If you spent basketball season envying Creighton’s membership in the Big East, baseball is your turn to feel good about the Missouri Valley Conference.
With seven weeks until NCAA regionals are announced, the MVC is sixth nationally in warrennolan.com’s power ranking (RPI) of the 32 conferences. On Wednesday, it passed the Big West for fifth before sliding back after a 7-4 mid-week record. Four Valley schools are in the top 50, six in the top 100 and none rank below 200.
The Big East is No. 16 with no top 50 teams and two ranking below 250. Enjoy your trip to Philadelphia, Bluejays — the Shockers are busy playing games with a little more relevance.
The Shockers (16-11, 2-1 MVC) play at Indiana State (18-7, 2-4) on Friday, the first of six remaining conference weekends. Four of those six are against teams ranked in the top 100.
WSU is No. 49 with a strength of schedule ranked No. 36. The MVC’s ranking gives the Shockers a chance to build an NCAA at-large resume, starting with the series against No. 25 Indiana State.
“We’re in a good spot to take advantage of,” WSU coach Todd Butler said. “I’m a fan of every one of our teams winning throughout our league, and our league has done a fantastic job. Our conference teams are playing very good competition, to be in the top 50 of the RPI, you have to play good people.”
And beat a few of them. While MVC schools don’t own many marquee wins, they are winning in bulk and avoiding bad losses. Seven of the eight own winning records and Missouri State is one game below .500. The MVC is 112-58 in non-conference games and 45-35 on the road. It is 5-8 against ranked teams and 16-26 against the top 50 in the RPI.
That is good enough to give several teams hope that a strong finish can result in an at-large bid. In 2012, the MVC grabbed two at-large bids. The Shockers are in a competitive position with a series win over Cal State Fullerton and splits with Arizona State and Long Beach State. Remaining mid-week games against Kansas, Kansas State, Missouri and Oklahoma State offer chances to improve their NCAA credentials.
Butler pays close attention to the RPI, but prefers his players focus on games and players.
“Their job is to go out and play the game, not something they can’t control,” he said. “You start putting too much on their plate and they forget about playing.”
When the MVC is strong, it usually starts with pitching. Baseball America ranks four MVC pitchers among its top 100 draft-eligible athletes — Southern Illinois’ Sam Coonrod, Illinois State’s Dan Savas, Dallas Baptist’s Cy Sneed and Evansville lefty Kyle Freeland. In December, Baseball America ranked Freeland its No. 9 prospect with WSU first baseman Casey Gillaspie No. 28.
Butler, who spent the past eight seasons as an assistant at Arkansas, is doing his best to learn the MVC.
He looks at box scores and stats for hours. On Wednesday, he paid $10.95 to watch Indiana State play Austin Peay on SycamoreVision on his computer. Some non-conference opponents will trade scouting reports with WSU; some won’t, depending on their relationships with the team’s coaches. The Shockers departed for Terre Haute at 5 a.m. Thursday with the intent of practicing Thursday night at Warn Field. Rain spoiled those plans and moved them indoors.
It is a much different world from college basketball, where Internet subscription services make video of every NCAA Division I team easily available. In the SEC, Butler found plenty of video of opponents.
“Being new to the conference, I’ve tried to find video,” he said. “There is no video for me to find. I like to see the starting pitcher and see what he’s throwing. Just put my eyes on him.”
Butler can lean on pitching coach Brent Kemnitz, who has traveled the MVC for 35 seasons. He can tell Butler about the cemetery beyond left field at Indiana State. He can tell him how to find the showers and locker room on getaway day at places such as Indiana State and Evansville, which don’t offer those facilities at the stadium. Kemnitz can warn him about the rowdy fans on the hill at Southern Illinois. He can tell Butler he is fortunate to no longer play at decaying and water-logged Riverfront Stadium in Waterloo, Iowa, formerly the home of Northern Iowa’s baseball team, now defunct.
Butler, however, won’t truly get a feel for the Valley until he’s experienced all the stops and studied the coaches up close. Butler will learn that WSU’s arrival in town is always a big day and schools will schedule their pack-the-park and alumni weekend promotions around the Shockers.
“There’s nothing like getting an eyeball test and getting a feel for what they’re all about,” Kemnitz said. “We get everybody’s best shot. Sometimes it doesn't get the national pub of the bigger leagues, but you better come ready to play every weekend.”