Missouri Valley Conference deeper this season, may get more than automatic bid to big dance

By John Marshall, AP
Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Missouri Valley deeper behind N Iowa, Wichita St

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — The Missouri Valley Conference got one team into last year’s NCAA tournament, leaving Creighton wondering what happened. The year before, Illinois State found itself watching the dance from outside the bubble.

Play in a mid-major conference, slights are going to happen.

That could change this year.

Led by Northern Iowa and Wichita State, the Valley runs deep this season. With more top-to-bottom talent and a host of solid nonconference wins, the league should merit a long look when NCAA tournament time comes.

“We’re due,” Drake coach Mark Phelps said Tuesday. “I know there’s been some frustration from other teams and officials that there haven’t been that many teams recently, but hopefully that will change. Traditionally, this has been a great league.”

Some would call it a mid-major monster.

Over the past 11 years, 64 teams seeded 10th or lower have pulled upsets in the NCAA tournament. The Missouri Valley has six of those upsets, more than any other conference, and has won five games as a No. 12 seed or higher since 1994.

Remember Bradley in 2006? The 13th-seeded Braves bumped off No. 4 Kansas in the first round and No. 5 Pittsburgh in the second before falling to top-seeded Memphis. Wichita State reached the regional semifinals the same year, the first time the Valley got two teams through to the Sweet Sixteen.

With that kind of rep, you’d think the NCAA selection committee would have the Valley on its radar.

Yet since 2006, when it set a record with four NCAA tournament berths, the conference has had a single at-large bid: Southern Illinois in 2007. Illinois State seemingly got shortchanged after winning 25 games in 2008 and Creighton felt the sting after winning 27 games a year ago.

Part of it is the selection committee’s recent trend of giving at-large bids to the six largest conferences. Since mid-majors received 12 at-large bids in 2006, when George Mason made it to the Final Four, invites have steadily declined and bottomed out at four last year.

A poor showing in nonconference play hasn’t helped. The conference hasn’t been very good outside the Valley over the past couple of seasons, which the selection committee surely noticed.

This season has been different.

Wichita State has beaten two ranked teams at home this season, Texas Tech and Northern Iowa, along with a victory over TCU. Northern Iowa has beaten Boston College and Iowa State. Missouri State knocked off Auburn and Tulsa on the way to its best start (12-2) in 13 years. Bradley also beat Illinois, and Illinois State took out Utah in Salt Lake City.

“A year ago, we didn’t have a good nonconference season in terms of wins and losses and that kind of got us going and messed things up from a league standpoint,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “This year, there are some teams that certainly have had better nonconferences than last year. I feel like our league is in a better position this year to get more than the automatic bid.”

Northern Iowa and Wichita State would seem to have a good shot at getting in even without winning the conference tournament to earn the automatic bid. Northern Iowa has 17 wins and was ranked for the second time in school history last week. The Shockers opened the season 11-1 and have 17 wins, including a decisive home victory over the Panthers.

The number could get to three if another team in the Valley wins the conference tournament.

Missouri State had that great start and is capable of beating anyone in the league. Illinois State has Osiris Eldridge, one of the best guards in the conference, and 14 wins. Creighton just beat Missouri State and Drake bumped off Wichita State.

Of course, there’s also the possibility one of those teams could go on big run to close out the season; there’s still time and plenty of talent in the Valley.

“From a coaching standpoint around the country, there’s a tremendous respect for the quality of basketball and quality of players that play in this league and how tough it is to win in this league,” Bradley coach Jim Les said. “I think if you’re in the upper echelon of this league, hopefully you’ve done something in your nonconference to warrant consideration.”

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