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Conference realignment: What should the MVC do if (when) Wichita State leaves?

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It’s time to prepare for it.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Kentucky vs Wichita State Thomas Joseph-USA TODAY Sports

Okay, so before you get fired up and prepare to send me a strongly-worded tweet or email, I need you to accept two truths:

  1. Wichita State is going to leave the Missouri Valley Conference eventually.
  2. The Valley is no longer the premier mid-major conference.

You’ve probably accepted the first fact, but the second might piss you off a little bit if you’re a Valley fan. As a Missouri State grad, I feel the same way but you can’t fight the numbers.

You’re unlikely to see that again from a mid-major league.

In 2012-13, the Valley had five teams finish inside of ESPN’s BPI top 100. Four of those were in the top 63. That was the end of a span that saw the Valley average seven teams inside the BPI top 150 from 2008-2013. Since Creighton left, the conference has averaged just 4.5 teams in the upper echelon of college basketball. The average BPI of a Valley team was 107.5 in Creighton’s final year, the third time in six years that average was sub-120.

Since then, the average BPI has been a mediocre 161.9 (2014), 160.4 (2015), 167 (2016) and 153.5 (2017), bolstered by an uptick of 200-plus BPIs (10 from 2008-13 to 12 from 2014-17). Contrary to popular belief, you can’t blame that all on Loyola. The Ramblers were awful in their first year, but have finished in the top-half of the league’s RPI in two of the last three years, and haven’t posted a 200-plus BPI since that inaugural run.

The conference has been fighting a slow death since Creighton left in 2013 and if it wasn’t for Wichita State, who knows what the MVC would look like. That will change when WSU jumps ship. At that point the Valley potentially falls behind the Sun Belt, MAC, Southern and Metro Atlantic conferences.

There aren’t any realistic additions that can return the Valley to its mid-2000s level. Chew it up and eat it, the conference will never be the same.

However, the Valley can reinvent itself and remain relevant following the loss of the Shockers by adopting the A-10 method of expansion. Just 10 years ago the A-10 finished 11th in conference RPI, falling behind the MVC, Horizon and WAC. The A-10 is now America’s best conference aside from the power conferences and Big East, thanks to the depth provided by adding Davidson, George Mason and VCU.

There have been several names thrown out as potential additions, each bringing something unique to the league. Here are the options.

Option A: Go for big names

Saint Louis

I don’t see this ever happening, especially with the current state of the Valley, so this is purely a dream scenario for Saint Louis to rejoin the MVC. However, this would be the first call I made if I’m Doug Elgin. Yes, SLU has finished with a 200-plus BPI in each of the last three years, which basically goes against everything I just said. But the three seasons before that were all 20-win campaigns with tournament runs. SLU was in the Valley for years, and its return would provide a boost to Arch Madness and give the league another consistent tournament (if we assume Travis Ford’s recruiting translates on the court). SLU also ranked No. 77 nationally in attendance in 2015-16, ahead of Baylor, Gonzaga and Oklahoma State (and everyone in the Valley except Wichita State). Prying the Bilikens from the A-10 would be tough, but the Valley offers a more centrally-located conference schedule, which could be enticing for all sports.

Belmont

There aren’t many mid-majors that have been better than Belmont over the last decade. Since 2005, the Bruins have averaged nearly 23 wins with seven NCAA Tournament appearances. Ricky Byrd has built something sustainable. The other draw is that Nashville to St. Louis isn’t a terrible drive and the longest trip would be to Northern Iowa (650 miles), which is actually a shorter trip than Wichita is to Loyola. The attendance numbers aren’t great but the quality of basketball is. Belmont routinely schedules well and since 2010 the Bruins have had an average BPI of 71.

Valparaiso

A Wichita State-less Missouri Valley isn’t necessarily better than the Horizon, but the addition of Valpo would provide some stability. From a proximity standpoint Valparaiso is an easier travel destination for most Valley schools than Wichita State currently is. Its average attendance from 2015-16 (3,572) would rank ahead of only Drake and Loyola. Adding Valpo would give the Valley yet another elite mid-major program that has had sustained success through coaching and conference changes. Valpo has had an average BPI of 85.4 over the last five seasons.

2018-19 Missouri Valley Conference

South North

Belmont Bradley

Evansville Drake

Indiana State Illinois State

Missouri State Loyola

Southern Illinois Northern Iowa

Saint Louis Valparaiso

This plan allows the conference to add three programs that can compete for NCAA Tournament bids immediately. You’d potentially be looking at 4-6 teams perennially that could push for top-75 BPIs, keeping the league extremely strong. In a perfect world, this would be the best “rebound” for the Valley. You could make a case that pushing to add programs at this level could have kept Wichita State from looking elsewhere all together.

Option B: Make Expansion by market

A more realistic option is to add programs that are on the rise or fill geographic needs and hope that the tradition of the league can help push them forward. Some of those programs are:

Denver

IPFW

IUPUI

Nebraska-Omaha

Northern Kentucky

Oral Roberts

SIU-Edwardsville

UMKC

Before you poo-poo on that list, understand that Loyola had two seasons of 18 or more wins in the Horizon League. The Ramblers have reached that total in two of the last four seasons since joining The Valley. The goal would be to bring in three to five programs from this list and help them raise their brand. In time, these programs are all in places where they can have sustained success. It also puts the conference into geographic locations it hasn’t been before, which can add to the overall profile of the league.

Option C: Add MVFC programs to balance league

Lastly, the Valley could grab Missouri Valley Football Conference members North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State, as well as one team from the previously mentioned list, and form a 14-team league with two divisions.

The travel wouldn’t be ideal, but splitting the conference with a home-and-home vs. your division and four cross division would cut down on excessive travel. The hope here is that adding these programs to a stronger conference could help boost the overall RPI. Are you replacing Wichita State outright? No. But the strength exists in the numbers.

South Dakota State has four 20-win seasons in the last six years and four NCAA Tournament bids in the last six years as well. North Dakota State has averaged more than 20 wins over the last five seasons with a pair of NCAA berths. North Dakota reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time in program history this year and South Dakota was a 22-win team this year that received an NIT invite. These programs also come from states that have no other major universities or professional teams; they are the draw in North and South Dakota. This is the best option because of these programs’ name recognition with the rest of the conference and the success they’ve had recently in basketball.

The majority of these additions wouldn’t be “sexy” and to many outside of basketball circles they wouldn’t move the needle right now. However, these are moves that could stabilize a league that has had several members targeted in the expansion of other leagues.

Now is the time for the Valley to be aggressive and set itself up for success decades down the road. The MVC is the only mid-major league that has sent five different teams to the Sweet 16 since 2006. This is the only mid-major league that has sent multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament for nine consecutive seasons (1999-2008). It has one of the richest basketball traditions outside of the power conferences. If the league wants to continue that excellence, it must be aggressive in pursuing teams that can make that happen.