To follow the history of dynastic succession in the Missouri Valley Conference is to follow the history of college basketball.
Henry Iba’s patient offense and man-to-man defense ruled the post-World War II era for Oklahoma A&M (now Oklahoma State). Oscar Robertson and Cincinnati took over in the late 1950s and the Bearcats won NCAA titles in 1961 and 1962. Louisville entered the MVC in 1964 on its way to national prominence. Drake and Maury John’s belly-button defense briefly interrupted Louisville’s reign before coach Denny Crum put the Cardinals back on top with his fierce pressing defense.
Is it Wichita State and coach Gregg Marshall’s turn to join that list of nationally prominent programs and landmark coaches? The Shockers aren’t in their league yet — with not even a repeat title on their resume — but they appear poised to make this era their own.
“Wichita State is at a whole different level,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “They recruit against Big 12 schools, Pac-12 schools, Big Ten schools. They’ve upped the ante and all of us have to rise to the occasion.”
The Shockers are on a four-season run that elevated the program’s stature immensely. They won the NIT in 2011 and an MVC title in 2012. In 2013, WSU finished second in the MVC before playing in the Final Four. Last season, it rampaged through the MVC to an 18-0 record for another title.
The Shockers start this season ranked No. 11 and picked to win the MVC. The benchmarks of their success are more national than within the 10-team conference.
“In our league, Wichita has separated,” Bradley coach Geno Ford said.
That separation is more significant than even last season’s 15.6-point margin of victory in Valley games indicates.
▪ Southern Illinois (2007) is the last MVC team, other than WSU, to earn an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
▪ Missouri State, No. 39 in 2011, is the last MVC team, other than WSU and former member Creighton, to finish in the top 50 of the RPI.
All that success has turned WSU into the Valley’s premier program with financial clout other schools can’t match. WSU’s basketball budget of around $5.1 million is the MVC’s largest. Bradley is second at around $3.8 million and six other schools are grouped between $2.1 and $2.5 million, according to the Office of Postsecondary Education figures.
The MVC’s other five public schools fund Football Championship Subdivision programs and Drake plays a non-scholarship brand of football. FCS football budgets typically run $2-3 million, support that may limit basketball resources. Athletic directors love football for its spot in the hearts of fans and its contribution to campus life. But it’s a killer on budgets, they say.
“We did not have, nor will we ever have, the corporate base,” Southern Illinois athletic director Mario Moccia said. “Wichita is very fortunate in that they’re in a city with a lot of corporate entities, and a large population base. That gives you a great advantage to raise funds and pay coaches more.”
When other schools serve as a finishing school for coaches before they take their dream job, Marshall turned WSU into his dream job. His commitment to WSU inspires commitment from the fans and the result appears to be the loss of a system of checks and balances in the MVC. While men’s basketball is the highest-profile sport, the Shockers are defending MVC champions in eight sports, including women’s basketball, volleyball and softball.
“They’re obviously a higher-resource institution in what they can allocate for athletics than most of our schools,” MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said. “They are at a point where they have significant swagger.”
When other schools struggle to piece together strong non-conference schedules, WSU plays in home-and-home series with Alabama, Seton Hall, Utah and Tennessee. It can pay New Mexico State $200,000 for two games at Koch Arena, guarantee games against a program that built a top-100 power ranking and made the NCAA Tournament the past three seasons. Several MVC programs are on the flip side, accepting a check to go on the road. This season, according to the Springfield News-Leader, Missouri State will play at Texas Tech for $95,000. Bradley, which will usually play two or three guarantee games at home, will play at Kansas State and Memphis with no return game at Carver Arena.
“You always want to take a good hard look at what the leader in the conference is doing and replicate it as much as possible,” Moccia said. “We can’t necessarily buy the amount of games that Wichita can, but … maybe we could buy another one. People would be foolish if they weren’t kind of looking under Wichita’s hood and seeing how the engine works and trying to take the best parts of that.”
WSU’s recruiting reach is growing, as commitments from two athletes ranked in the top 100 for the class of 2015 by national recruiting services show. Three Shockers — Gal Mekel, Toure Murry, Cleanthony Early — are on NBA rosters. No other MVC school can claim one.
Marshall may be starting a dynasty at WSU with two MVC titles and three NCAA appearances in seven seasons. Without doubt, he knows how to build one because his teams at Winthrop won six Big South titles in nine seasons. At both stops, he identified a school with potential, recruited at the top of its capability and assembled teams that overmatched most of the competition.
His competition, until further notice, is more national than within the MVC. That can change quickly.
“Getting there is one thing,” Marshall said. “Sustaining it is another.”
While other MVC schools, in most cases, can’t match WSU’s resources, many are investing in their marquee sport. Missouri State, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois built or renovated their arenas since 2006. Evansville moved into a new downtown arena in 2011 and built an on-campus practice facility. Drake opened its $9-million practice facility in September. Bradley opened $50-million Renaissance Coliseum in 2010 as home to offices, a 4,200-seat arena for volleyball and women’s basketball and practice gyms.
The MVC consists of four private schools, three with enrollments under 6,000, and six public schools with enrollments ranging from 12,000 to 24,000. The largest private school (Loyola) is located in the largest MVC city (Chicago). SIU, enrollment 17,964, is located in Carbondale, population 26,367.
There is so much diversity in the MVC that the strategy to chase WSU varies dramatically from school to school.
