A funny thing happened on the way to the Missouri Valley Conference’s funeral. Valley teams fought back and are knocking off so-called Power 5 teams and other mid-major squads at a near historic rate.
The Missouri Valley Conference isn’t dead after all. When Wichita State left for the American Athletic Conference, there was wringing of hands all throughout the heartland of America.
“The Valley would never be great again,” they said.
“This is now a one-bid league,” they said.
“Valpo is a nice program, but they are no Wichita State,” they said.
89 games into the non-conference schedule, MVC teams have won 62 times, and their .696 winning percentage (currently fifth best nationally) is the best since the league’s historic run in the mid 2000s. The conference’s two best non-conference records in the last 50 years occurred in 2005-06 and in 2006-07.
Four Valley teams qualified for the NCAA Tournament in 2006 with two of them reaching the Sweet 16. One more team reached Sweet Status in 2007. This season’s winning percentage is on par with those historic seasons.
With wins over Indiana, North Carolina State, Wake Forest, South Carolina, and most recently, Florida, the Valley has been banging on the door of credibility and respect. There were 10 conferences ranked higher than the MVC in the Preseason RPI, and Valley teams have knocked off five additional teams from those other conferences.
Prior to the Florida win, Loyola coach Porter Moser told me he has always believed this will be a banner year for the league.
“At media day, I remember all the talk was about Wichita State leaving,” he said. “The teams that were at the bottom last year have improved unbelievably. As a coach, I know the recruits these people are signing. These kids are going to help.”
Indiana State coach Greg Lansing blamed himself and some of the other lower finishing Valley teams for Illinois State’s inability to earn an at-large bid last season. So the Sycamores started the season with a win over the Indiana Hoosiers.
During their final season in the Valley, Wichita State set the conference record for shooting percentage defense (.377) and four MVC teams are defending better than that this season.
It’s as if each conference team has taken it upon itself to step up and make the league better.
Valley teams are doing all of this with seven prominent starters missing significant time due to injury. Southern Illinois has missed second-team all Valley center Thik Bol and highly anticipated transfer Marcus Bartley (though Barltey returned this week). Evansville’s leading scorer, Ryan Taylor, has missed two games and will be out several more weeks. Northern Iowa’s Wyatt Lohaus played his first game Thursday night. Loyola has been without the services of starting point guard Ben Richardson and shooting guard Clayton Custer was injured during this week’s upset of Florida. Illinois State 7-footer Daouda Ndiay is yet to play and neither has highly touted freshman Elijah Clarence.
If these players get healthier, this league will be scary.
There are great challenges and opportunities before Valley teams before they head into conference play. Bradley, who is off to its best start since 1985-86, plays Mississippi. Drake has back-to-back games at Minnesota and against Iowa on a neutral floor. Duke entertains Evansville and Illinois State travels to Mississippi several days before Bradley’s date with the Rebels.
The league’s most recognizable team, Northern Iowa (7-2), takes on Iowa State on a neutral court and then hosts Xavier before Christmas. Southern Illinois plays Nevada on Dec. 22 and Valparaiso visits Northwestern next week.
Those games don’t take into account other contests against other highly ranked mid-major squads like Murray State, Western Kentucky, South Dakota State, and Ball State.
Mid-major fans, the Missouri Valley Conference is far from dead and perhaps poised for its best season in a decade.