When Creighton departed the Missouri Valley Conference for the Big East, the levels of worry from some on the outside ranked from concern to spooked alarm that both the MVC and its signature Arch Madness men’s basketball event were in danger of a fall.
If there was one overall takeaway message from this year’s MVC Tournament, though, it is this: despite the doomsday predictions of some, the league and the event continues to roll with the punches and comes out strong at the end.
This year’s Arch Madness was the 25th edition of an event that started at the old Kiel Auditorium in 1991, moved to the old St. Louis Arena (nee Checkerdome) for a couple years and is now held in the cavernous Scottrade Center, home of the NHL’s St. Louis Blues.
Creighton fans used to be all over St. Louis during Arch Madness, but they have now been gone for two years. Contrary to the predictions of some, attendance has not fallen off a cliff. The four-day tourney drew 50,187 fans this year, marking the 13th straight year it has eclipsed the 50,000 mark for attendance.
That it was able to reach that number is impressive because the league was able to withstand a loss by its current bell cow in the semifinals that almost certainly hurt Sunday’s gate.
For those there Saturday, it was no secret Wichita State had the largest fan base turnout in St. Louis. Black and yellow shirts filled an entire end zone and then some in the semifinal against Illinois State, but the Shockers were knocked out of the tournament by the Redbirds on Saturday.
Very few WSU faithful were in attendance Sunday (understandably, those that were seemed to be huddled together as if conducting a support group meeting for grieving fans). Despite predictions of a sparse gathering for the title game, though, it was still a strong crowd for the championship, particularly from a school in Illinois State whose fans were not expecting a Sunday appearance.
A total of 13,552 were on hand, and the crowd showed well. Even without the Wichita State-Northern Iowa final matchup of top 15 teams that most anticipated/expected, the atmosphere was excellent. It felt like a championship game could feel, and one can’t ask much more than that.
Located in a great city and with a certifiable identity built over a quarter century, Arch Madness will continue to do just fine. And even with the numbers this year, the event still has a high upside.
When it doesn’t have top 15-caliber teams like Wichita State and Northern Iowa, the success of Arch Madness will often be tied to just how good its nearest schools are. Bradley, Missouri State and Southern Illinois are three of the schools closest to St. Louis and also have fan bases that, when their programs are good, can reliably fill their own arenas and will travel en masse to St. Louis.
Seemingly forgotten already by many that flipped over Creighton leaving the league was that the MVC tourney sold out the semifinal and final sessions in 2007, the year after the league received four bids to the NCAA Tournament. It wasn’t just all Creighton fans in the Scottrade Center that year. In fact, all three of those teams joined the Bluejays in the semifinals. This year, though, all three played on Thursday in the first round/play-in games.
All three of those programs have the resources to be challenging for NCAA bids, and their fans expect it. You can bet if those teams are doing well that attendance will always be strong.
It’s not realistic to expect the Valley to be a consistent four-bid league, but the fan bases and program support in the league is enough that it’s fair to expect at least 3-4 league teams every year can come to St. Louis with expectations for at least an NIT berth, if not more. As long as that is the case, there’s no reason to change anything about what has become one of the premier conference tournaments in the country.
The Valley also certainly seems to have picked a winner to replace Creighton.
Loyola certainly was not the type of chic short-term pick that many fans want when they play the conference realignment game on message boards in the offseason. Those fans would’ve preferred the MVC add someone like Denver, which was coming off an NIT appearance in 2013 and was in a large city, geography be damned.
Loyola has not made it to the NCAA Tournament since 1985 and has rarely come close since a Sweet 16 appearance that year. As the league hoped when it added them, though, the Ramblers are improving, and quickly.
Loyola has won a game as an underdog in both of its first two trips to Arch Madness, reaching the quarterfinals as a 10 seed last year and the semifinals this year as a 6 seed. The Ramblers won 19 games this year, finished a solid sixth in the MVC despite losing their best player for 12 games to injury, and their RPI is even well ahead of Creighton’s this year.
There’s still a long ways to go. Loyola fans have not come anywhere close yet to replacing the number of Bluejay fans at Arch Madness. But the Ramblers are still a work in progress, and with four starters scheduled to return this year, plus other Chicago-area programs still struggling, there is an opportunity to create a buzz in that city, one that would result in far more of the maroon and gold scarves worn by Loyola faithful this year in St. Louis.
Kirk Wessler of the Peoria Journal Star wrote an outstanding column about Bradley coach Geno Ford following the Braves’ final game this season. If one is familiar with Bradley basketball at all and knows how well fans in Peoria have traditionally supported the program, it doesn’t take much imagination to understand that Ford’s job could be on the line after an extremely disappointing 9-24 record in this, his fourth year. Wessler talked with Ford about the situation following the Braves’ 71-46 loss to Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals, and Ford has been very understanding of the situation, though that doesn’t make it any less tough to go through. It’s easy for many to forget that no coach is trying to lose games, and every one of them out there cares about what they are doing.