Missouri Valley begins to play catch-up to Shockers

03/11/2014 5:01 PM

08/06/2014 10:18 AM

When the Missouri Valley Conference gets knocked down, Wichita State is there to pick it up.

Last season, WSU’s Final Four lightened the mood when Creighton departed for the Big East. This season, the Shockers are unbeaten when the other nine schools are too-often-beaten. No. 2 Wichita State (34-0) will be the MVC’s lone NCAA Tournament team after winning the conference race by six games.

This is the way most conferences work — schools take their turns at the top. WSU didn’t contribute to the MVC’s well-being from 1990-2002. Now that it is on a history-making roll, where does the rest of the MVC go?

On Tuesday, the Valley received another reminder of WSU’s national prominence. The Sporting News named coach Gregg Marshall its Coach of the Year, the first of several honors he is likely to win.

Commissioner Doug Elgin can explore the question of the MVC’s future on two fronts.

He is confident the MVC will improve its on-court performance after a season in which its power ranking (RPI) dipped from No. 8 among 32 conferences in 2012 and 2013 to No. 11. Maturation from players and coaching staffs will help put the Valley in position to land NCAA and NIT berths.

The MVC, Elgin said, wants to see what its men’s basketball tournament is worth to cities other than St. Louis this spring. The contract with the Scottrade Center ends after the 2015 tournament and Elgin would like to award the 2016-20 tournaments soon.

St. Louis and the Scottrade Center start from a position of significant power, one created over 24 tournaments with solid business sponsorship, attendance and location. It won’t be easy for another city to steal the tournament away.

The Valley is prepared to let one try. Representatives from the Kansas City Sports Commission visited the tournament. Chicago and Indianapolis are also possibilities to respond to the MVC’s Request for Proposal. The MVC went through a similar process in 2007, considering Kansas City, Omaha, Des Moines and others, before keeping the tournament in St. Louis.

“We want to make sure we’re fully appreciated in St. Louis, and we are,” Elgin said. “We’ve never complained about the support here. There’s such tradition and such a strong brand with Arch Madness.”

The condition of the Scottrade Center, rarely used for basketball, is also a concern. The start of Saturday’s second semifinal was delayed by 22 minutes when shot clocks malfunctioned and the Indiana State-Southern Illinois game was played using shot clocks on the ribbon boards, not over the baskets.

This year’s tournament, hurt by Creighton’s exit, drew 50,989 fans, the smallest crowd since 2011 (50,305). Last season’s event, boosted by a final between Creighton and WSU, drew 71,029, the second-largest total.

Sunday’s WSU-Indiana State final drew 12,125, the sixth-highest total for a final.

Kansas City’s Sprint Center, the College Basketball Experience and the nearby Power & Light District intrigue Elgin. Moving the tournament 248 miles closer to WSU’s fans possesses an obvious attraction. The Sprint Center is also closer to Northern Iowa (46 miles closer), Missouri State (49 miles) and Drake (194).

Even without Creighton as an MVC member, Elgin likes what Kansas City offers.

“If you look at the long history of the NCAA, that’s the mecca of college basketball,” he said.

Moving the tournament between cities is a possibility. The SEC is looking at the Scottrade Center as a site, which could complicate availability, hotel space and sponsorships. The Big 12’s use of the Sprint Center may also be an issue.

The value of the MVC Tournament rises with more strong teams.

Wichita State rampaged through a conference weakened by coaching changes and a reliance on freshman and sophomores. Evansville and Illinois State didn’t have a senior. Loyola’s three seniors rarely played. Northern Iowa senior Chip Rank lost his starting job late in the season.

Elgin also expects WSU’s prominence to push other programs, much as Tulsa’s titles in 1994 and 1995 and Southern Illinois’ run of four titles from 2002-05 did.

“The fact that Wichita State is such a marquee, national program is going to help Evansville and Bradley and Northern Iowa improve,” he said. “There are other comparable situations where leagues have gotten better and you have seen programs build to the level of the current kingpin.”

Wichita State finished first or second in the MVC the past five seasons. In its championship seasons (2012, 2014), it won by two and six games. When it finished second in 2011 and 2013, it finished one game back of the champion. With Creighton gone, there is no clear challenger. Northern Iowa isn’t far removed from its titles in 2009 and 2010 and the Panthers finished third the past two seasons. Indiana State finished second this season and third in 2011, when it won the tournament.

“As a league, we've got to continue to improve our programs, bottom line,” Illinois State coach Dan Muller said. “Wichita State is doing its part. We've got to continue to get better.”

SIU coach Barry Hinson coached at Missouri State from 1999-2008 and provides the historical perspective. He was part of the group that lifted the Valley out of its post-Tulsa malaise in the late 1990s. He sees the current crop of young players such as Evansville sophomore D.J. Balentine, SIU sophomore Anthony Beane and Loyola freshman Milton Doyle leading a rebirth.

“Mid-major conferences are very cyclical,” he said. “This is a unique situation, but I think you're getting a glimpse of what's getting ready to happen over the next two, three years. I think we're getting ready, we're moving back to where this league has two, three, four multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament.”

Elgin expects Loyola, which finished last in its first season as an MVC member, to strengthen its program. The Ramblers went 10-22 with an RPI of No. 290 and a strength of schedule ranked No. 201. He said the addition of the Chicago market is helping the MVC with television exposure in that area.

“They have an incredible leader (Rev. Michael Garanzini),” Elgin said. “He has said that when he came into the position 10 years ago, they were struggling … they’re now growing. He says ‘Now is the time for athletics.’ They understand they have a long way to go to see their basketball at contending levels.”

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