In an age in which mid-majors are having a harder time scheduling quality opponents than ever before, pre-agreed-upon events between two mid-major conferences are incredibly beneficial. Personally, there should be more challenges that pit two mid-major conferences against each other [slyly nudges the Atlantic 10 closer to the West Coast Conference, raises an eyebrow and winks] but that is a topic for a different article.
With this in mind, however, it’s time to discuss the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge pairings, which are...well, you can decide for yourself:
- Nevada at Loyola Chicago
- Boise State at Drake
- Southern Illinois at Colorado State
- Valparaiso at UNLV
- Northern Iowa at Utah State
- Indiana State at San Jose State
- Missouri State at Air Force
- Wyoming at Evansville
- New Mexico at Bradley
- San Diego State at Illinois State
On paper, this event should work. If each matchup was based solely on last year’s KenPom rankings, the MWC and MVC would finish in a 5-5 tie. This would prove the effectiveness of the matchup criteria from the official release, which states:
Annual matchups for teams in the Challenge Series are based upon factors including the previous year’s achievements, records and RPI rankings, as well as projected rankings/strength of teams in the upcoming season, based upon composite sources. Each season is considered separately in terms of matchups, therefore, games from the previous year’s Challenge Series may not be returned. One MW team does not play in the Challenge Series over a two-year period.
Yet college basketball fans know that sometimes the numbers can lie. Although these matchups seem to be good enough for a competitive slate on paper, the fact of the matter is that most of these pairings are Not Good. They could be so much better. And yes, this includes the heavily touted Nevada-Loyola Sweet Sixteen rematch.
So which MWC-MVC games look promising? Granted, this is merely May, but here is some initial analysis on the quality of the MWC-MVC Challenge pairings, ranked on a scale of one to five LUXBAR roasted cashews:
Missouri State at Air Force
Valparaiso at UNLV
Indiana State at San Jose State
Even with the departures of stud freshman Brandon McCoy, UNLV will likely be a dark-horse candidate for the Mountain West title. Pitting them against a reeling Valpo squad — who, by the way, lost on the road to UC Riverside last season — is insulting. Swap the Runnin’ Rebels for San Jose State and things could get interesting between two bottom-tier mids that haven’t played in the MWC-MVC Challenge.
Seeing as both Missouri State and Air Force are slow-paced squads that will have to replace a ton of seniors from last year, that matchup makes sense. But that doesn’t mean this game will be fun to watch.
Southern Illinois at Colorado State
Boise State at Drake
The selection committee had one job: Get Colorado State and Drake to play each other.
For those who aren’t up to speed with mid-major coaching drama: Niko Medved led Drake to a 17-17 record and a CIT appearance...then bailed to take the Colorado State job, pilfering Drake’s top two assistants for good measure. A CSU-Drake game is a unique opportunity to start a quasi-rivalry between two mid-major schools with neither conference nor geographic similarities.
Or, as NBA Twitter might put it, CSU-Drake would be “petty AF ”
Wyoming at Evansville
Northern Iowa at Utah State
All four of these teams were on the cusp of postseason bids last season: Northern Iowa looked like an at-large team after a surprising Battle for Atlantis finals run; whereas Utah State sprinted out to a 3-1 record in the MWC, only to drop four straight. The highlight of Wyoming’s year was snapping Nevada’s undefeated streak in the MWC, and Evansville trended in the right direction with Ryan Taylor’s solid 21.3 ppg (on 42.4 3FG%) season.
But these matchups looked better before nearly every key player transferred.
How depleted are these teams? Koby McEwen (Marquette) and DeAngelo Isby (undecided) transferred from Utah State. Taylor is now at Northwestern. Northern Iowa and Wyoming have the unenviable task of replacing three starters from last season. Perhaps Wyoming’s six intriguing newcomers might give some intrigue to these matchups; as-is, almost nothing is guaranteed for these four teams.
Nevada at Loyola Chicago
New Mexico at Bradley
Full disclosure: I’m typing this article at LUXBAR, and Sister Jean is sitting next to me. She’s hurling truffle french fries at my laptop as I type my concerns about Loyola’s major losses from last season’s roster, Nevada’s absolute juggernaut of a team (even without the Martin twins, should they remain in the NBA Draft) and the fact that her Ramblers will be down by double-digits at half in what’s been billed as the “marquee game” of the MWC-MVC Challenge. She’s even chanting something in Latin about Moritz Wagner, which is making the bartender do a double-take.
But that’s okay. As my colleague Chris Schutte told me earlier, the New Mexico-Bradley game should be a great matchup between two under-the-radar teams in their respective conferences.
San Diego State at Illinois State
This will be the best game of the challenge, full stop. The contrast of styles will be intriguing: San Diego State’s notoriously-stingy defense will be pitted against Dan Muller’s balanced attack, and both teams will have postseason aspirations.
Although San Diego State will be without Trey Kell, Malik Pope and reserves Max Montana and Kameron Rooks, Brian Dutcher’s frontcourt will be loaded with young talent. Illinois State, meanwhile, is expected to return nearly everyone from their team that made the Missouri Valley Championship game last year. For the Redbirds, hosting a potential quadrant-one team will bolster an already-tough schedule in their non-conference; the Aztecs, on the other hand, can steal a road win from a potential 20-plus win team.
Thankfully this game also happens to be the last one of the challenge. Now let’s hope the outcome of this game swings the crown between these conferences.
San Jose State vs. Valparaiso
Utah State vs. Evansville
Air Force vs. Missouri State
Boise State vs. Southern Illinois
Wyoming vs. Indiana State
UNLV vs. Northern Iowa
Colorado State vs. Drake
New Mexico vs. Bradley
Nevada vs. Loyola
San Diego State vs. Illinois State