For the very good part of a decade, the Missouri Valley could be counted on for solid, multi-bid performance. In the nine seasons between 1999 to 2007, the league collected 22 NCAA berths — peaking in 2006 with four — and won 14 tournament games during that stretch. (Take that, Billy Packer!) But it very well could be another decade before the conference sends a second team again. Northern Iowa’s 2010 Sweet 16 run notwithstanding, the MVC hasn’t been a multi-bid collective for three straight seasons, and it’s currently hard at work on a fourth.
In historically strong mid-major conferences, a second bid is generally won or lost before the turn of the calendar year, and the MVC is currently losing, losing, losing. Back in the Big Salad season of 2005-06, member teams played exceptionally well against top competition, winning 11 of 24 opportunities against the six power leagues. That year, the Valley’s non-conference winning percentage was .689 overall (73-33), helped along by league office initiatives that dissuaded low-RPI scheduling with cash prizes. In the two-bid followup of 2006-07, the Valley was 16-10 against the Big Six, and won 70 percent of the time outside the conference walls (82-36).
But then, something happened.
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In none of the three above seasons did the Valley receive an extra bid. Via a combination of upward mobility and increased attention to basketball success among the less successful schools, the league has sustained near-total coaching turnover. The only two out of ten that remain in their positions since 2006 are Southern Illinois’ Chris Lowery (hired in 2004) and MVC coaching dean Jim Les at Bradley (2002). Commissioner Doug Elgin has since discontinued the financial incentive programs as a measure against over-scheduling self-destruction, allowing schools to schedule anyone they want. And with coffers full of NCAA distribution money from tournament wins, a substantial part of those funds have been spent by the new generation of coaches on guarantee games against teams from the tiniest of conferences. The strength of schedule figures have been sent into a tailspin; witness this year’s numbers.
This season has been a crater among craters so far, league-wide. As of December 8, MVC teams are 3-11 against the SEC, ACC, Pac-10 and the Bigs (Ten, 12 and East), and were recently embarrassed by a 1-8 showing in the second annual Missouri Valley-Mountain West Challenge (thank you, UNI!). More frightening has been the performance against the others. The Valley is a perfect 15-0 against the Great West, Southland, Summit, SWAC and independents, but maintaining a .500 overall record has been difficult. As of press time, the MVC’s non-conference mark is a pedestrian 40-36. Teams aren’t even winning the games they’re supposed to win anymore.
The easy answer is that the basketball in the Missouri Valley Conference is just plain worse than it used to be. The harder and harsher answer is that it’s a real quandary and a downward spiral. Schools get quick-hit gate receipts and gaudy win-loss records by buying Texas Southern and SIU Edwardsville, but there’s a very heavy cost. Single-bid status means diminished recruiting power, fewer national television appearances, less NCAA win share money, and disappearance from relevant conversation. Which is what’s happening now. Chances are that you, a serious college basketball fan, haven’t entertained a passing thought about the MVC since Wichita State played out in Maui last month.
Reviving the Valley’s legacy will be difficult, and it will take time. For the St. Louis-based league office to re-institute a scheduling mandate would be murder-suicide at this point, and the backlash would be similar to that for the Sun Belt’s planned “150 Rule.” You can’t just throw teams to the wolves like that, especially not the Red Wolves.
Rebuilding the Missouri Valley as a solid mid-major conference might require the humble approach of reestablishing it against the similar-sized leagues that took its place in the at-large pool. Instead of financial incentives to play only the top half of Division I, perhaps a simple reward program for MVC programs to enter into home-and-homes with teams from like-minded conferences. For whatever reason, the Horizon and MVC only play each other six times this year (down from 17 last season), and there are only two Valley-Atlantic 10 tilts on the regular schedule. That’s somewhat mind-boggling.
College basketball needs a strong Valley. The whole game is worse off for not having a giant-killing, corn-fed 10-team collective directly in its geographical center, anchoring the nation, scaring and surprising everybody else.