Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Valley needs to locate its direction

ST. LOUIS — It's ridiculous that Missouri State and Wichita State are playing in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament this weekend under such intense pressure. Because, as it appears, only one of these teams, far and away the two best teams in the Valley over the course of the regular season, will get into the NCAA Tournament.

The MVC, which five years ago sent its tournament champion and three at-large teams into the NCAAs, has reverted back to a one-bid league. And a one-bid league isn't what the Valley aspires to be.

But this hasn't been a great year in the MVC. Mediocrity rules. The Bears and Shockers are the conference's only two teams among the nation's top 100 in the power ratings. Four Valley schools hover from 203 to 243, which isn't even "mid-major" territory.

Only one Valley school, Wichita State, played a non-conference schedule that is among the 100 toughest in the country. The Shockers' non-conference strength of schedule ranks No. 86. Next for the Valley is Evansville, at 141.

Against the country's top 100 RPI teams, the Valley is 12-55 — only five were nonconference wins. And just one of those is against a team currently in the RPI top 50: Evansville's victory over Butler (45), 71-68 in overtime, in November. Valley teams have lost 14 games to top 50 RPI teams by an average of 18.4 points.

This is a conference that, except for Wichita State and to a lesser extent Missouri State, has lost its way.

The Shockers' overall strength of schedule is 101st, not where it needs to be but not shabby. Evansville (108) and Indiana State (109) are next. Missouri State's SOS is No. 125 and if it weren't for the Bears' two wins over WSU, they wouldn't have a win inside the RPI top 100.

A few years ago, Valley commissioner Doug Elgin strongly recommended that the conference's coaches and athletic directors up the ante in non-conference scheduling. And for a while, it happened.

But Elgin's message has gone cold. Five Missouri Valley Conference schools — Creighton, Drake, Southern Illinois, Bradley and Illinois State — have non-conference strength of schedules ranked No. 212 or below. Illinois State is No. 334, and there are only 345 schools playing Division I basketball.

That's embarrassing.

The Redbirds played only one non-conference game against a top 150 RPI team this season and that game, against UNLV, was dictated by the Missouri Valley-Mountain West Challenge. Illinois State lost to the Runnin' Rebels 82-51.

According to collegerpi.com, the Valley's RPI is No. 12 among all conferences, one slot behind the Horizon League. That's a precipitous fall from where the conference was five years ago.

I hope this weekend, with everyone in one place, this fall from grace gets talked about. There's no sense for Elgin to hold back. The conference and its member schools made a ton of money by sending four teams to the NCAA Tournament in 2006, but the money that was generated by that windfall is about to be cut off.

What has to be done?

First and foremost, coaches and athletic directors have to beef up non-conference schedules. Yes, I know it's not easy. And it's almost impossible to find elite teams willing to play road games out of league.

Tournaments are always a good way to go, as Wichita State has discovered.

But throwaway games against teams in the bottom third of the RPI don't do the Valley a bit of good. I get it, coaches like to accumulate wins and it's easier to do when you're playing Texas Southern at home than when you're going on the road to play at Clemson, for example.

However, the message needs to be clear that the health of the Valley as a whole comes before that of any of its individual members. Strengthening schedules helps everyone. Fans are more likely to go to games when they've heard of the opponent. Potential recruits are more likely to want to play in the Valley if the conference plays marquee games in November and December. And the prestige of the conference will grow.

So how will playing more of those games help a conference that is 1-14 against the RPI's top 50?

It just will. Trust me. The Valley, outside of Northern Iowa's Sweet 16 run last season, has taken steps toward irrelevance lately. Mostly, that's because its teams aren't playing a lot of non-conference games that matter. And when they are, they're not competing.

Illinois State, Southern Illinois and Bradley, traditionally three of the Valley's strongest members, have crashed into the same wall going 100 mph. Creighton has taken a step back. Northern Iowa, too. The hierarchy of the Valley has changed.

Now it's Missouri State and Wichita State. They both belong in the NCAA Tournament. But one will likely stay home with eight of its Valley brethren to thank.

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