Today, my job is to pump up the basketball teams in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Conference play begins Wednesday and I’ve got to tell you, you don’t look very good. Outside of eighth-ranked Wichita State, 13-0 with a bullet, the rest of this league looks like a bunch of ragamuffins. And if you want to put that word “ragamuffins” on your bulletin boards, please feel free.
Some of the records look OK, but beyond those records there are blemishes. Indiana State might be 9-3 and own a win over Notre Dame, but the Sycamores have lost to Tulsa and by 17 points to Saint Louis. Indiana State has not looked the part of a team that can push the Shockers for a Valley championship.
Nor has anyone else.
Missouri State is 10-2 and the Bears did beat Tulsa. They also beat Texas A&M. But Missouri State lost by 20 to Virginia and by 30 to Louisville. Yes, Louisville is the defending national champion and was playing the Bears at home. Still. Thirty? Gotta do better than that.
Drake is 9-3. But Drake is Drake. So there’s that.
Northern Iowa was impressive in a home win over VCU and took unbeaten Iowa State into overtime before losing. Give the Panthers that. Illinois State did beat Dayton at home. But the Redbirds also lost by 15 points to 5-10 Oakland. Otherwise, it’s a 6-6 team searching for an identity and with four double-digit losses on its resume.
Evansville lost to Jackson State and five other teams.
Loyola lost to Tulane, Tennessee Tech, Portland State and UC Davis, among others.
Bradley has lost to almost everyone. Ditto for Southern Illinois.
It’s been a long time since a team went into Missouri Valley Conference play as a bigger favorite to win the league than Wichita State. What odds would it take for you to pick against the Shockers? Outside of a key injury or two or Larry Bird re-enrolling at Indiana State, it’s hard to fathom a scenario in which Wichita State doesn’t win.
Now I know strange things can happen. There will be a night or two when the Shockers are flat and their opponent, sensing an opportunity to knock off a highly-ranked team, will let it all hang out. Everybody in the Valley wants a piece of Wichita State.
In this case, though, be careful what you ask for.
I don’t consider myself a homer. I’m not a flack for WuShock. I would love the Valley to be a competitive, up-for-grabs conference with four or five contending teams.
But this season, that’s not likely.
If the ‘U’ word offends you, I suggest you stop reading this column now. Because it’s going to be used a few times before I’m finished.
As in: Can Wichita State possibly run through the Missouri Valley Conference unbeaten?
The fact that I ask means I’m not discounting the possibility.
I know it’s unlikely, even for the best teams. Conference play is hard. Every opposing coach and player is prepared. Scouting reports are thorough. Road crowds are hostile. I get all that.
Still, I ask: Is there a chance the Shockers go 18-0?
Wichita State has been in the Missouri Valley Conference for basketball since the 1945-46 season and never been unbeaten in league play. The Shockers were 17-1 in 1982-83 with a team that included Antoine Carr, Aubrey Sherrod and Xavier McDaniel. They were 16-2 in 2011-12.
Remember, WSU was only 12-6 last season with a team that went to the Final Four — that team lost twice to Evansville and was beaten at Southern Illinois.
Like I said, strange things happen in conference play. And most of the money in Las Vegas would go against the Shockers finishing Valley play unbeaten.
But aren’t you tempted to take the odds?
Bradley is the last MVC team to make it through the conference unscathed and that was 28 years ago. Before that it was Indiana State and Bird in 1978-79. And before that you have to go back to 1947-48 to find an unbeaten Valley champion.
In the past 10 seasons of college basketball, only 20 times has a team finished conference play unbeaten. And 10 of those perfect conference seasons belong to Gonzaga (4), Memphis (4) and Davidson (2).
Gonzaga (West Coast) and Memphis (Conference USA) have been able to dominate leagues in which, for the most part, opposing teams have been unable to mount strong challenges.
The same could be happening in the Missouri Valley Conference with Wichita State. At least as long as Gregg Marshall is the Shockers’ coach.
Those who disagree will point out that even with Marshall, the Shockers have only one regular-season Valley championship and have never won the tournament in St. Louis. Those are good points and evidence that the MVC isn’t ready to cede anything to Wichita State.
This season, however, I’m not sure the rest of the Valley has a choice.