Missouri Valley Conference Among NCAA Elite

Last weekend, I attended a Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) basketball matchup between Creighton and Indiana State at Qwest Center Omaha. The attendance? 17,200. The atmosphere? Crazy. To give you a little taste, here’s a clip from the video board at the game:

In fact, the atmosphere at the Creighton game reminded me of a Big East game I attended two years ago between Georgetown and West Virginia at the MCI Center in Washington D.C.  Truth be told, the only difference between the two experiences was that one was considered a major “BCS” conference showdown while the other was considered a “mid-major” matchup.  Is that really fair?

On CBS’ coverage of the NCAA selection show last year, Billy Packer said it was an outrage that the MVC got four teams in the Big Dance.  He claimed that the level of basketball in the Valley (widely considered a mid major conference) was nowhere near the caliber of major BCS conferences like the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, Big Twelve, SEC or Pac-10.  He said the MVC teams didn’t deserve the bids and didn’t belong in the tournament.

The evidence would show otherwise. Over the course of the next few weeks, two of the MVC teams — Wichita State and Bradley — advanced to the Sweet 16, defeating teams like Seton Hall (Big East), Tennessee (SEC), Kansas (Big 12) and Pittsburgh (Big East) along the way.

Was it just a fluke?  Not according to this year’s results.  In the 2006-07 season, teams from the MVC have had an incredible 56-5 record at home against non-conference foes.  Among the victims of the Valley’s non-conference success this year are teams like Wisconsin, LSU, Syracuse, Butler, Iowa, Iowa State, DePaul, George Mason and Xavier.  To top it all off, the MVC has gone a combined 5-0 against Big East opponents.

Once again, the Valley has four teams in the RPI Top 50 (Southern Illinois, Creighton, Missouri State and Bradley) and, as a conference, is ranked fifth in the RPI among all conferences, ahead of the Big East and Big 12. (the NCAA Selection Committee uses the RPI rankings to help determine which teams get at-large bids to the NCAA tournament). With one automatic bid and the possibility of three at-large bids, discussion is already heating up again about whether the MVC deserves four teams in the tournament. Why? Because of their so-called mid-major label.

Is that fair?  Hardly. The conference that has produced Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson in its distinguished history, is once again showing that it can compete with the best teams and leagues in the NCAA.  Yet, many still claim the MVC is a mid-major and doesn’t belong with the big boys.

But, when you stop and think about it, where does the mid-major label come from?  And what is the criteria? 

The media largely perpetuate this label.  The problem is, there really isn’t a defined set of criteria to determine it.  Is it based on the number of NCAA tournament bids a conference gets?  Is it based on their non-conference success?  Is it based on the size of the schools, their athletic budgets and fan bases?  Or is it a purely subjective measure?

I think it’s a combination of all those things.  And yet, as I take a look at each criterion, the MVC holds it own as well as any major conference. 

Not all members of the media are guilty of labeling the MVC a mid-major.  Some are recognizing the accomplishments of this league.  Take, for example, ESPN’s “Drive to 65” — a feature on ESPN.com that reviews which teams are making progress toward inclusion in the NCAA tournament.  The “Drive to 65” lists the Big 6 conferences first, examining the teams that have a chance at making the NCAA field from each of those conferences.  In the past, it has included MVC teams in another category titled “Other At-Large Contenders” — a nice way of grouping all of the teams from mid-major (or smaller) conferences.  However, this year, they are listing the MVC along with the Big 6 — a significant sign of respect for the Valley’s success.

Perhaps others will follow.  Maybe it will take another year (or two) of Valley teams dominating opponents from big conferences before they will begin to give the Valley the credit it is due. 

I think it is time that the Missouri Valley Conference be grouped with the NCAA’s elite conferences.  Teams from the Valley have proven their skill and toughness. They are attracting and retaining some of the top coaches in the country. They are drawing huge crowds and creating big-time atmospheres for regular season matchups. And the conference is regularly sending three or four teams to the NCAA tournament — teams that stick around for a few rounds. 

Who knows?  Maybe this year one of the Valley teams will follow George Mason’s lead and crack the Elite Eight or Final Four.  Until then, it’s time people start recognizing the Valley for the elite conference that it is.

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~ by ahalperin on February 1, 2007.

