Missouri Valley Conference Update

by Special Feature | February 10th, 2006

The Missouri Valley Conference has built its reputation this year as the best mid-major league in America. With league rules requiring member teams to play tough non-conference games, The Valley has elevated itself above traditional power leagues such as the Big XII and the Pac-10 in the eyes of many fans and analysts, and even the computers.

At the time of this writing, two teams are tied atop the standings, with the third and fourth place teams just a game back. Six teams still remain mathematically alive in the race for the regular-season conference title. With five teams ranked in the top 40 of the RPI, and a sixth ranked at 51, it looks like The Valley will be sending a minimum of six teams to post-season tournaments. Only four conference games remain for each member school, but all ten schools will play in the BracketBuster games next weekend.

it’s time to take a look at the Valley’s top sixmembers, and where they could end up in March. (Note: All RPI ratings are from the NCAA’s official RPI, thru games as of February 6)

The University of Northern Iowa (11-3, 21-4, RPI: 15) has carried The Valley’s banner in 2005-2006. UNI won tough non-conference road games against Iowa and LSU, both RPI top 25 wins, but stumbled against an Iowa St. team which has struggled in a weakened Big XII. The Panthers have racked up wins against the Valley’s other top teams on the road, do have a questionable loss to Bradley on the road, and a buzzer-beating defeat at home to Creighton. The Panthers recently completed a sweep of Wichita St, which should help offset being swept by the Bluejays in the eyes of the Committee. Remaining home games are against Missouri State and Bucknell in the marquee BracketBuster matchup. The Panthers also travel to Indiana State and Southern Illinois to finish the season. With its consistent play, UNI has not only put itself in a position for a bid to the NCAA Tournament, but a chance, albeit a small one, at a protected seed for the first two rounds.

The Creighton Bluejays (11-3, 17-5, 16) have put together an outstanding season considering star guard Nate Funk absence in all but five games. In Funk’s stead, Johnny Mathies and Anthony Tolliver have led Creighton through an impressive non-conference slate that included wins over George Mason, Xavier and Nebraska. Unfortunately, the duo couldn’t help the Jays get past DePaul or Chattanooga on the road. The ‘Jays have posted a number of quality wins in conference play, defeating everyone on their schedule with the exception of Illinois State and Bradley. The closing schedule is not easy for Dana Altman’s club, as the ‘Jays still face Southern Illinois and Indiana State at home and Wichita State and Missouri State on the road. Barring a loss to a mediocre Fresno State team in the BracketBuster, Creighton will be dancing in March for the seventh time in eight years.

Wichita State (10-4, 19-6, 23) doesn’t have the non-conference resume of their aforementioned Valley brethren. Losses to Illinois and Michigan St won’t hurt the Shockers’ chances at an at-large bid, but a win over Northwestern State might not do enough to impress the Selection Committee. In Valley play, the Shockers had failed to record a win against the other four top teams in the conference, until a double overtime win against Southern Illinois changed that statistic. The Shockers will have the chance to improve their resume with a road game against UNI and a home game against Creighton still on tap. The BracketBuster match-up against George Mason might be the most critical game for both participants of all 50 matchups. Still, with a top-four conference finish, Wichita State would be a tough team for the Committee not to select with an at-large bid.

The Southern Illinois Salukis (10-4, 17-7, 39) are the mid-major version of the Stanford Cardinal. SIU began the season losing three of their first four games, including losses to Monmouth and D-II Alaska-Anchorage in the Great Alaskan Shootout. Following a loss to St. Louis, the Salukis reeled off 11 straight wins—including wins over Wichita St. and Bradley—before losing back-to-back contests on the road at UNI and Missouri State. Another devastating loss came when Indiana St broke SIU’s 33-game home winning streak. The Salukis began a new streak, however, coming back against Missouri State after blowing an 11-point lead. While SIU’s losses may have moved the Salukis from “in” to “bubble” status, they have ample opportunity to prove themselves with games against Creighton and Bradley on the road before facing Louisiana Tech in the BracketBuster series. SIU will finish the season on the road against Evansville and at home to Northern Iowa in a game which may determine their postseason fate. In the latest NCAA RPI ratings, SIU has plummeted fourth place among Valley teams. The question for Southern is not its good wins, but whether its bad losses will keep the Salukis from barking in the Tournament.

The Missouri State Bears (8-6, 15-7, 36) have no margin for error. After a close loss this past week to SIU, the Bears have moved themselves to the deep end of the bubble. The MVC has been anything but easy after MoSt racked up a number of wins in the nonconference season. The Bears have only one win against the Valley’s top four teams (at home against SIU) and only two against the top six (home against Bradley). While MoSt has beaten up on the Valley’s weaker teams, there are only a few more chances to improve on their futility before the season ends. In order to move the Bears into serious consideration for an NCAA bid, wins against Northern Iowa and Creighton, and over Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Bracket Buster, are essential. Five wins in a row would really build some momentum (and a resume), but an NIT bid seems more likely for the team from Springfield.

After a loss to Indiana State, the Bradley Braves (7-7, 13-9, 51) were all but eliminated from the MVC title race. After beginning the season 6-2, including wins over Depaul and Western Kentucky, Bradley opened the MVC season by defeating UNI and Creighton, with a loss to Wichita St. in between. Then came four losses in five games. The Braves play SIU at home before a rematch with UNI to finish the season. Their BracketBuster game with Tennessee Tech will not be televised. An NCAA bid is out of the question, but an NIT bid looks likely, given the overall strength of the conference this year.

Analysts can question where The Valley’s top teams might finish in other conferences, but a true indication of how far this conference has gone towards shedding its “mid-major” label will come in the NCAA Tournament. With as many as five teams putting on their dancing shoes, The Valley will have plenty of opportunities to pull off “upsets.”

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