With Wichita State’s exit to the American Athletic Conference now official-finally, at long last, after repeated stoking by national media desperate for a scoop in a story where the end result was known for months-the Missouri Valley Conference faces the next step in its 111-year evolution as a conference.
Valley officials and presidents are going to face an endless stream of suggestions over the coming weeks and months, and while we wouldn’t pretend to be qualified to tell people in those places what to do-especially a commissioner as experienced and accomplished as Doug Elgin-here is one thing we do hope they can do:
Tune. It. Out.
Conference realignment is a favorite parlor game on social media and message boards in the offseason for college sports fans desperate for something, anything to talk about. As such, there will be literally hundreds of conference change possibilities bandied by those fans. It can quickly lead to the feeling that, if a league isn’t making a change, and a big one, they’re falling behind.
So overbearing is the constant discussion of realignment that it might even be part of the reason why we see so many changes in conferences throughout college and even high school sports now, at all levels. Administrators and coaches are human beings, too, and if they hear something enough, they can be influenced by it.
As we noted last week, the MVC doesn’t “have” to do anything. No matter how much chatter there is on social media otherwise. A nine-team league is not a terrible thing, as long as those nine schools are solidly committed to one another. A 10-team league or even an 11-team league is just fine, too. (Anything that preserves the Valley’s double round-robin schedule is a win, from this view.)
This would be a great time for MVC leaders to remember what they always say about it being a conference bigger than one member. Even the exits of Creighton and Wichita State-significant as they are-don’t change that one bit. Nada.
Lest one not believe that, there’s plenty of statistical evidence to back it up. Often forgotten about Wichita State’s fairly recent history in the Valley is that, specifically, for a stretch from 1989-2002, the Shockers had 10 losing seasons, never won more than 16 games overall in a season and finished better than fourth in the MVC only once.
During that time, schools like Bradley, Illinois State, Missouri State and Southern Illinois were regularly leading the conference. SIU in particular won three straight Arch Madness titles from 1993-95, and then made an NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 appearance in 2002 as an at-large selection. In some ways the Salukis set the stage for Wichita State’s wild success of late in the Valley, with their run of six straight NCAA bids from 2002-07 that culminated with a 4 seed and another Sweet 16 in 2007.
Bradley won the regular season title in 1996 and was Wichita State before the Shockers were when it came to attendance. While WSU with mediocre-at-best teams often played in front of half-to-two-thirds full crowds at then-Levitt Arena (now Koch Arena), the Braves were a perennial finisher in the top 50 nationally in attendance for the better part of 20 years, with nearly 10,000 on hand for every game at Carver Arena.
Illinois State claimed back-to-back titles in 1997 and 1998. Missouri State won the league tourney back in 1992 but was regularly a contender, and as a 12 seed at-large in the NCAA Tournament made the Sweet 16 in 1999.
Guess what? All four of these schools are still in the Valley.
So is Northern Iowa, which was just in the top 15 back in the 2014-15 season, made the Sweet 16 in 2010 and would’ve been there again last year were it not for a terrible collapse. So is Drake, one of the longest-running MVC members, which earned a 5 seed in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
Now, there’s a lot of ‘was’ and ‘used to’ in documenting those programs, but the point still should be crystal clear: the schools the Valley still has left are capable of being very, very good. Frankly, better than they’ve been of late.
Bradley is in the midst of a complete tear down and rebuild from the ground up but has shown progress after two years under Brian Wardle. Missouri State and Southern Illinois both have been affected by injuries and transfers, but when stable they’ve had the talent to compete for at least NIT bids. The Bears in particular next year should have one of the most intriguing talents in maybe the entire country in Alize Johnson, and if he stays (it’s horrible that we have to include that disclaimer now with just about any player) he is capable of a big, big season next year.
Indiana State had been one of the MVC’s more stable programs of late before slipping the past two years, but still was good enough to beat Butler this year. Northern Iowa has made seven NCAA Tournament appearances since 2004-just as many as Wichita State in that time period, by the way. One would think it’s fair to give the Panthers the benefit of the doubt that they’re going to be improved after an underwhelming 2016-17 campaign.
Whether these programs are prepared to collectively fill the void left by Wichita State next year is a fair question. They probably aren’t right at this moment, and there’s no sugarcoating the Shockers are a big loss. What can’t be questioned is that the others have done it before, so it’s not so inconceivable that they can do it again. In fact, the MVC needs them to do it.
Creighton and Wichita State brought notably large gatherings to the MVC Tournament in later years, and tourney attendance had slipped some without Bluejay fans but also as other programs fell into states of mediocrity.
At the same time, this is the same league that in 2007 sold out more than 22,000 seats at the Scottrade Center for its semifinals, and the CU/WSU tandem made up only one of those four semifinalists. Bradley, Missouri State and Southern Illinois were there, though, and there are plenty of fans of those schools who would get on the bandwagon and get to St. Louis in a hurry if their programs returned to the level of those years, when all were regular NCAA tourney contenders. In fact, we felt a couple years ago already that those three hold the key to league basketball and Arch Madness success going forward, even more than Wichita State did.
And while some will contend that it’s tougher to do now than before because of the proverbial “ever-widening gap between the haves and have nots,” that’s not entirely accurate. Valley schools have always had to do it on a budget compared to bigger schools. Southern Illinois had three coaches over its six-year NCAA streak. Wichita State lost Mark Turgeon one year after its 2006 Sweet 16 trip. It’ll always be a fact of life in leagues like the MVC, just like it is for the Atlantic 10, CAA, Horizon, and anyone else not in that top echelon.
It would be foolhardy to expect too much from a new addition or additions because every single school being suggested as a candidate has its drawbacks. Belmont has a terrific, model basketball program but is an afterthought in its own city. The relative same can be said about Valparaiso in its region just outside Chicago; like Belmont, Valpo is a relatively niched private school that isn’t going to attract a huge audience, even as its basketball program is regularly excellent.
Murray State is another that would be an outstanding basketball add for its tradition and fan base, but the Racers have strong OVC ties as a charter member. Grand Canyon or New Mexico State might be interesting (the Aggies once were a Valley member), but does the league really want to expand that far?
Any one or two of North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State would make sense, but those four former Division II rivals just finally joined back together again in the Summit League after years apart, and might want to keep it that way for a while. Missouri-Kansas City and Nebraska-Omaha would be logical public school candidates to replace WSU, but it’s questionable whether either program is ready-made to compete in the MVC, especially UMKC.
Saint Louis would easily make the most sense, but hasn’t been interested in the past, and the neutral advantage of the MVC Tournament being Arch Madness would be sacrificed if the Billikens did come on board. In other words, even if the Valley could persuade SLU, it would still lose something from its crown jewel event.
That doesn’t mean the league shouldn’t expand, just that there’s no slam-dunk choice out there. Even if/when it does expand though, while it may not be sexy for feeding social media, it just might be true that the Missouri Valley’s best solution to replace Wichita State is already in the Valley.