8 Responses to “Missouri Valley Conference Among NCAA Elite”

  1. Nice comments… I definitely agree that the MVC has grown in stature over the past couple years and deserves atleast 3-4 bids to the tournament each year, however I don’t think that I can call it an “elite” conference as you call it. The reason I can’t is simply….the MVC results in the NCAA tournament. While runs to the Sweet 16 should be applauded, it’s the conferences that regularly put at least one team in the Elite 8 and Final 4 that are considered “elite”. As soon as the MVC starts putting teams in the Elite 8 and Final 4, I think they will start being accepted by the media and fans around the counrty as an elite conference. (Just look at the admiration the country has for Gonzaga after they made a couple runs in the tournament.) But for the time being, I would call the MVC a “tweener” (i.e.- in between). They have clearly risen above the ranks of every other mid-major, but their results in the tournament that counts at the end of the season aren’t at the same level as the elite confernces.

    Hopefully, some day soon, they can correct this oversight by making a run to the Final 4. Maybe even this year….

  2. That’s a great point, Scott. However, I would also add that tournament seeding plays a large role in determining who makes the Elite 8 and Final 4. If you look at recent history, with the exception of George Mason last year, all of the Final 4 teams are always top four seeds. That’s primarily because the “road” is much easier for top seeds. Unfortunately, due to its mid-major label, lack of publicity and general lack of respect on a national level, no MVC teams have received a high seed. Therefore, they have had to play top-seeded opponents in the early rounds. Granted, they had the opportunity to beat those opponents and did not. My point is simply that the road to the Elite 8 and Final 4 has been much more difficult for top MVC teams than the top teams from the Big 6 conferences who have consistently received high seeds. However, as you point out, Gonzaga was able to break through that trend with one or two successful runs. If an MVC team is able to duplicate Gonzaga’s success — and if the conference continues to receive more respect nationally — then I think it will open the door for the MVC to consistenly obtain high seeds and Elite 8/Final 4 berths.

  3. Well said ahalperin. Scott employs one of the most frequently used arguments against the MVC and other “mid-majors.” Putting teams into the Elite Eight and Final Four is essentially a moving bar for these teams. Not only do they rarely get high seeds, they often have half the teams in the tournament to begin with. Probability is on the side of the conferences putting in six teams a shot. Of course they’ll be more likely to have teams go deeper.

  4. I think Scott’s rationale for becoming an “elite” conference is sort of a Catch-22. You have to put teams in the Final Four in order to be considered elite. But the high seeds and the multi-bids (which are really why the BCS conferences get those teams in the Final Four) go to the elite conferences.

    Think about it this way, if the four Valley teams last year each had a top four seed in the NCAA tournament, how far would they have gone? They wouldn’t have such a tough road through the first weekend and would probably have advanced easier.

    Upsets are exciting and all but it’s still the lack of respect for the MVC that is causing them to be set up to fail in the NCAA tournament due to their low seeding. Why is there a lack of respect? It’s because even during the season the MVC teams have to play on the road much more than BCS conference teams. Obviously wins are harder to come by if you play non-guaranteed games on the road. However, the RPI recently adjusted for home/road games in their formula, so it’s not so bad anymore.

  5. This year Southern Illinois should get a #3 seed and thus be in the position of playing as a major team. They have a real shot of making the Elite Eight.

    Creighton also should be a Sweet Sixteen team. The interesting team though will be Winthrop which is the one team to win at a MVC school. Depending on their seed, they could also be looking at Elite Eight.

    Good post. I am a Big East fan and have to agree that this year, the MVC is better.

  6. When an MVC team is compared with the likes of UCLA, Florida, Ohio State, etc. Then the MVC will be a power conference. The MVC cannot really compare with conferences like the Pac-10 year and year out.

    While the MVC is becoming a great conference, they are just not there yet.

  7. I’d love to see Southern Illinois play UCLA, Florida, Ohio State, etc. — especially in Carbondale. Even on the road or on a neutral court, I think the Salukis could beat any one of those teams on any given day.

    Hopefully we’ll get to see one of those matchups in the NCAA tournament.

  8. The MVC with another Sweet 16 team. They tied the ACC and the Big Ten for Sweet 16 teams. The ACC had 7 teams and the Big Ten had 6 teams. The MVC had 2.

    It will be interesting to see what SIU can do against Kansas.

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