Creighton isn’t the first school to leave the Missouri Valley Conference for a bigger stage.
Commissioner Doug Elgin wasn’t around when prominent members Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis and Saint Louis leaked away in the early 1970s. But he was on duty in 1996 when Tulsa, primarily to find a home for football, departed after making three straight NCAA Tournament appearances.
Tulsa’s departure hurt in much the same way Creighton’s does. The Valley, however, survived and prospered after a period of adjustment. In 1999, the Valley grabbed two NCAA at-large spots to start a run in which at-large spots became routine. In 2006, three schools earned at-large bids.
“We’re simply not defined by any single institution,” Elgin said this summer. “I’m reminded of 1996 when the University of Tulsa left our league for the Western Athletic Conference. Their departure certainly seemed like a huge setback. History proved otherwise.”
Here is what Creighton takes with it to the new version of the Big East:
• Twelve MVC Tournament titles, most of any school.
• Nine NCAA Tournament appearances four NIT trips since 1999.
• Average attendance of 17,155, sixth nationally. Creighton led the Valley in attendance every season since 2003-04.
So Creighton’s absence leaves Wichita State as the undisputed leader in the MVC. The Shockers won the MVC title in 2012 and advanced to the Final Four last season after finishing second behind Creighton in the regular season and tournament.
Nobody was happier than Elgin, as he followed the Shockers through their run to Atlanta. WSU’s success stole the spotlight from Creighton’s departure and gave the Valley good news to focus on. After all, the Shockers did finish second in the Valley and lost twice to Evansville. Rolling through Pittsburgh, Gonzaga, La Salle and Ohio State showed outsiders the conference had depth.
“When Creighton decided to leave, we emphasized that we are not defined by one institution,” Elgin said during the tournament. “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 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.”
WSU appears well-positioned to flourish without Creighton’s presence. Mindful of how the Valley may sink in the power rankings (RPI), WSU is determined to schedule tough non-conference games so its tournament fate is not determined by the strength of the MVC. This season, WSU plays Tennessee, Alabama, Saint Louis and faces DePaul and Texas or BYU in the CBE Classic.
Creighton’s absence may also allow a lesser program to step forward. The Bluejays didn’t finish higher than fifth from 1992-97, but MVC Tournament titles in 1999 and 2000 got them in the NCAA Tournament and jump-started their revival under coach Dana Altman. Creighton continued to dominate in St. Louis, winning titles in 2002, 2003, 2005 and 2007.
Somebody’s got to win Arch Madness. If it’s an Indiana State or Bradley, perhaps that boost can help improve the program for the long haul. After Creighton departed, MVC coaches made it clear they believe the MVC can continue to flourish.
Creighton hasn’t been the MVC’s sole power in recent seasons. Southern Illinois dominated the conference from 2002-07, winning five titles and twice advancing to the Sweet 16. Northern Iowa won back-to-back titles in 2009-10 and played in the 2010 Sweet 16.
“I’m not excited that Creighton is leaving, but I’m excited about our league,” Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said. “We had a team that went to the Final Four … and it wasn’t Creighton. Our league is fine.”
Loyola, Creighton’s replacement, is under fire to quickly improve its program. The Ramblers, coached by former Creighton player Porter Moser, last played in the NCAA Tournament in 1985.
“We’re diminished at present, but we have a commitment to get better,” Elgin said. “I am not concerned at all that we will continue to be a very relevant basketball-centric conference as we move forward.”