While most of college athletics mocks math and geography with conference realignment, the Missouri Valley Conference stays true to simpler days of round-robin scheduling and a meaningful regular-season champion.
Its footprint makes sense. Basketball rules. Rivalries matter and are allowed to grow. Travel, for most schools, is economical with the 612-mile distance between Wichita and Evansville the longest trip.
That’s certainly no West Virginia-to-Texas Tech (1,465 miles) or South Florida-to-DePaul (1,172).
That stability is not totally by choice — if Saint Louis wanted to join, the Valley would likely be thrilled. Hard-core fans stand ready to vote out certain schools and add others, unlikely as that is.
In the real world, the Valley’s 10-team group of six public and four private schools in six states offers protection, stability and better odds at an NCAA Tournament automatic bid than a 12-, 14- or 16-team conference. It’s not sexy, but ESPN isn’t sending emissaries with better options.
Commissioner Doug Elgin, again, recently said expansion is not a front-burner issue. The MVC acquits itself nicely among the group of conferences battling with the Big Six for players, attention and money. While the improvement of the Atlantic 10, with recent additions Butler and Virginia Commonwealth, is a threat to monitor, the MVC’s satisfaction with 10 schools works.
“I think we have a unity and a cohesiveness in our league that ties member schools together very tightly,” Elgin said. “The Valley is also one of those rare conferences that has geographical integrity and regional rivalries that are both intense and respectful.”
Those words carry more punch when the Valley earns at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament, as Wichita State did last season.
The MVC earned 13 from 1999-2007 before a four-year drought. Coaches are optimistic last season’s success is the start of another good run. WSU flamed out in the NCAA Tournament, but did enough in the regular season to earn a No. 5 seed. Creighton won the automatic bid and won an NCAA Tournament game. Illinois State and Northern Iowa played in the NIT.
“I’ll be surprised if we don’t have two or three in with the strength of our league,” first-season Illinois State coach Dan Muller said. “I think we have a number of teams in our league this year that have difficult schedules, that give them opportunities to get quality wins for at-large bids.”
MVC schools aren’t going to jet to prominence with one-and-done stars. They do it with experience and continuity. Eight of the 10 coaches are back. One of the newcomers, Southern Illinois’ Barry Hinson, isn’t really new. He coached at Missouri State for nine seasons.
Four coaches are four seasons or more into their tenure, meaning they’ve had time to build a solid roster. That doesn’t count Creighton’s Greg McDermott, who is in his third season at one of the MVC’s most stable programs. Or Muller, who inherited a great situation from Tim Jankovich.
Illinois State is one of six schools with four starters returning. Two more return three. Player of the Year Doug McDermott starts his junior season as a preseason All-American. Five of the top 10 scorers are back, as are six of the top 10 rebounders.
Elgin believes the Valley’s talent and schedules put its teams in position to land at least two at-large bids. All 10 schools play in a tournament, with Northern Iowa’s appearance in the loaded Battle 4 Atlantis headlining. The Panthers open with Louisville and face either Missouri or Stanford in the second game.
Creighton can grab attention early with McDermott’s star power, a No. 16 ranking and a matchup with No. 23 Wisconsin in late November. Wichita State continues to schedule strongly with VCU and Tennessee on tap.
This is the first season of the MVC’s return to encouraging schools to schedule aggressively using financial penalties.
“I really do believe the league is on a tremendous upsurge across the board,” Elgin said.
For conferences such as the MVC, NCAA berths rarely come easy. Schools such as SIU, Bradley and Missouri State are in major rebuilds, threatening to drag down the conference’s power ranking. The margin of error is slim, so if an upper-division team such as Wichita State or Evansville slips, the conference suffers.
As usual, Valley schools will play most of their marquee opponents away from home. Michigan’s trip to Bradley marks the lone appearance by a BCS school on a Valley floor. Iowa and Iowa State’s regular trips to Drake and Northern Iowa were scuttled in favor of a one-day classic in Des Moines.
Elgin remains optimistic his band of basketball-first schools can compete.
He estimates MVC schools poured $900 million into arenas and practice facilities — university and city — in recent seasons. Evansville is stepping up with last season’s move to the Ford Center, a new arena downtown, and the opening of an on-campus practice gym. Creighton recently announced plans for a practice facility.
The MVC hasn’t changed membership since Tulsa departed in 1996. In the world of college athletics, that makes the conference a leader in stability and Valley members seem to like it that way.