In a March in the not-so-distant future, I hope to write a story about the Missouri Valley Conference’s basketball revival.
I’d like to type feel-good words about how that scrappy conference grabbed an at-large NCAA Tournament bid and once again survived defections to play good basketball and stick it to the power conferences.
Maybe Greg Lansing gets Indiana State back to the tournament with another small-town hero, this kid from Tennessee who scored a billion points in Class A. Maybe Porter Moser takes a bunch of Chicago kids to the Big Dance. Maybe Brian Wardle brings that waiting Bradley fan base to life in March.
And I hope I get to use some Barry Hinson quotes about the whole thing. I hope Billy Packer is still around to complain. I hope an SEC coach who directed his team to an 8-10 record offers to schedule any MVC team and Illinois State’s Dan Muller responds by Tweeting a picture waiting for his phone to ring.
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That’s what we love about the Missouri Valley Conference. It’s a basketball conference. It’s an underdog. NCAA wins over Kansas and Texas and Ohio State and Florida upset the college power structure and it’s fun. Without that, March Madness is a sometimes numbing procession of football brand names and coaches who write leadership books and we’ve seen it all before.
There is much work to do before the Valley reaches that point. History says it can be done. Northern Iowa and Illinois State are in good shape and capable of big things. Valparaiso brings strong credentials as Wichita State’s replacement. Those schools need others to join them.
Wichita State leaves the MVC for the American Athletic Conference, officially, on Saturday. It’s a no-brainer, life-changing move for the Shockers, one that is so much a plus I’m a little mystified. I’ll miss many things about covering the MVC, even while recognizing it is slumping in men’s and women’s basketball and Gregg Marshall’s career no longer requires him to walk out in front of 1,700 fans at Drake’s rec center (Now he can do that at Tulane).
From my perspective, commissioner Doug Elgin and his staff set a high bar for working with the media, which means I’m able to pass on information to the fans. The MVC staff is uniformly helpful and championship events are well-organized.
One regret I have about the process of moving to the American — and it’s shared by Wichita State athletic director Darron Boatright — is the amount of blame placed on Elgin and the MVC. Most of that is misinformed. The responsibility for improving the MVC rests largely on the schools. Schools set budgets, raise money, prioritize and hire. Creighton and Wichita State did those things to great success.
Too many other MVC schools either are unable (sometimes due to larger economic forces), unwilling or fail to execute (problems Wichita State must admit to for stretches in its Valley tenure).
The MVC can lead and direct and assist. Ultimately, it can only do so much. The Valley’s record over the past 30 years indicates it largely squeezed the most out of its resources, a credit to the schools and Elgin’s leadership on issues such as the conference tournament site, scheduling, Bracket Busters and ESPN3.
I enjoyed almost every minute (except some scary moments sliding on ice-covered roads) covering the MVC and its schools. Thanks to the media relations people, coaches and administrators at those schools who gave me their time and wisdom. They helped me explain issues and entertain readers.
They let me run stairs in the Hulman Center, find a treadmill at Drake and plead with equipment managers for a clean towel in at least half the MVC gyms. In the old days, we played 3-on-3 basketball after game-day shootarounds. Highlight: Playing on the raised floor at Bradley’s famed Robertson Field House. Lowlight: Marshall ended practice at SIU Arena by letting the media participate in a shooting drill. I gagged on it. He never did that again, rightfully fearing we would infect his team.
Thanks to the beat writers who endured my round table questions, starred in videos and helped pick MVC standings in June. I hope to see them again on the road soon.
Wichita State spent 72 good years in the MVC and I’m happy to play a part in describing the past 11.