How does one mid-major league get respect?

Updated: November 14, 2005, 12:41 AM ET
By Jeff Shelman | Special to ESPN.com

College basketball has, in a way, become a game of labels.

There are point guards and shooting guards, but almost never just plain guards. Same with power forwards and wings and small forwards. There are power conferences and BCS leagues, mid-majors and low-majors.

But what do you do when something doesn't really fit into a nice, neat compartment? For example, just how do you describe a league that isn't in the BCS, but has gotten at least two teams in the NCAA basketball tournament for each of the past seven years?

In other words, just how do you describe the Missouri Valley Conference?

Mid-major? Or something more?
MVCIs the Missouri Valley ready to shed its mid-major label?

Well, it depends on the ever-confusing definition of the term.

When asked what his definition is, Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, the chair of the NCAA Tournament selection committee, said a mid-major conference is one that doesn't regularly get more than one bid to the NCAA Tournament. Although that blurs the definition between a low- and mid-major conference (the MAC and the SWAC, for example, aren't in the same class), it does mean the MVC should be put on another level.

Littlepage was quick to point out that the term "mid-major" doesn't come up in the conversations during selection weekend in March. Still, the label sticks.

The MVC put three teams in the Dance last season -- Southern Illinois (a second-round appearance), Northern Iowa and Creighton. The Panthers were the biggest surprise, getting in despite being tied for third with Creighton (11-7 in the league) and losing in the quarterfinals of the conference tournament.

The numbers don't lie. The Valley sent two teams to the NCAA Tournament in each of the previous five seasons before last year and three in 1999. The Valley also sent two a year from 1994-96, meaning in 10 of the last 12 seasons, this has been a multi-bid conference.

More evidence in favor of the Valley: getting its tournament title game on national television on CBS this March as a standalone (not spilt) national telecast.

"I would like to think that we're inching toward (getting rid of the label)," Northern Iowa coach Greg McDermott said. "If we were a fluke conference, then we would just get two bids and then maybe not again. But we're not doing that. We're also not getting embarrassed. None of our teams are. We're winning."

There are plenty of other definitions of mid-major, like how many top-100 players go to your league, regular-season national television exposure and whether or not head coaches in the conference would stay if offered a job in one of the higher-profile conferences. For the record, there were no head coach changes in the MVC this offseason (although we're not sure how many were offered or even pursued gigs).

The debate will rage on, but the Valley is starting to make a strong case to elevate itself.

-- Andy Katz

The Valley doesn't deserve to be mentioned with the six power conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pac-10) and it probably is also a bit below the Mountain West. But after that? Is the league -- at least some years -- as strong as the Atlantic 10 or WAC or, potentially, the now-watered down Conference USA? Without question.

After all, the A-10 twice was a one-bid league between 1999 and 2005. The WAC was a one-bid league in 2003. Even the Mountain West was limited to only one team in 2001.

What isn't really up for debate any longer is where the Valley ranks with the rest of the college basketball world. The 10-team Midwestern league has carved itself a nice little niche below the major conferences, but above the rest of the mid-major and low-major fray.

"We've cracked the top quartile, the top eight," Missouri Valley commissioner Doug Elgin said. "That's our goal every year, but we've established ourselves as a top-10 conference."

Now will there be seasons in which the MAC or the Horizon or the West Coast ends up with more teams in the NCAA Tournament? Certainly. But the thing about those leagues -- especially the MAC and the Horizon -- is that they haven't been able to maintain the consistency of the Valley.

And the Valley hasn't been happy to simply show up in the NCAAs. Consider this list of Valley victims: UCLA, Oklahoma State, Illinois, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Louisville, Oklahoma, Florida, Texas Tech and Georgia.

Not bad considering that 15 seasons ago (1991-92), the Missouri Valley was the 21st-ranked conference in the Ratings Percentage Index.

So how did it happen? Just how did the Valley go from being just another faceless conference in the murky middle of college basketball into the top 10?

When it's all boiled down, there really are two main factors. The first is scheduling. The second is a more complicated combination of money/tradition/interest. And while they might sound independent, they are very much intertwined.

Getting the right schedule

Charlotte athletic director Judy Rose was a member of the NCAA men's basketball committee. There, she saw the Valley's rise from close range.

"If you schedule correctly and if you win a pretty strong percentage of those games, you're going to get in," Rose said. "That's what they've done. The difficult part of that is convincing your coaches that just getting 20 wins isn't going to do it.

"The committee really looks closely at not who you have to play in your conference, but who you chose to play."

And this is where the Valley has tried to be different than many other mid-major leagues. The more Elgin and the Missouri Valley staff studied how conferences get at-large teams into the NCAA Tournament, the more they realized scheduling is a large part of the equation.

Prior to the 2001-02 season, the Missouri Valley went as far as to establish a non-conference scheduling policy. The league took $500,000 out of its NCAA Tournament distribution and split it up among schools that scheduled non-conference teams with an average RPI of 149 or better. While the league scrapped that plan after two years, the Valley office in St. Louis still has a little bit of control over who the league's members play.

