Every Missouri Valley Conference school other than Wichita State wanted to forget the 2013-14 men’s basketball season. The Shockers made history. The rest, mediocrity.
This season promised something better than a six-game gap between first place and the rest, one NCAA Tournament team and one in the top 50 of the power rankings (RPI). Thirty-six starters returned, as did all 10 coaches, and stability looked good. The MVC schedule hits the halfway point on Wednesday and the Valley’s bounce-back season is a success at the top. Success is harder to quantify farther down the standings.
“I like the position we’re in,” MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said. “We knew we would be better.”
No. 12 Wichita State (18-2, 8-0 MVC) plays Loyola (13-7, 3-5) on Wednesday at Koch Arena and those two schools provide Elgin evidence for his optimism. The Shockers continue to give the MVC a national force. Loyola, in its second season in the MVC, spent most of the season with an RPI in and around the top 100, a dramatic improvement from last season’s No. 292 rank. The Ramblers went 10-2 in non-conference play, peaking at No. 47 in the RPI, with a win over Texas Tech.
The best of the Valley is on display Saturday when WSU plays at No. 18 Northern Iowa. In March, the first measure of success comes on Selection Sunday and the MVC is ticketed to land two spots in the bracket for the third time in the past four seasons. Since the 2012 and 2013 fields included former member Creighton, it is a relief for Valley loyalists to see another team build an NCAA at-large resume.
“It’s obvious it’s going to be at least two-bid league,” Bradley coach Geno Ford said. “And hopefully, from the league’s perspective, there are some upsets in (the MVC Tournament) and we can get three in. Knowing you’re going to have two teams in in February is good progress.”
Most NCAA Tournament projections slot the Shockers a No. 4 seed. UNI is pegged two or three spots down, still solidly in the field. While the MVC is strong at the top, the bottom teams aren’t helping as much as hoped. Four teams are ranked No. 205 or lower in the RPI. Southern Illinois played one of the worst non-conference schedules in the nation and Drake owns three wins against NCAA Division I opponents.
In the middle, there doesn’t appear to be a third team capable of pushing into at-large consideration and only Evansville (No. 64) looks like an NIT possibility.
“I think it’s much improved,” SIU coach Barry Hinson said. “Evansville is much improved, and why shouldn’t they be? They were very young last year. Look at what Illinois State has done. They’re young. Of course, there’s nobody younger in the league than we are.”
The struggles near the bottom of the MVC prevent this season from matching some of the best in recent years. The MVC put four teams in the NCAA Tournament in 2006. It finished with six teams in the top 50 of the RPI and only one (Illinois State) outside the top 200. The numbers looked similar in 2005, when two teams earned at-large bids, and 2013, when five schools finished in the top 100 of the RPI.
“The difference between 2006 and 2015 is that the bottom of the half of the leauge was really good in 2006,” Elgin said. “We didn’t have any teams verging on No. 250.”
However, Elgin points to improved non-conference scheduling by most teams with helping the Valley’s overall picture. It finished No. 11 among all conferences in the RPI last season. This season, it is No. 10. According to Collegiate Basketball News RPI Report, the MVC’s non-conference strength of schedule is No. 10, improved from No. 22 a year ago. Six of the MVC schools played a tougher non-conference schedule this season.
“We’re playing better schedules and, most importantly, we’re having better outcomes,” Elgin said. “We’re using a more discerning eye in arranging non-conference schedules. I think that’s going to be a continuing focus for our league.”
A four-season renewal of the MVC’s series with the Mountain West Conference will help. Elgin said work continues on that project, which ran originally from 2009-2012, with plans to pair schools next season.
“It’s a natural in that it’s difficult for both leagues to get good, strong schedules,” Elgin said. “Basketball-centric conferences understand they need to play games against good teams in leagues like ours.”
No. 12 Wichita State
When: 7 p.m. Wednesday
Where: Koch Arena
Records: LU 13-7, 3-5 MVC; WSU 18-2, 8-0
Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM
TV: Cox 22
Loyola at No. 12 Wichita State
Loyola (13-7, 3-5 MVC): The Ramblers will play their third straight game without G Milton Doyle, who averages 11.5 points and 3.4 rebounds. He is out with a sprained left ankle. “The big one is Jeff White,” Coach Porter Moser said. “He’s our most logical option to step up. He’s been here three years. He’s had some good games for us in his career.” … James, a transfer from Coffeyville Community College, did not play in the first meeting due to an ankle injury. He averaged 14.5 points and 4.5 rebounds in two games last season, including a season-high 18 against Indiana State … The Ramblers have lost three straight and four of five, a stretch that started with a 67-53 loss to WSU on Jan. 11.
Wichita State (18-2, 8-0): Carter practiced on Tuesday and said his back feels good. He sat out the second half of Sunday’s win over Drake with back spasms. “I got some treatment and got it better,” he said … Cotton scored 16 points and Baker 15 in the first meeting. VanVleet added 14, making all five of his shots, go with 10 assists to tie a career-high … WSU made 15 of 21 shots in the second half of that game and outscored Loyola 44-25 … The Shockers lead the series 21-9 and are 3-0 since Loyola joined the MVC … WSU has won 27 consecutive home games, the fourth-longest streak in the nation and 10th longest in MVC history. The Shockers also carry 26 game regular-season MVC win streak and 13 MVC games at home.
RPIs as of Saturday: LU 105, WSU 12.