ST. LOUIS — Indiana State spoiled the Missouri Valley Conference’s marquee matchup on CBS.
Instead to the two top seeds battling again, the story is the underdog Sycamores in the title game for the first time since 2001.
Indiana State’s senior class is enjoying a longer stay in St. Louis.
“We’ve never even made it to Saturday,” guard Aaron Carter said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling.”
They are playing on a Sunday after beating two teams they went 0-4 against during the regular season.
“When we first started out here, we had three games to go,” Sycamores center Myles Walker said. “We got one knocked out of the way against Evansville. They whooped us twice in the conference, same as Wichita State. Now we’re coming to get Missouri State.”
While the Sycamores finished third, it was a solid third. They finished three games behind top-seeded Missouri State, today’s opponent with an automatic spot in the NCAA Tournament at stake. They finished two games behind Wichita State and the Shockers swept the regular-season meetings. The Sycamores lost five straight games in late January and early February, removing them from the title race.
In March, they’re back in it.
“We’ve talked about this since we had our losing stretch, that we were going to compete and get better and we were going to fight for each other every day,” coach Greg Lansing said.
The Sycamores split two games with Missouri State, winning 70-69 at home and losing 73-66 at JQH Arena.
If they Sycamores own an edge, it is in depth. On Saturday, they played eight players 12 or more minutes. Missouri State starter rarely sit — they all played 30 or more minutes in Saturday’s win over Creighton. Four of them played 34 or more in Friday’s win over Southern Illinois.
“They’ve shown they can handle it,” Lansing said. “That’s a tough, physical group.”
Bears coach Cuonzo Martin said he thinks his team doesn’t need to win today. Most bracket projections disagree for a team with a No. 41 RPI and a 2-1 record against the top 50.
“I think we’re already in the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t happen. We move on.”
Indiana State is in the title game for the first time since 2001. MSU returns for the eighth time and the first since 2005.
Play them and beat them — The scheduling mandate for men’s basketball programs is remembered with great nostalgia. It is seen as a driving force behind the Valley’s success early in the 2000s.
While there is some truth to that, it’s also true that the scheduling mandate existed for two seasons and ended in 2002. In those seasons, the non-conference opponents of Valley teams needed to reach a combined average power rating of 150 or better to receive its share of NCAA Tournament money the conference is awarded each spring.
Commissioner Doug Elgin doesn’t expect a return to anything similar. Coaches labeled the rule a job-killer, part of the reason it expired. It also seemed that schools no longer needed the prompting.
“You want a buy-in,” Elgin said. “You don’t necessarily want this to be viewed as punitive. It’s hard, because you have the adversarial push-and-pull of job security, of patience in rebuilding programs.”
Elgin is hopeful non-conference schedules will improve, and knows it’s critical for the MVC to regain power. Five of the MVC’s 10 schools ranked 200 or lower in non-conference strength of schedule. The Mountain West Conference-Missouri Valley Conference Challenge Series helps. Coaches who entered the Valley three or four seasons ago should be in position to schedule stronger, although that doesn’t always happen.
“We need to be cognizant of the linkage between good, strong non-conference schedules and being in the hunt for at-large bids,” Elgin said. “We do have to keep an eye on what it’s going to take for the league to get back to a point where it’s considered one of the top eight leagues in the nation.”
Elgin recognizes it’s easy for him to urge for tougher opponents from the safety of St. Louis. It’s the coaches who put their jobs on the line. There needs to be a realization that bad schedules hurt the entire MVC and that smart, aggressive scheduling can help. NCAA Tournament revenues provide about 70 percent of the conference budget.
Of course, a tough schedule is meaningless without victories.
“You don’t want to go out and over-schedule,” he said. “It’s schedules you can handle. We have to be discerning. If you a lot of institutions with poor non-conference schedule strength, it begins to hurt everybody.”
TV talk — The MVC is in the final year of its deal with ESPN and is in discussions for the future.
The current package provides four games on ESPN2 and at least eight men’s basketball games on ESPNU. ESPN sells the rights to the tournament title game to CBS. The contract also calls for participation in BracketBusters, one reason the MVC is married to that event.
The MVC negotiated from a position of strength in 2005 and 2006. That changed with a drought of at-large bids and a drop in RPI in recent seasons. With ESPN’s big-ticket deals with the SEC and ACC, slots could be harder to come by for the MVC and other smaller conferences.
“We’re hoping to maintain what we have, at least,” Elgin said.
Worth noting — Wes Leonard, the Fennville (Mich.) basketball player who died of cardiac arrest Thursday, is a cousin to Missouri State senior Adam Leonard. Wes Leonard, 16, collapsed on the court after his lay-up gave Fennville a 57-55 win in overtime over Bridgman. Adam Leonard is from Lee’s Summit, Mo.æ.æ.æ. Creighton fan Tyler Anderson, from Milwaukee, is the tournament’s one-millionth fan, as calculated by the conference office. Anderson, a 2010 graduate, entered the Scottrade Center at 12:32 p.m. He wins two all-session tickets for life and a framed jersey.