For example, league rules say that member schools cannot schedule a non-Division I opponent for anything other than an exhibition game unless it is approved by the league office. The same goes with schools that have provisional Division I status. Last season, three such games were approved, but two were part of exempt tournaments in which the Valley school would face a high-major opponent or opponents.

Scheduling always is a challenge for leagues such as the Valley. Many schools from the power conferences, after all, want no part of playing a non-conference game they might lose. That said, the Valley has been successful in increasing the quality of opponents and the number of home games its teams play.

This summer, Illinois State pulled off quite a coup as the Redbirds left one game open on their schedule very late, hoping a major conference opponent would be desperate for a game. Well, Cincinnati was such a school that very much needed a home game late in the season. The Redbirds were willing to fill the opening on Cincinnati's schedule as long as the Bearcats would agree to a three-game series, one of which will be played in Normal, Ill.

"It takes a lot of courage to hold onto a game until that late in the summer, but it worked," Elgin said.

Just as important has been the school's decision to not have the non-conference schedule turn into a fund-raising mission. There are plenty of schools that will play guarantee game after guarantee game in the non-conference. Yeah, they'll make a lot of money, but they're probably going to get their brains beat in during the process. The Valley schools have tried to get more home games and played home-and-home series against other schools that can't get the power conference schools to play them either.

Creighton, for example, has games against Dayton, Xavier, DePaul and George Mason to go along with its annual in-state game with Nebraska. Southern Illinois will play Wyoming, Kent State, Murray State and Saint Louis.

The good thing for the Valley schools is that the focus on scheduling has been league-wide. As a result, the league played 59 non-conference home games a year ago, the most in a decade, while playing only 34 road games. It doesn't take a genius to figure out that home games are a lot easier to win than road games. Last season, the Valley schools entered January with a combined record of 68-25 and eight of the 10 schools had winning records.

This season, by comparison, Horizon League teams will play nearly one non-conference home game for every similar road game.

The biggest benefit of the focus on scheduling has been at the bottom of the conference. The RPIs of the bottom teams haven't been so low that they drain the entire league once conference play begins.

Last season, only two Missouri Valley teams finished the season with an RPI of over 200. The same was true in 2004. The WAC, Mountain West, Mid-American, Conference USA and the Atlantic 10 all had at least three teams with RPIs of over 200.

"A league needs to be strong, top to bottom," Rose said. "Sometimes the bottom of a league can pull down the teams at the top."

And there's little that irritates a mid-major coach more than to win a game and actually drop in the RPI.

Elgin is the first to acknowledge that a good schedule alone doesn't create success. A team still has to win. But at the same time, wins against a watered-down schedule don't do much good either.

"There's nothing magic about the RPI," Elgin said. "The bottom line is that there are no secrets. You have to perform, you have to have a good schedule and play well against it."

The financial reality

Is the Missouri Valley's model one that can be photocopied and applied anywhere? Probably not. It's not like copying somebody's zone press or that inbounds play that always works. There are simply too many variables.

One of the biggest things the Valley has in its favor is geography. The 10 schools, for the most part, are located in midsize Midwestern cities where the university is important. And most of the schools are located far enough away from Giant State U. that they aren't overwhelmed. Because of that, they're not as often lost in a city's sports shuffle as some schools that are located in big metropolitan area.

Bradley basketball is a big deal in Peoria. The same is true in Omaha with Creighton, Wichita with the Shockers, Springfield with Missouri State and the list goes on. The teams get good coverage in the local newspaper, they get on the news and games are televised. There is also great tradition in the Valley, a league that will celebrate its centennial next year.

That interest translates to spectators. Every building in the Valley but one seats at least 8,800 and seven of the 10 have capacities of at least 10,000. Last season, the MVC finished ninth nationally in per-game attendance, ahead of the WAC and the Atlantic 10. Creighton (11,208 per game), Wichita State (10,325) and Bradley (9,337) all finished in the top 51 in attendance.

Because of that interest, the schools benefit in two ways. First, because there is demand for tickets, fans are more compelled to purchase season tickets. Second, the schools can then benefit by playing non-conference home games. At many mid- and low-major programs, it makes more economic sense to take a big payday from a BCS school than it does to play a home game.

That leads us to the chicken-egg part of the Missouri Valley's success.

The league can schedule better because of fan interest and commitment from the institutions. Because of that, the Valley helps itself in the RPI and puts itself in better position to have multiple teams in the NCAAs. Getting more teams in the NCAAs then leads to each school getting more money when the tournament revenues are distributed. That money, in turn, helps the Valley schools continue to schedule better.

After last season, the Missouri Valley received just more than $3 million from the NCAA. Because the money is based on the number of games a league plays in the tournament over a six-year period, the Valley will receive at least $2.2 million per year over the next five years -- math that is done assuming the conference gets only one team in the tournament.

Leagues that have received only one bid a year, by comparison, received $912,225 from the NCAA a year ago. That's a significant difference.

What does it all mean? It means the Missouri Valley truly has separated itself from the rest of the mid-major fray, something that doesn't come as a surprise to those who know the league.

"The reason the Missouri Valley has had success is because they planned for it," Rose said. "It didn't just happen."

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

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