After Southern Illinois, where will the bids come from?
In February 2006, Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin stood near the sidelines of a Bradley game, furiously working his cell phone for real-time updates on how his league's quest for multiple at-large bids was developing.
"I was tracking a Creighton game," Elgin said. "I was checking the score, talking to a writer. He said to me something like, 'If Creighton loses, you might only get three.' And I told him, 'Think about what you just said. We might only get three.' Thinking in those terms was just such a change from where we had been before. In the late '80s to the late '90s, in that era, we were looking for the planets to be perfectly aligned to have any chance at getting two teams in."
No astrological charts were necessary in 2006, and the Valley didn't have to settle for a mere trio. The eventual four-bid final tally was a league record and a major triumph for a conference that once routinely issued a single representative to the NCAA Tournament every year. And once on March's big bracket, the resurgent MVC backed up the bids. Instead of the four quick exits many predicted, two squads -- Bradley and Wichita State -- advanced through the first weekend to the Sweet 16.
Now, just a year and a half later, Elgin surveys the conference he's led for two decades with guarded optimism. In 2007-08, "only three" might require a storm as perfect as the one that resulted in a quartet of Big Dance invitations and one notable snub in Missouri State (RPI No. 21). The MVC does feature a clear front-runner and likely season-long pollster favorite in Southern Illinois, a maroon machine with claw-sharp defense and a dynamic frontcourt that's coming off a Sweet 16 appearance of its own this past March.
But behind the Salukis lies a deep Valley echoing with unanswered questions.
Leaguewide, only 24 starters return (about half in a 10-team conference), down from 38 returnees last season. The schools that barged their way into at-large discussions in the recent past -- teams like Missouri State, Creighton, Northern Iowa and Bradley -- are rebuilding and retooling in the wake of key graduation losses. Wichita is breaking in a new coach, former Winthrop wunderkind Gregg Marshall. And with new regimes and increased resources at Drake, Evansville and the two ISU's (Illinois and Indiana), forecasting the order of finish from No. 2 through No. 10 is as difficult as choosing winning Powerball numbers.
All of which raises a curious theoretical possibility. What if the rebuilding projects don't jell fast enough to produce the kind of early-season nonconference wins that have recently propelled the league's RPI into the stratosphere? And once the calendar turns, if Southern Illinois leaves the rest of the MVC in a cloud of dust on its way to a double coronation as regular-season and tournament champion, the unthinkable might occur. For the first time since 1998, we could be looking at a one-bid Valley.
"I don't think [one bid] would be disastrous, but it would be extremely disappointing for us to go back to that kind of postseason scenario," Elgin said.
A Valley with as many NCAA representatives as the Ohio Valley Conference or SWAC would create shock waves in the college basketball world, or at least a mini-vacuum on Selection Sunday. The MVC's disappearing bid, or bids, would go elsewhere, but where? Would they fall to mediocre power-conference teams, or would other mid-major conferences be able to snap them up?
The Western Athletic Conference, a BCS football league but a BracketBusters participant in our world, has its own four-year multi-bid streak going. This season's WAC is full of flawed yet intriguing teams: New Mexico State, Utah State, Nevada and Fresno State could contend. The Atlantic 10 could earn three or more bids for the first time since 2004, with strong candidates in Xavier, Dayton and Saint Joseph's. And there's always the Valley's BracketBusting nemesis of recent years, the Colonial Athletic Association. The CAA has earned extras in two straight seasons after two decades as a one-bid league.
"Right now, we're pretty hot," said CAA commissioner Tom Yeager. " We just have to keep the heat up."
Or there's the resurgent Horizon League, owner of five tournament wins in the past three seasons. It's the home of Butler, which achieved a Sweet 16 berth last season with a thrilling win over Maryland.
And the Horizon is even stronger conference now with the addition of Valparaiso, NCAA upset king of 1998. That was the same year that longtime commissioner Jonathan LeCrone oversaw a three-bid season (UIC, Butler and Detroit earned bids in what was then known as the Midwestern Collegiate Conference), then a landmark haul for small conferences.
"There was a fundamental difference with last year as opposed to what we've accomplished in the past," said LeCrone of Butler's 2007 run. "We had a team out of our league that was No. 9 in the country after winning the Preseason NIT, so a lot of people were following our league during the year. Then, all of a sudden, this team makes the NCAA Tournament, then the Sweet 16 on top of that. You love to see young people achieve their goals, and that's why this is a fun business to be in."
But if this ends up as a year that's less than fun for the Valley on Selection Sunday, don't expect it to become a trend. If the dearth of returning talent, the five new coaches and the leaguewide hard-hat projects converge to produce a single bid, think of the MVC's 2007-08 season as the exact reverse of a perfect storm. It would be the perfect black hole.
Fewer bids might not matter if one team carries the flag into the Sweet or Elite portions of the 2008 NCAA Tournament. It does raise a question, however: Which is better for a league like the Missouri Valley, a bushel of bids or a deep run into late March?
"Selection Sunday is a validation of your seasonal performance," Elgin replied. "It takes a long, long time to get over it when there's a major disappointment. But the more lasting impression comes with advancing in the tournament. People will remember last year's Southern Illinois team that played Kansas even and could very well have played for a Final Four berth. There's absolutely nothing like playing for a chance to play in the Final Four and have the chance to take that historic step.
"But wait, is this a choice?" Elgin asked, breaking his own train of thought. "I want both."
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.
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