Missouri Valley Reaches New Peak

When the latest NCAA Basketball RPI (Ratings Power Index) report was released this week, amongst the nation's top collegiate hoops powers were five teams from the Missouri Valley conference. Usually regarded as a mid-major conference, the Valley has surprised college hoops pundits with their play this season.

What is it about the Valley teams that makes them so good? DePaul coach Jerry Wainwright faced two Valley teams in Bradley and Creighton this season and is familiar with the league's brand of basketball. "In the course of my coaching career we've played an awful lot of Missouri Valley teams," said Wainwright. "Especially when I was at Wilmington. The one thing that league has is they have tremendous home courts. They have really good arenas. Most of them have a terrific fanbase. What happens is I think teams really get battle-tough in terms of winning on the road."

Let's examine the Valley teams vying for a trip to the NCAA's Big Dance (all RPI's from kenpom.com with results through 2/14/06)…

Northern Iowa. Of all the teams in the conference, the Panthers (19-6, 11-5, RPI: 23) have had the most iron-clad NCAA Tournament resume all season for an at-large berth. They've beaten two Top 20 RPI teams in Iowa and LSU, and the LSU win was on the road. They've been in first place in the conference for most of the season. Plus, they have a very shiny road/neutral record of 9-4, which scores major brownie points with the Selection Committee.

While some national projections have listed UNI as high as a 4 seed for the NCAA Tournament, a 6 or a 7 seems a more realistic projection, given how difficult their remaining schedule is. Losing to Indiana State on Tuesday likely cost them one seed line. They host Bucknell in the marquee "Bracket Buster" game this Saturday, end the season at Southern Illinois, and then have to try to run the merciless gauntlet that is the conference tournament. Should they win out, though, a 4 seed could be warranted. Regardless, it's clear the question for Northern Iowa is not, "Will they have a place on the Dance card come Selection Sunday?" Rather, the question is, "How high will their spot on that card be?"

"When I was at Richmond, Northern Iowa played up at the Bradley Center (in the NCAA tournament in Milwaukee) when we played Wisconsin, and I saw them first hand and that was when these kids were a lot younger," Wainwright recalled. "Those kids really shoot the basketball. If you get them on a day when they're really scoring at every position, they're going to be a very, very tough team to deal with."

Wichita State. Last season, Wichita State (20-6, 12-4, RPI: 17) was zooming through their schedule with nary a speed bump. On February 10, 2005, the Shockers defeated Illinois State to run their record to 18-3 overall and 11-2 in the conference. Even if they didn't win the conference tournament, an at-large bid seemed all but assured for Mark Turgeon's squad.

Then the bottom fell out. Six losses in their last eight games turned an NCAA at-large selection into an NIT team. Five of the losses were against teams who ultimately finished in the RPI Top 50. Four of the losses came against teams who made the NCAA Tournament. Four of the losses came either on the road or at a neutral site. Nevertheless, these mitigating circumstances were not enough to let Wichita State into the NCAA Tournament. A 4-7 record in their last 11 games was hard to overlook. So was Creighton's surprise win of the conference tournament, which vaulted the Bluejays ahead of the Shockers when it came to doling out NCAA bids. With 20 wins, a second-place conference finish, and an RPI rank of 45, it's clear Wichita State was one of the last teams left out of the NCAA Tournament last year.

Fast forward to 2006, and the picture is much brighter. Rather than struggling down the stretch, the Shockers have been charging, winning ten of their last 12 games and capturing a one-game lead in the conference with two games to play. Although their non-conference schedule doesn't boast a stellar win (a victory over a mediocre Providence team likely counts as the best), they played Illinois to the final buzzer on a neutral site and don't have a loss on their resume that could be considered "bad". While the schedule still features a "Bracket Buster" test against George Mason, games at Drake and vs. Illinois State should provide a small respite before the conference tournament. The fan base will likely still be nervous after the sour ending to last year, but barring major collapse, the Shockers are likely to be penned in the NCAA Tournament brackets with a seed at 8, 9 or 10, and the fans will feel some redemption from the end of the prior season.

Southern Illinois. We've all grown so accustomed to seeing Southern Illinois' (18-7, 11-5, RPI: 28) name in the NCAA Tournament brackets that it's easy to forget that their last four trips have all been earned via the at-large bid. And if they don't win in St. Louis, at-large trip number five is likely ready and waiting for them. It's probably been to the conference's benefit as a whole that SIU hasn't had ultimate success in the conference tournament, as their failing has allowed more conference schools to qualify for the NCAA Tournament.

