ST. LOUIS — It is routine to evaluate the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament as a wide-open affair with many possible champions, a surprise-filled bracket just waiting for upsets to happen.
It is also traditional for the coaches to play along and agree that, yes, this is a weekend in which almost anybody could win on Sunday.
Most years, of course, that is nonsense. The top two seeds have won six of the past seven tournaments and 14 of the 22 contested in St. Louis. Only twice — 2000 and 2001 — has a team seeded outside the top three won it.
While the favorites may again rule, there are strong indications this really — really — is a weekend in which five or six teams legitimately believe they possess the stuff to win three games in three days.
“The margin for error is so small, from (teams) 1 through 10,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “We go to Southern Illinois and lose and they jump-start their season. Creighton goes to Drake and loses.”
A lot of losses, that’s for sure. Creighton won the MVC with a 13-5 record and survived a three-game losing streak. The 13 wins are the fewest by a champion since 1999. SIU’s 6-12 record is the best for a last-place team since 1993.
WSU finished second at 12-6, and also survived a three-game losing streak.
“Each team in the league has had a tough stretch,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said earlier this week. “It is really wide open. Somebody gets hot down there, it doesn’t matter, they could win the whole thing.”
Two factors account for the parity:
• Coaching stability equals roster stability, which means teams aren’t torn apart by a transition. Most coaches are at least three seasons or more into their tenure and those teams aren’t prone to the ups and downs of a thin roster or players learning a new system.
Even the two newcomers aren’t really all that new. Illinois State coach Dan Muller, who played for the Redbirds, inherited one of the MVC’s most talented rosters. SIU coach Barry Hinson coached nine seasons at Missouri State before taking over the Salukis this season.
“I think that’s one of the key factors in why our league has been strong for a number of years in a row,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said.
• Because of that coaching stability, most teams are experienced and don’t rely on freshmen. All 15 of the players chosen for All-MVC honors are juniors and seniors and the All-Newcomer team featured just one freshman.
The MVC is a senior-dominated conference with no room this season for a rising star such as Colt Ryan or Doug McDermott to make a big splash as a rookie. A team loaded with seniors may lose a few games, but is likely to possess the smarts and strength to keep fighting.
UNI bounced back from a 1-3 start to the MVC season to finish third. Illinois State started 0-6 before going 8-4 to finish conference play. Seniors led the rally in both cases.
“Regardless of how you’re playing, where you’re standing in the league, seniors are going to find a way to play well and play extremely hard,” Jacobson said.