Back safe and sound from the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis with some thoughts and observations on what I saw.
▪ I tweeted before Saturday’s Wichita State-Illinois State tournament semifinal that the Redbirds lacked the discipline to beat Wichita State. Of course, I heard back plenty about that one from Illinois State fans. I consider ISU a dangerous opponent, but what I had seen from the Redbirds earlier in the season made he think they lacked the basketball savvy to play a consistent 40 minutes, which I thought it would take to beat the Shockers.
I didn’t consider that Illinois State would play probably its best half of basketball in the second half of Saturday’s game and that the Shockers would play one of their worst. That’s not to take anything away from the Redbirds, who were the better team in a 65-62 win. I still contend, though, that ISU is one of those wildly inconsistent teams that would lose to WSU eight or nine times out of 10 on a neutral floor. Are the Redbirds athletic? You better believe it. They’re also big and ISU’s 2-3 zone caused the Shockers fits.
But Wichita State played poorly in the second half in all facets. The Shockers, who have had to rely so heavily on their five veterans this season, looked like a tired team. They didn’t defend or shoot effectively, two signs of fatigue.
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▪ Wichita State fans again showed up in force in St. Louis. It’s amazing how well Shocker fans travel and the Valley tournament would be in big trouble without them. Illinois State had a nice contingent of fans, too, but not close to the number of people wearing black and yellow. Northern Iowa fans had some decent numbers. Otherwise, there wasn’t much.
Three schools so vital to the success of the Valley and the tournament – Bradley, Southern Illinois and Missouri State – were barely represented. They were three of the teams on display during opening-round play Thursday night along with Drake. It was not the Valley’s shining moment.
Loyola and Evansville also had sparse fan bases at the tournament. The Valley may feel vindicated some by Illinois State’s rise to the championship game, which decries the notion that the MVC is a two-team league. Still, it’s imperative that the bottom of the conference become stronger. There’s no excuse for Bradley, SIU and Missouri State to be this bad.
▪ I recognize Wichita State’s long history in the Missouri Valley Conference, going back to the 1945-46 season. I’m a Valley guy from way, way back. But that doesn’t mean I think the Shockers should stand pat if an opportunity presents itself.
I know this doesn’t sit well with my friends in the Valley, but Wichita State’s men’s basketball stock has never been higher. The Shockers have won 35 of their past 36 regular-season Valley games and are dominating this league, winning most of those games by double digits. I see the Mountain West with 11 basketball-playing members – Hawaii is a MWC member for football only – and think Wichita State would be a great fit for that 12th spot.
▪ I’ve even contemplated how the East and West divisions of the Mountain West would look with Wichita State as a member. West: Boise State, Fresno State, Nevada, San Jose State, UNLV, San Diego State. East: Wichita State, Colorado State, New Mexico, Air Force, Utah State, Wyoming. Division rivals would play home and home every season. The West would play three East teams at home and three away, amounting to 16 conference games.
▪ I’m being somewhat flippant with this, recognizing that changing conferences would be a huge effort and would require consensus. Breaking ties with an institution after 70 years would be painful and emotional. The Mountain West would have to want to add a 12th basketball-only member. And there’s no indication that is the case. Wichita State would have to be interested in making such a move and when I ask those in the athletic administration if that’s something they’re considering, I usually get a “no comment” or a denial that WSU would consider making a conference switch.
▪ The best thing about staying in the Missouri Valley is familiarity. The Shockers know their place and they’ve been highly successful in all sports. There is a double round-robin in men’s and women’s basketball, which is a plus. The best way to crown a true conference champion is to play the other schools in the conference home and away. Even in its current men’s basketball state, the Valley has pluses. But the negatives are profound.
▪ That said, should Wichita State be receptive if the Mountain West were to come calling? Yes, by all means? Should Wichita State be the aggressor? That’s a little more difficult. I’m not sure of the protocol when it comes to switching conferences. I would think it’s best to be proactive, though, with the best interests of the university and the athletic department at heart.
▪ I have no knowledge that there is any wooing going on between the Mountain West and Wichita State. I’m simply speculating. Others believe the American Athletic Conference, with schools like Tulsa, Connecticut, Cincinnati, Memphis and Houston, would be a better fit for the Shockers. Still others hold out hope that the Big East, which took Creighton away from the Valley two years ago, will eventually drop its private-school mandate and become interested in WSU.
For me, the best option to move would be the Mountain West. The geography fits. It’s a strong basketball conference. And San Diego beats Terre Haute.
Forgive me for daydreaming a bit here. I think a move for the Shockers is unlikely, but the notion isn’t all that far-fetched.