Now, the real basketball conference.
Remember how I said the Big East wasn't quite ready for prime time? Well, that's how I feel about Missouri Valley conference basketball. Once again, the MVC has a group of top-notch teams that would be competitive in just about any conference in the nation. They are brought down, once again, by a group of truly horrendous squads at the bottom of the conference. That being said, I think the Mo Valley is a better conference than either the Big Ten or Big XII this year, and that will be proven out over the course of the year.
So, how did we get here? How did an otherwise mid-major conference, filled with schools that routinely play second fiddle to their in-state counterparts, become the dominant basketball conference in the Midwest? That's difficult to answer. In some part, it is a result of the one-and-done mindset of top basketball recruits; the best players rarely play college ball through their junior years, making experience a commodity. However, the Big Ten and Big XII haven't been hit by the mass defections that have hurt other programs (just think of the good, senior-laden MSU and ILLINI teams of the past few seasons). Basketball also lends itself better to offensive gimmicks and recruiting in line with those gimmicks (doesn't every Creighton squad look identical?)
And I think a combination of those two factors has brought us here. A program like Wichita or UNI can build a reputation based on a specific style of offense, recruit based on that style (digging up and developing local talent), build players for 4-5 years (rather than expecting an immediate impact) and win ballgames. I think you need a combination of talent and experience to compete for a national championship, but the extreme lack of teams with both opens opportunities for those with one. That might not make any sense, but that's how I think it's happening. Now, a quick rundown of the MVC:
THE BOTTOM FEEDERS:
10 - Indiana State - Seriously, for a school that once had Larry Bird, this is embarassing. They're terrible.
9 - Illinois State - Ditto. And this is why the Valley won't be taken seriously again. Neither of these teams have a counterpart in the power conferences (even with Minnesota as bad as it is).
8 - Evansville - Slowly building, but never-ending backcourt troubles and a complete lack of a bench will eventually do them in.
THE PRETENDERS TO THE THRONE
7 - Bradley - Lose too much from last year; it's a rebuilding year for one of the better MVC programs.
6 - Drake - Well, they went to Lames and beat the Clones last week. And they've lost to Utah State and Troy. In other words, I don't have a clue what this team is capable of doing. I don't think they yet have the talent to contend, but they'll make it interesting for some teams.
5 - Missouri State - Here's where it starts getting interesting. Missouri State was criminally omitted from the NCAA's last season. At the time, Nantz and Packer were screaming about how too many MVC teams were in the Dance; two weeks later, we realized it was too few.
They return Ahearn at the point and experience in the backcourt. They're undersized but athletic in the frontcourt. They have already beaten Wisconsin and played tough with Oklahoma State. Their Achilles' heel (as with a number of other Valley teams) is a complete lack of depth; one injury could end the season. They also need to find some more scoring. That being said, I think Mo State goes slightly over .500 in the Valley. In the end, it's a third straight appearance in the NIT for the Bears.
4 - UNI - Lost their starting guards from last year's team. I was at the Iowa-UNI game this week, and trust me when I say they will be fine. I don't know if they're consistent enough from the outside to prevent teams from going zone and packing it in; that will, in the end, be the ultimate question. There is no doubt about their frontcourt. Stout and Coleman are the real deal, and are more than capable of dismantling larger opponents. You aren't dreaming, folks: UNI is the best basketball program in the state. And the irony is that they built it on in-state recruiting (with occasional trips to Minnesota), while Iowa and Lames have largely ignored Iowa kids to their obvious detriment. Come March, I think UNI gets the Valley's fourth NCAA tournament spot.
3- Creighton - The other Valley team I have seen live this season. They beat George Mason (aka America's Team), and thank God for that. Larranaga was an amazing jackass through their tournament run last year.
Anyway, there's plenty to like about CU. They have Dana Altman (who has 8 straight 20-win seasons and is the safe pick as the best coach in the Valley). They have Nate Funk (honorary captain of the Reggie Cleveland All-Stars). They come off a season plagued with injuries, and that has given Creighton depth that you don't find in the other Valley squads. Anthony Tolliver could be a draft pick come June. The rest of the team knows their roles and plays them well. In other words, it's your typical Creighton squad. Oh, and by the way, they just signed the best recruiting class in school history.
The questions surround the health of a group of players who were injured last year, and those can't be answered until March. The other question is their play on the road; so far, they have lost at Nebraska and at Dayton. If they stay healthy and start winning the occasional road game, there's nothing keeping this team out of the NCAA's.
2 - Southern Illinois - Would have been #1 if I had put this together 3 weeks ago. They have the formula for MVC success: They return two starting guards, both seniors. They return two starting big men, both juniors. And the remaining starter, a sophomore, saw plenty of time last season (enough to be MVC freshman of the year). Experience, experience, experience. They also have experience on the bench, along with size. Barring injury, there aren't any glaring weaknesses. If Lowery has been gearing up for a run deep into the Big Dance, this is the year to do it.
1 - Wichita State - I don't think they would have been my pick on November 1. But then they beat LSU on the road. And then they beat Syracuse in the Carrier Dome. Oh, and they return four starters from last year's Sweet 16 team. Sure, they lost Paul Miller, but every starter can score (the only Valley team who can say that). They have a great home court. And they're well coached. Put it all together, and it's going to be a great season for WSU.