“We’re aware of what our competitors are doing,” Bradley athletic director Michael Cross said. “But we have our own model. Staying true to our plan, year in and year out, is how we’re going to be successful. We can’t sit there and say we’ve got to be like Wichita. We’ve got to be more like Bradley and do the things that attract the kind of kids that allow us to be successful at Bradley.”
Around the MVC, coaches are trying to improve, with the extra incentive of chasing a program that is nationally prominent. While coaches say they are recruiting good talent, what that looks like differs from school to school. Loyola and Bradley are targeting Chicago as a recruiting ground. Drake is going to Europe to find big men while concentrating on the central United States for guards and forwards.
Transfers are popular this season as coaches try to add experienced, mature players who can compete with the Shockers. Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson welcomes five redshirts, including Virginia transfer Paul Jesperson. Evansville coach Marty Simmons has Villanova transfer Mislav Brzoja and two junior-college transfers to add to five returning starters. Bradley (eight newcomers) and Loyola (six scholarship newcomers) are revamping their rosters to escape the bottom of the conference. Illinois State, completing an almost total makeover of the roster in Dan Muller’s third season, has seven newcomers to add to four returning starters.
“We’ve improved our talent level every year,” Lansing said. “In this league, if you don’t have most of your roster … able to play in the power conferences, you won’t finish in the top half. You go wherever you can to find the best player possible.”
Elgin watched SIU dominate the MVC in the early 2000s in a way WSU has yet to duplicate, and then the Salukis fell after two coaching changes. During their rise, other schools planned for their demise with their own investments and changes.
WSU improved its program by renovating Koch Arena in 2003 and with two successful coaching hires. Creighton launched its program into the Big East with its move into the CenturyLink Center (then Qwest Center) in 2003. UNI moved out of its dome and into the McLeod Center in 2006.
“What Wichita State has done, is raise the bar for all of our schools,” Elgin said. “The coaches that view Wichita State’s program understand what it takes to be great. I think we’re seeing coaches that maybe were new to the league, two, three, four years ago, are seeing their programs mature.”
In January, we find out if that is enough growth to make the season difficult for the MVC’s newest candidate for a dynasty.
Dynasties in the MVC since World War II
Oklahoma A&M 1946-54
State the case: The Aggies won six titles from 1946 to 1954, all under Hall of Fame coach Henry Iba.
National success: Iba’s teams won NCAA titles in 1945 and 1946 and finished second in 1949.
Star players: Center Bob Kurland, often credited as the first player to dunk, earned national Player of the Year honors in 1946 and won two Olympic gold medals.
The rival: Saint Louis won the 1947 MVC title and finished second behind Oklahoma A&M in 1948, 1949 and 1951 before regaining the crown in 1952.
State the case: Under coaches George Smith, Ed Jucker and Tay Baker, the Bearcats won seven MVC titles from 1958 to 1966, including six straight (five undisputed) from 1958 to 1963.
National success: The Bearcats won NCAA titles in 1961 and 1962 before losing to Loyola in the 1963 title game. That loss ended a streak of five appearances in the Final Four.
Star players: Oscar Robertson started his Hall of Fame career with national Player of the Year honors in 1959 and 1960. When he departed, without an NCAA title, Paul Hogue, Tom Thacker and Ron Bonham kept the Bearcats on top.
The rival: The Big O never won a game at Bradley’s Robertson Field House and the Braves handed the Bearcats their lone conference losses in 1958, 1959 and 1960. Bradley, which won the NIT in 1957, 1960 and 1964, finished second to Cincinnati four straight seasons before sharing the MVC with the Bearcats in 1962. Honorable mention to the Shockers, who ended Cincinnati’s 27-game winning streak in 1961 and its 37-game win streak in 1963.
State the case: The Cardinals won undisputed titles in 1967, 1968, 1974 and 1975. They shared titles in 1969, 1971 and 1972.
National success: Louisville advanced to the Final Four in 1972 and 1975.
Star players: Center Wes Unseld led the MVC in rebounding in 1966, 1967 and 1968. Forward Junior Bridgeman won MVC Player of the Year honors in 1974 and 1975.
The rival(s): Louisville lost playoff games to Drake in 1969 and 1971 to determine the conference’s NCAA representative and the Bulldogs won the title undisputed in 1970. Memphis State started a long feud, winding through numerous conferences, with Louisville when they shared the 1972 MVC title and the Tigers won it outright in 1973.
Southern Illinois 2002-07
State the case: SIU shared the title with Creighton in 2002 and won it outright in 2003, 2004 and 2005. After Wichita State ended that run in 2006, the Salukis reclaimed the top spot in 2007.
National success: The Salukis went to six straight NCAA Tournaments and reached the Sweet 16 in 2002 and 2007.
Star players: Guard Darren Brooks symbolized the physical defensive mentality at SIU and won MVC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2004 and 2005. Guard Jamaal Tatum was voted Player of the Year in 2007.
The rival: Creighton fought the Salukis in a series of intense battles that inspired ESPN GameDay to visit SIU Arena in 2008. The Bluejays finished second in 2003, 2004 and 2007. While SIU ruled the regular season, Creighton won MVC Tournament titles in 2002, 2003 and 2007 by beating the Salukis.
Drake won or shared MVC titles in 1969, 1970 and 1971 under coach Maury John, advancing to the Final Four in 1969 … Coach Nolan Richardson revived Tulsa with MVC titles in 1984 and 1985. Coach J.D. Barnett added one in 1987 for the Hurricane … Illinois State finished first in 1992 and 1993 with coach Bob Bender. Three seasons later, coach Kevin Stallings won titles in 1997 and 1998 for the Redbirds and backed those up with tournament titles.