What is most amazing about SIU's run is that they've done it under three different coaches. "Coach Lowery at Southern Illinois is following Coach Painter and Bruce Weber, guys that really have established a tradition down there," Wainwright said. "I think on a neutral court in a tournament atmosphere, they'll be as good of a team as there is."

The Salukis stumbled out of the gate this year, losing two of three games in the Great Alaska Shootout, including one to non-Division I Alaska-Anchorage. A road loss at St. Louis gave them three losses in four games, and people began to wonder if there were chinks in the armor of the perennial powerhouse. An 11-game winning streak after that St. Louis loss put an end to that talk. While this year's non-conference schedule was devoid of many big wins, and they did have a head-scratching loss at home to Indiana State, they still sit in the upper echelon of the conference. Two of their other four conference losses came in double overtime. And they earned a season sweep over another challenger, Creighton. SIU's seed has gradually gotten better over the years: from an 11 in 2002 and 2003, to a 9 in 2004, to a 7 in 2005. Don't look for that trend to continue, although they should check in at a seed somewhere between 9 and 11 this year.

Creighton. You can count Creighton (17-7, 11-5, RPI: 30) out of your NCAA Tournament projections, but do so at your own peril. The Bluejays have won the conference tournament five of the past seven seasons, which seems an incredible feat when you consider the parity near the top of this league during that time frame. This season, they bounced around a bit with a 7-4 start, including losses in two of their first three conference games. But since that point, they've stepped on the accelerator to win ten of 13, including a season sweep of Northern Iowa.

As for what's upcoming, Creighton has likely drawn the easiest "Bracket Buster" match-up of the Valley teams, as they host Fresno State. Their only remaining road game looms a large one, though, at upstart Missouri State. What's working best in their favor is a 5-3 record against the RPI Top 50. It's probable that one of these five teams warranting at-large consideration will absolutely have to win at least one conference tournament game to assure admittance to the NCAA Tournament. Should that team be Creighton, don't bet against them getting the job done. As things stand right now, the Bluejays are likely to fall between a 10 and a 12 seed.

Missouri State. The Bears (17-7, 10-6, RPI: 29) have just recently crashed this party. On January 26, Missouri State lost at Bradley to drop their conference record to 5-5 overall. While that sort of conference record may get you borderline consideration from the Selection Committee in conferences like the Big East and the ACC, it's not good enough from the Valley. Five wins in their last six games, though, with the only loss by two at Southern Illinois in that stretch, and now the Bears are being taken seriously.

Unfortunately for Missouri State, there are holes in their resume that are bigger than the other teams in the conference who are chasing at-large bids. For one, they're only 3-7 against the RPI Top 100. All of the other schools listed here have at least six wins against that group. For another, they are likely going to finish fifth in a four-horse race for the conference championship in a conference that has never sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament in a given year, much less five.

Other problems loom. They might have drawn the toughest "Bracket Buster" match-up of this group of teams, having to travel to play a Wisconsin-Milwaukee team that's won 14 of its last 17. And their first-round game in St. Louis is going to be against one of these other four schools mentioned here, which is a game they might need to have to assure themselves of going to the Tournament.

However, they are in the NCAA Tournament chase for a reason. They handed Northern Iowa only their second home loss of the season. They're over .500 in road/neutral games. And although there aren't huge names on their non-conference slate, according to the number crunchers, they did play the most difficult non-conference schedule in the league, finishing 7-1.

These are nervous times right now for Missouri State fans. While the RPI rank at the moment looks good, mid-majors are most susceptible to seeing that rank fall with just one bad effort. The Bears are squarely on the bubble right now and, unless they have a final charge up or down the standings, they are destined to be one of the "last teams in" or "last teams out".

Once the Valley teams make it through the aptly named Arch Madness conference tournament in St. Louis and get into the big dance, will they be able to make some noise in the tournament? "I think a Missouri Valley team can do somewhat what a West Virginia did last year," remarked Wainwright. "They're a little bit different style, little bit different makeup of players, and if you get them when they're clicking, they're going to be a tough out. The difference obviously is in league play the number of big players as in our league (the Big East) would grind up a lot of teams. There is just so much physical strength in a league like ours that the course of conference play can be a little bit misleading. In a tournament atmosphere, the best teams in leagues like that will be a tough, tough out for anybody."

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