ST. LOUIS — Credibility is on the line this season for the Missouri Valley Conference. Everybody knows it.
"I think there's going to be a lot of scrutiny, nationally, of our men's basketball this year," commissioner Doug Elgin said.
Many of those watching will wonder what happened to the basketball-is-what-we-do conference that so frustrated Billy Packer and other with its NCAA Tournament success.
The Valley put multiple teams in the NCAA Tournament from 1999 to 2007, a run highlighted by a four-team contingent in 2006. With those credentials, the Valley moved out of mid-major obscurity. The past two seasons, however, threaten to erase some of those gains. The NCAA selection committee shut out Valley at-large candidates in 2008 and 2009, including co-champion Creighton (with 26 wins) last season. Mid-major schools earned 12 at-large spots in 2006; that number dropped to four in 2009. Thirty of the 34 available berths went to schools from the six largest conferences.
"It's a disturbing trend," Bradley coach Jim Les said.
MVC schools can't fight the big football schools dollar for dollar. Elgin points out the Southeastern Conference enjoys a $2.2 billion contract with ESPN. The Valley hopes to break even with its TV games and takes care of all production in-house.
The Valley, however, can compete on the court when conditions are right. Since 2000, the MVC is 3-2 against SEC teams and 3-4 against the Big 12 in NCAA Tournament games.
After two seasons marked by coaching changes and player movement, MVC coaches think experience is back on their side. This season, a projected 31 starters return for the 10 teams. Thirty-five returners who started 10 games or more are back. All 10 coaches return for the third time in the past 20 seasons.
"The league is much more experienced," Creighton coach Dana Altman said. "We've got a lot of returning players, which is always a good variable to have."
Elgin thinks it is the most important variable, especially in the backcourt. Seven of the MVC's top 10 assists leaders return. All but two schools (Evansville and Southern Illinois) return at least one senior starter at guard. Most return several players with starting experience.
"You win with juniors and seniors," Elgin said. "I think you're going to see our league much better this year, and probably even better a year out."
Elgin is optimistic about many facets of the Valley. New facilities continue to spring up, most recently at Bradley and Creighton for men's practices and women's games. SIU is almost done with a badly needed renovation of SIU Arena. Evansville will move into a new downtown arena in either 2011-2012 or 2012-13.
The Valley's television exposure continues to grow. With an emphasis on video streaming under way, Elgin said all men's and women's games will be available either on TV or the Internet this season.
Valley women's basketball is digging out of an even deeper hole. No NCAA wins since 2002. No at-large teams since 2002.
Valley women's teams return 33 starters. Creighton and Illinois State, the top two teams in the preseason poll, have four returning.
"I really think our women's basketball is on the way back to being healthy," Elgin said. "We've got to make some gains. This is a critical year for us on the women's side."