Few can appreciate Wichita State’s run to the Final Four more than Doug Elgin.
In 24 years with the Missouri Valley Conference, the league’s commissioner didn’t see a single Valley team advance past the Sweet 16. That all changed last weekend, when he watched the Shockers beat La Salle and Ohio State to win the NCAA Tournament’s West Regional and advance to the Final Four.
“It was a little surreal to be honest,” Elgin said by phone. “Wichita State overpowered brand names like Gonzaga and Ohio State, but it didn’t seem like any of those games were upsets. That’s certainly unusual for me. I’ve been to eight Sweet 16 games with Valley schools and we lost all eight of those previous matchups.
“This was an extremely euphoric experience. To have this happen is such a blessing right now. I can hardly stand it.”
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Things became even more dreamlike on his trip back to the Valley offices in St. Louis. The whole way home, he received texts from coaches and athletic directors from across the conference.
“The reaction from our league was not typical,” Elgin said. “Many people who view Wichita State as their chief rival wrote me, ‘Go Shockers! I can’t believe I just wrote that.’ Or, ‘I hope Wichita State wins the national championship. Let me re-read those words.’ It shows that there is camaraderie. That is fairly unusual. You don’t see that in a lot of conferences, schools rooting for one another.
“It goes to show how much we all understand the challenges we face as a so-called mid-major conference. Everybody understands how difficult it is to get a good nonconference schedule with strength, and then to do well enough to get an at-large berth into the NCAA Tournament. Then, if you do get in, you are always a low seed. Fighting your way to the Sweet 16 is hard. Getting to the Final Four is a perilous journey.”
In many ways, Wichita State took it at an ideal time.
The conference is about to lose one of its strongest members, Creighton, to the new Big East. But hardly anyone is focusing on the Bluejays’ exit. Who wants to with the Shockers on their way to Atlanta?
Wichita State’s run to the Final Four signifies the conference’s strength and depth to current, and, possibly, future members.
The league is guaranteed to bring in close to $11 million over the next six years for its NCAA Tournament success. All revenue shared equally by the Valley’s nine members, excluding expenses for the Shockers. The conference is also responsible for knocking the No. 1-ranked team out of the NCAA Tournament in two of the past four years. Wichita State beat Gonzaga two weeks ago and Northern Iowa defeated Kansas in 2010.
Elgin thinks that success will help the conference attract new members if it decides to expand to 10 or 12 teams.
“When Creighton decided to leave, we emphasized that we are not defined by one institution,” Elgin said. “There is a depth of strong programs in our league. Tradition and history have shown that we have survived defections. We are not in a panic mode. We are not desperate. We are not freaking out that Creighton is leaving. We have moved on. We knew other teams would step up. Wichita State has certainly proven to the rest of the league we are capable of running with the big boys.”
Who else might join the race? The Valley is reportedly looking at UMKC, Valparaiso, Loyola-Chicago and Illinois-Chicago. Elgin refused comment on what schools the league was targeting, but said Valley officials will be making campus visits in the next four weeks. They will then present their findings to the league’s presidents.
“We will go from there,” Elgin said. “They will make the decision to stay at nine or go to 10 or choose to grow even bigger. We are going to be certainly expeditious in our review and outreach. We are going to move along as quickly as we can in the event we expand for next year. We should have an idea by the end of April.”
Until then, Elgin will live the life of a Wichita State fan, traveling to Atlanta.
He hopes the ride lasts two more games.
Let’s play two in KC — Elgin thinks he has come up with a way to ease the frustration of Valley teams unable to schedule home-and-home series with BCS conference opponents: a MVC-Big 12 doubleheader at Kansas City’s Sprint Center.
Elgin said he is in “the early stages” of talks with Sprint Center officials about playing a doubleheader there as early as next season.
“We are not there yet,” Elgin said. “But we are trying to put it together.”
He said the doubleheader would feature Wichita State and another Valley team, possibly Missouri State, against two to-be-determined Big 12 foes. WSU is scheduled to play in next November’s CBE Classic at Sprint Center.
“We are in a position now where the appeal of playing Wichita State and the value is at a very high level,” Elgin said. “I think the upside of Wichita State going to the Final Four is everybody knows your name. The downside is people aren’t going to want to risk playing you, but we are hoping to get Big 12 teams involved. It would be an attractive set of games.”