Night Line: Clarity Proves Ever Elusive in Wacky Missouri Valley ConferencePosted by BHayes on February 13th, 2013
Bennet Hayes is a regular contributor for RTC. You can find him @HoopsTraveler on Twitter. Night Line runs on weeknights during the season, highlighting a major storyline development from that day’s games.
Back in January, there was a time where we thought we actually knew what was going on in the Missouri Valley Conference. We were confident that Creighton was a top-10 team and that Wichita State was nearly as good as the Shockers of a year ago. Surely Illinois State had been exposed as a fraud, a once trendy sleeper pick to win the league before losing their first six conference games. And our early January convictions on Missouri State? Entering conference play without a D-I win, the Bears looked like one of the worst teams in the country, much less the Valley.
Well, at least Evansville and Northern Iowa have avoided confusing us too much over the past month. The constantly evolving complexion of the conference took on yet another look Tuesday night, as Indiana State suffered a costly 67-65 loss at the hands of Missouri State. The Sycamores had been one of the league’s positive stories of late, as a recent surge had them entering Springfield as MVC co-leaders. If you are looking for narratives from the other side of the ledger, look no further than those of ISU’s fellow top-of-the-Valley dwellers, Creighton and Wichita State. The Bluejays have toiled through multiple losing streaks in the past month, and in what should be a daunting task, will take the floor at the McLeod Center tomorrow night seeking to avoid stretching their current losing streak to three. Wichita State can tell the Jays all about three-game losing streaks, as a mind-numbing loss to Southern Illinois highlighted the Shockers’ recent skid. Wichita and Creighton are still far closer to being in the field of 68 than out, but if current trajectories hold, it won’t be long before these losses become as crippling as Indiana State’s was tonight.
KenPom currently rates the MVC as the ninth best conference in the land, but it’s nipping on the heels of a league with a little more luster to its name this season – the Atlantic 10. There are reasons to believe the MVC is a tougher gig than many give it credit for. Northern Iowa played Louisville, Memphis and Iowa extremely tough before falling by single digits in each contest, making its 14-11 overall record a bit deceiving. Another team better than its 14-11 tally is Evansville, who showed well in games at Butler, Colorado State, and Notre Dame (falling by single digits in all). Yes, losses are losses, but these teams have to be better than the RPI number next to their name, and their opponents with at-large dreams (hello there Creighton, Wichita State and Indiana State) are also injured by their slights. Moreover, Illinois State and Missouri State have been schizophrenic outfits that clearly have the potential to outplay their records and reputations – especially the Redbirds, who have to be ruing that six-game stretch of defeats to open conference play.
Speaking of Illinois State (now 6-7 in MVC play), it seems as if a 10-8 Valley campaign paired with a conference tournament finals appearance, would actually have the Redbirds dancing – an amazing consideration given where they were a month ago. The quarreling team six games under .500 is now thinking March again, while the national darlings who ripped off 17 wins in their first 18 outings can no longer feel certain of an NCAA Tournament bid. Sure, Creighton should still be in the bracket come March, and Illinois State will be hard-pressed to complete its turnaround, but don’t forget that we also thought we had everything figured out back in January. The middle of the conference is good enough to keep the surprises coming, but the home stretch is underway for the three teams at the top, so don’t be surprised if the class of the Valley is finally able to distinguish themselves.