evansville plays host to Bradley on Wednesday night. Drake plays host to Wichita State on Wednesday and plays at Missouri State 10 days later. Indiana State closes the regular season with a game at Bradley.

"Top to bottom, there seems to be less distance in terms of strength," Elgin said. "We don't have any really bad teams."

Is that a benefit? Or a curse?

"I'm not sure," Bradley coach Jim Les said. "I think we've benefited from the parity with our excellent non-conference schedule. But you look at some leagues and there's such disparity from top to bottom. The top teams are able to add wins and pad their record.

"In our league on any given night the 10th-place team can beat the first-place team and you have to be ready to play. Playing [Evansville and Indiana State] down the stretch, if we're not ready to play, we're going to be very disappointed."

While Bradley and Wichita State are trying to play their way in, Missouri State has to make sure it secures its spot down the stretch. The Bears have won five in a row, but the remaining schedule certainly is challenging. Tonight, Missouri State hosts a Southern Illinois team that lost just once since Jan. 10. On Friday, Missouri State plays in BracketBusters against Winthrop, a dangerous team that lost to North Carolina and Wisconsin by a combined 10 points. Next week, the Bears face a Wichita State team that's trying to play its way into to the NCAA Tournament, and Drake.

Wichita State will be interesting to watch because it's unclear who the Shockers really are. Are they the ones that opened the season 9-0, winning at LSU and Syracuse in the process? Or is the real Wichita State the one that has gone 8-9 since then and is now in the low 70s in the RPI?

The schedule isn't easy for Mark Turgeon's team. After Wednesday's game at Drake, the Shockers play host to Appalachian State in a BracketBuster, are hosts to Missouri State and play at Creighton. That means Wichita State closes the season with three consecutive games against teams in the top 60 of the RPI. If the Shockers run the table, they will receive a huge RPI boost and they'll enter the Valley tournament with more than 20 victories.

Call it just one of several interesting story lines in the final two weeks of Valley play.

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