Once again, the Missouri Valley Conference is on the comeback. Not that it ever really leaves.
For more than 100 years, few conferences have rolled with the punches better than the MVC. The Valley continues to claw out a spot just outside the top tier conferences in college basketball, and it did so again in 2014-15 with a noticeably improved product that again proved the league has a niche in the sport.
Students of history should not be surprised. If a conference can withstand losing schools like Cincinnati, Louisville, Memphis, Missouri, Nebraska and nearly half of the current Big 12, it should be no surprise when it loses one of its best programs in Creighton two years ago and comes out just fine.
Wichita State maintained its level of excellence, sitting firmly in the top 25 all season and winning the MVC regular season title again. No, the Shockers didn’t enter the NCAA Tournament undefeated as they did the season before, but in some ways WSU’s season was better as it advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.
Gregg Marshall’s team carried the league in 2013-14 in what was otherwise a down year for the Valley. The team that really provided a jolt this year was Northern Iowa, which matched the Shockers in the rankings much of the year and provided a hotly contested two-team race for the league title between a pair of top 15 teams. UNI was led by an All-American in Seth Tuttle and won the MVC Tournament in an outstanding season that was only slightly blemished by a second-round loss in the NCAA tourney.
Despite its improvement, the MVC still felt like a two-team league much of the year. The end of the season suggested it was much more. Illinois State knocked Wichita State out in the semifinals in Arch Madness, while Loyola (Ill.) won the CBI title and Evansville claimed the CIT. The league’s 14-3 postseason record was the best of any Division I conference.
Loyola’s rise is especially fulfilling for the Valley, as the Ramblers were the surprising selection to replace Creighton in 2013. In that regard, this season validated commissioner Doug Elgin and conference leadership’s philosophy on expansion, which has been measured and planning for the long term as opposed to impulsive and reactive. The hotly contested conference race between Wichita State and UNI affirmed that the Valley also gets it right with its 18-game, double round-robin conference schedule.
The rest of the league clearly still has work to do and the capability to do better, especially proud programs like Bradley, Missouri State and Southern Illinois. If those programs’ success rate can mirror that of the Valley, though, it’s just a matter of time before they are on the way up again.
Arch Madness celebrated its 25th year in St. Louis, where it continues to be one of the premier conference tournaments in the country.
This year’s event had all the looks of being an eight-game exhibition before top-seeded Wichita State and No. 2 Northern Iowa faced off for the third time this year in what would’ve been a memorable final. UNI did its part in the semifinals with a workmanlike 63-49 win over upstart No. 6 seed Loyola, but fourth-seeded Illinois State ruined that dreamy scenario by knocking out the Shockers 65-62 in the semis as Daishon Knight scored 25 points.
For 20 minutes of the championship game, the Redbirds looked ready to complete a knockout of the top two seeds. Illinois State dominated the first half and led Northern Iowa 36-22 at halftime. The Panthers came out on fire to start the second half, though, and ISU couldn’t withstand the rush as UNI won 69-60 for its third Arch Madness title in seven years.
The tournament opened with two first round games, with No. 9 Southern Illinois upending No. 8 Missouri State 55-48 and 10th-seeded Bradley edging Drake 52-50 in overtime. As so many 8/9 game winners in the MVC Tournament do, SIU put a scare into the top seed for about a half, but Wichita State pulled away midway through the second half for a 56-45 win.
The most notable result from the first round and quarterfinals came in the 3/6 game, as Loyola blew out third-seeded Indiana State 81-53. Illinois State and No. 5 Evansville played a terrific game, with the Redbirds pulling out a 71-67 victory, while Northern Iowa turned a tight game at halftime into a 71-46 rout of Bradley.
Player of the Year: Seth Tuttle, F, Sr., Northern Iowa
Freshman of the Year: Brenton Scott, G, Indiana State
Newcomer of the Year: DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, G, Jr., Illinois State
Defensive Player of the Year: Tekele Cotton, G, Sr., Wichita State
Sixth Man of the Year: Wes Washpun, G, Jr., Northern Iowa
Coach of the Year: Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa
Ron Baker, G, Jr., Wichita State
D.J. Balentine, G, Jr., Evansville
Egidijus Mockevicius, C, Jr., Evansville
Seth Tuttle, F, Sr., Northern Iowa
Fred VanVleet, G, Jr., Wichita State
- Wichita State spent the entire season ranked in the top 20, while Northern Iowa was ranked for the final 12 weeks of the season. Both teams also reached as high as the top 10 in the AP poll.
- The MVC went 14-3 in the postseason, the best record of any conference in Division I. Loyola won the CBI, Evansville won the CIT, and Wichita State advanced to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. Northern Iowa also made it to the NCAA tourney second round, while Illinois State advanced to the NIT second round.
- Loyola registered a 14-game improvement in wins, from 10-22 to 24-13
What we expected, and it happened: Wichita State was really successful-again. The Shockers came into the season ranked in just about everyone’s top 20, and that’s exactly where they finished it.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Missouri State was picked to finish third in the Valley’s preseason poll. Instead, the Bears got off to a bad start, briefly righted the ship but then fell apart in spectacular fashion, including the departure of high-scoring Marcus Marshall.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Loyola finished 10th last year and was picked there again this year. The Ramblers started 11-2, though, including wins over Boise State and Texas Tech, finished sixth in the MVC despite a midseason slide coinciding with an injury to leader Milton Doyle, and then won the CBI. Indiana State lost a lot from its NIT team of a year ago, including star guard Jake Odum, but the Sycamores shook off a tough start to tie for third in the Valley.
Team(s) on the rise: Loyola, Illinois State. The Ramblers won’t sneak up on anyone next year but could be even better if Doyle can return to health. Illinois State is very capable of competing for an at-large berth in 2015-16. Even with the transfer of center Reggie Lynch, the Redbirds should be loaded with high-level size and athleticism.
Team on the decline: Northern Iowa. As always, putting a team in this category is relative. The Panthers could still be an NCAA Tournament team next year, but it will take a herculean effort to duplicate their 2014-15 season without Seth Tuttle.
2015-16 Missouri Valley Outlook
The Valley may not boast a pair of top 15 teams, but it should have at least one again, as well as perhaps 2-3 more competing for NCAA at-large bids. Wichita State will be a considerable favorite, as it should be with the return of seniors Baker and VanVleet. The Shockers could certainly be improved; few understood just what a job Marshall’s squad did this past year with limited size and scoring options. VanVleet in particular was labeled as “overrated” by a few before last year, but just continues to get better and is unquestionably one of the top point guards in the country.
Is Evansville next year’s Northern Iowa? Everything certainly points to that, with the expected return of all five starters, including all-Valley performers Balentine and Mockevicius. The Purple Aces are not the defensive team UNI was, though. Mockevicius needs to stay out of foul trouble, and a third scoring option would help.
Illinois State, Loyola, Indiana State and Northern Iowa all will be fighting for the first division, and we’d put them in that order at this time. The Redbirds showed they can play with and beat the best in the MVC tourney. Indiana State will be a tough out, while UNI is reloading after the loss of three starters and five seniors.
The bottom of the Valley looks to be another story again. Drake was young this year but may have the best chance of breaking out of the pack. Missouri State and Southern Illinois are huge question marks after being stung by transfers. Bradley under new coach Brian Wardle is in a complete rebuild.