The Missouri Valley Conference: One and Done
by Max Powers - 02/17/2009
The Missouri Valley Conference had been the media darling on Selection Sunday during the middle part of this decade. The conference would receive multiple tournament bids and was able to shed the label of mid-major for most of the decade. But last year this conference seemingly fell back to mid-major status when it received just one bid to the Big Dance with Drake and this year it appears that only the conference tournament champions will make it into the NCAA Tournament. This will be one of the most exciting conference tournaments this season and since it's on a neutral site, any team can win any game.
The following will examine a strategic plan for the MVC that worked well during the middle of the decade but has gone wrong in recent years.
It is always an uphill battle for a mid-major conference to get the respect of the tournament committee when it comes to at-large bids. Oftentimes top teams in mid-major conferences are passed by for the sixth or seventh best team in the Big Ten or ACC. Normally committee members point to RPI and strength of schedule rankings and that almost always favors teams from big six conferences. Furthermore, good teams from big conferences would never want to play an MVC team on the road because they feared that they had nothing to gain and everything to lose if they happen to be defeated, which could easily happen.
But the heads of the MVC studied these numbers and found a loophole in the system. They scheduled bad teams from the Big Ten or Big 12. In recent years, Iowa and Iowa State have shown up on numerous schedules of MVC teams and neither of those two programs have had much success in recent years. Most likely the MVC team would pound them and you would assume that would not help them much in the RPI rankings. But that is not the case, since both Minnesota and Iowa play in major conference, their strength of schedule numbers (a key component in RPI) would go through the roof and thus have a carryover effect to the Missouri Valley team that beat them. The Big Ten is currently ranked as the second best conference with regards to RPI despite not having a Final Four-caliber team.
Also, the conference would never schedule any teams that would likely be below the top 200 within the RPI rankings. Teams like Furman, Alcorn State, and Jacksonville State are often easy victories by do more damage then good because margin of victory is not considered in the equation. So despite the 40-point victory teams would fall in the standings and the MVC realized this and scheduled accordingly.
This brilliant plan has fallen apart the last two years since parity has developed in the MVC with top three teams in the league all having five or six losses. Drake dominated the conference in 2008 and finished 26-4 (15-3 in the MVC) and they would have received an at large bid had they not won the conference tournament in St. Louis. But they won the tournament and thus the MVC only got one team in the Big Dance.
In 2009 the MVC does not have a dominating team like it did last year in Drake. Northern Iowa got off to a great start, winning 11 of their first 12 but their RPI peaked at 68 during this winning streak. Furthermore, their non-conference schedule is terrible and they suffered five losses during that portion of the season. They currently sit at 12-3 in the MVC with a RPI of 82 and they can forget about an at-large bid. Creighton and Illinois State currently sit second and third in the MVC, respectively, and they do have better RPIs then NIU but they already have nine combined conference losses.
All of this means that the Scottrade Center will be rocking March 5-8 when the conference tournament takes place. Barring the Blue Jays winning out and reaching the finals of the MVC, this will be a winner-take-all event. St. Louis is the perfect city for this tournament and it's about as neutral as they come with fans from all teams packing the venue. This will be a wide-open tournament and there are about six teams that have a chance to win it. All 10 teams have a chance to win a game and I would not be surprised if the top seeds are knocked out early. It's import to stay in the top four and thus you will get a bye and only have to win three instead of four games to claim the trophy.
I would be leery of laying large points with any MVC team for the rest of the season because of the parity in the league. If I had to pick a team to emerge victorious, it would be the Creighton Blue Jays, as they appear to have righted the ship and have won six straight games including beating Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls. They finish the season with three of their last four games at the Qwest Center and all four of their games are winnable. Enjoy the remainder of the MVC action this season, as any team can win any game.