The Missouri Valley’s March Back to ProminencePosted by dnspewak on January 19th, 2012
Danny Spewak is an RTC correspondent. You can find him on Twitter @dspewak. He filed this report following Creighton’s 66-65 victory at Missouri State in Springfield on Wednesday.
No need to remind Paul Lusk about the strength of the Missouri Valley Conference this season. During the past five days, his Missouri State team has lost three games by a total of four possessions. “It’s just one tough game after another,” Lusk said. “You have to go play good basketball in this league.” That’s a theme across the Valley in 2011-12, as the conference looks poised to earn multiple bids in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007. Even in a 66-65 loss, the Bears’ game against Creighton at JQH Arena Wednesday night serves as a prime example of the MVC’s rise. Missouri State forced the Bluejays into 11 first-half turnovers, held the nation’s second-leading scorer to just 15 points and kept an animated home crowd involved by playing the #19 team to the final possession. Had Anthony Downing’s jumper at the buzzer fallen, a middle-of-the-pack team would have completed a sweep of the league’s top contender and Wooden Award candidate Doug McDermott.
And nobody would have blinked an eye. “I think parity is a sign of strength in a league,” commissioner Doug Elgin said. “Absolutely, I think the league is much better this year than it was a year ago. And I think if you look at the talent that’s coming into the league, we’re going to be stronger next year still.”
The results from non-conference play support Elgin’s opinion. Thanks to a strong performance against other leagues in November and December, the MVC ranks eighth in conference RPI right now, above the Pac-12, Conference USA and the West Coast Conference. Wichita State, the other main contender for a league title and an at-large bid, embarrassed UNLV by 19 points at home. Illinois State beat Rutgers on a neutral floor, while Drake and Northern Iowa both beat Iowa State. But the best example of the MVC’s parity may be Indiana State, which lost again on Wednesday to fall to 2-6. Yet the defending tourney champs still won at Vanderbilt earlier this season and represented itself well on national television with two victories in the Old Spice Classic during Thanksgiving week.
The Valley may not have defeated murderer’s row, but compared to the last four seasons, the league has orchestrated an impressive turnaround. Once America’s darlings of the Midwest, the MVC had faded to a one-bid league since 2007, tanking in RPI and strength of schedule numbers. In fact, in 2010-11, the conference ranked #12 in RPI — the lowest in years. During the slide, attendance began to fall during “Arch Madness” in St. Louis, and national perception began to change. The Valley was in full crisis mode, which seemed impossible earlier last decade. Back in 2006, for instance, the league sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament. So excuse Elgin if he sounds a little enthusiastic about his league’s modest success this season. “I think we’re decidedly stronger than we’ve been since 2006,” Elgin said. “Much more balanced… and [Wednesday’s] game is indicative of that.”
The numbers may support the argument for an improved Missouri Valley, but that doesn’t mean that the rest of college basketball will take notice immediately. As a non-BCS conference, the league’s teams are judged much more harshly once league play begins. So when a front-runner like Creighton stumbles at home to Missouri State and wins by a single point on the road, critics start to emerge. They start to say the parity simply means the league is equally bad, not good. Elgin even understands this perception, responding with a resounding “hell yes” when asked whether the Valley is penalized when teams beat up on each other. Still, with leaders Creighton and Wichita State starting to build separation from the rest of the league — as well as formidable NCAA tourney resumes — Elgin said he is not worried about the state of the Valley as March approaches. “I do think we’ve got two or more teams that are certainly in real strong position for at-large bids,” Elgin said. “And I think it’s anybody’s ball game in St. Louis [for Arch Madness].”
Missouri State senior Kyle Weems, the reigning MVC Player of the Year, probably understands the league’s balanced nature better than anybody. After coach Cuonzo Martin left for Tennessee, Weems turned down transfer invitations from several high-major schools to remain in Springfield and the MVC. After the Bears’ third straight loss on Wednesday, Weems hardly seemed surprised about the unpredictability in this conference. “That’s just Missouri Valley basketball,” Weems said. “I know I say it a lot and I sound like a broken record, but that’s just this league… that’s just the greatness about the Missouri Valley. There’s no nights off. You’ve got to be ready to play or you’ll get beat.”
Weems may graduate this spring, but several of his fellow stars will help carry on the Valley’s turnaround next season and beyond. Doug McDermott, for example, is already an All-American candidate as a sophomore, and at least one NBA Draft website does not project him to leave school. Colt Ryan is a hidden gem at Evansville. Indiana State’s Jake Odum might be one of the more entertaining sophomore point guards in college basketball. Other underclassmen guards like Rayvonte Rice (Drake), Anthony James (Northern Iowa) and Dyricus Simms-Edwards (Bradley) are also playing leading roles on their respective teams. This talent level is why 4-4 Missouri State appears even with top-25 Creighton both home and away, and it’s why Indiana State can win at Vanderbilt one night and subsequently lose at Drake, Southern Illinois and Illinois State on another.
Don’t think Lusk will forget that when he prepares to face 1-7 Bradley on Saturday. “I told the guys before the game the records don’t matter. Our 4-4 record does not matter. I don’t know what Bradley is, maybe they’re 1-8. That record doesn’t matter,” Lusk said. “Doesn’t matter.” This season more than ever.