Excellence in its’ 2nd Century: On the MVC resurgence – No guts, no glory.
One hundred years young and resurging, renewing, getting stronger – better. The Missouri Valley Conference is the 2nd oldest Division I collegiate athletic conference in the country. Arguably, the MVC’s greatest achievements were the era from the mid 40’s thru the end of the seventies, with the 20 year period of the 60’s – 70’s being the apex of its’ basketball excellence.
The “Valley” captured 3 Final Four (FF) billets and 2 Championships (Ok A&M) in the late 40’s. St Louis reached 2 FF’s in the late 40’s and won the NIT championship in 1948.
Bradley had 2 NCAA FF’s, 6 NIT FF’s, and 3 NIT Championships in the 50’s & 1964 (also 1 NIT Championship in 1982). Cincinnati had 5 NCAA FF’s during 59-64 & NCAA Championships in 1961-62.
Wichita State U reached the NCAA Final Four in 1965 & Drake as well, in 1969. Southern Illinois U won the NIT Championship in 1967.
Louisville reached the FF in 1972 & 75, and Memphis reached the FF in 1973. The last MVC school to make the NCAA Final Four was the Larry Bird led Indiana State club of 1979.
The Tulsa University Golden Hurricanes won the NIT in 1981 & Bradley University won the NIT in 1982.
Coincidentally, this period overlaps with the parallel excellence exhibited by the large contingent of independent (non-affiliated) Division I basketball programs, led predominantly by private Catholic universities, many of which had abandoned football due to continuing increases in program costs. Two independent schools won the NCAA Tournament in the Sixties (’63 Loyola Chicago / ’66 Texas Western [UTEP]) and Marquette University won the NCAA Championship as an independent in 1977. You see, in the 10 year period ending in the 1974 NCAA tourney, independents had captured nearly half (18 of 40) the Final Four Billets, and approximately 33% of the total tourney billets. In fact, in 1970 three of the four Final Four schools were independents! The MVC had 4 of those FF billets during that 10 year period.
One major additional factor during this timeframe was the increasing popularity of college basketball, with subsequent enlargement of both the NIT and NCAA tourney formats (to 32 team fields). Add to this the beginnings of television subsidies by the three networks in the sixties and by the cable television networks (niche building) in the seventies, and what you have is one extremely fluid and dynamic time in sports history. The cash began to roll.
What then transpired is one of the greatest travesties in collegiate sports – that the large school conferences, along with a few major independents said ‘Show us the money’! But in order to maximize the money for the large conferences, something had to give – A campaign was begun to exclude the independent basketball schools, as well as, the smaller conferences from the growing NCAA Tourney. Something had to be done in order for the major conferences to capitalize on the new revenue streams. Independents were squeezed out, much like what is being done to the non-BCS schools today. Many independents joined smaller conferences (forming the Metro and later C-USA), ECBL (later the Eastern 7, then the A-10), Big East, and many others rejoined old allegiances. The ‘scramble’ was on to find a conference-any conference, in order to continue eligibility for post season tourneys. Never again would independent schools be allowed to dominate college basketball!
Since 1980 only four non major conference universities have been to the Final Four – UNLV in 1990 & 91 (winning the Championship in 1990), UMass in 96, Utah in 98, and of course George Mason in 2006. With continued NCAA tourney expansion & neutering of the NIT, with a seeding system favoring the major conferences, coupled with a recruiting/media machine serving the NCAA and the major conferences, the current system virtually assures exclusion of all but the very best of the smaller conference teams. The seeding system takes care of the rest – pitting the smaller conference schools against tougher opponents (or each other) in the early rounds, thus increasing the difficulty of their making it through to the later rounds (Sweet 16, Elite 8, FF).
As “The Valley” enters its Second Century of collegiate sports, she is fittingly at the center of a tempest. While many celebrate and laud her past accomplishments, many others seek to denigrate her and to deny her, her rightful status as one of the elite conferences in collegiate sports. Many have taken a ‘what have you done lately’ view when attempting to validate their claims of lesser status for the MVC. Many knowledgeable basketball fans and purists acknowledge the MVCs’ legitimacy, while other who are less learned and /or new to the game want to discredit the Valley. To its credit, the MVC has responded by compiling top inter-conference won/loss records over the last 3 years and more importantly by fielding multiple bid fields in both the NCAA & NIT postseason tourneys over the last 10 years, including four NCAA sweet 16 berths in the last five years (through 2007).
The crux of the problem revolves around money and power. Collegiate sports is a money machine – both in the generation and the spending of it. The former Big 6 power conferences are predominantly state schools, many are football first schools and their sports programs generate scores of millions of dollars for them. Conference media and sports marketing deals, ticket revenues, vending, and NCAA Tournament revenue sharing by conferences all contribute to a burgeoning enterprise. The Big Sixers dominate all aspects of this enviable scenario and they hoard as many tournament billets as they can steal/buy.
The NCAA tourney system grants legitimacy to teams/conferences who make deep tournament runs, (…accepted among the elite -the Big East, Gonzaga, Memphis), teams who play tough schedules, but the lion’s share of the revenue goes to conferences with multiple team bids. The small conferences are caught in this catch 22. They need to play tougher schedules – to attain the multiple bid seasons, in order to gain revenues which will help them compete with the ‘Big Boys’ – and they need a leader (or two) to make a deep tourney run for legitimacy. It is difficult, to say the least, to do all three.
Recent developments within the game have helped the smaller conferences.
1-The trend of high caliber players leaving major schools early – attempting to join the professional ranks.
2-High caliber players migrating to midlevel universities so they can play right away, getting early exposure to scouts and agents.
3-And finally, the increase in early season exempt tournaments at neutral site venues.
These developments have helped somewhat to begin to level the playing field in favor of the smaller conference schools and had, for a short while, opened up access to an increase of NCAA Tourney billets for these schools. The NCAA Tourney Selection Committee has made a concerted and markedly successful effort to reduce access to non Big 6 conference teams over the last 5 years.
The MVC has completed 2 of the 3 requirements: They have fielded multiple team bids to the NCAA (& NIT) since 1999, and they have upgraded the conference power index by refusing to schedule bottom tier teams. But the MVC (and other emerging conferences are being squeezed – most major conferences are avoiding playing MVC teams ( and several other rising teams) unless it is in a neutral court exempt format…fear of losing – for good reason. The MVC has been beating the ‘bigs’ regularly for the past several years, as attested by their non-conference records.
The final piece is the ‘Deep Run’. It will take guts. It will take fortitude. It will take Nuevos.
The Valley flagship teams: Bradley, SIU, and Creighton – one or more must NOW make a G. Mason-type run to the elite eight/Final Four, preferrably more than one run, in order for the MVC to re-establish herself as the #5 to #7 Major Division I Basketball Conference. SIU is the most likely candidate, based on its recent six years of successful campaigns and two Sweet 16 runs (and did so with 2006-07 tourney run). Creighton also has the opportunity to excell, as the longevity standard bearer (current 11 year successes) and with its’ “Dean” of MVC coaches in Dana Altman. Bradley University with her rich history, recent recruiting upgrades, and a Sweet 16 run in 2006, can also be a factor. The other conference schools can and will help, but it falls to these leader schools to propel the MVC fully back into national prominence. It is their DUTY.
No guts…no glory!
By Andy Katz ESPN.com Updated: November 7, 2006 The big six in basketball is now the big seven.
Katz, Andy (2006-11-07). The MVC is entrenching itself with the big boys. ESPN.com. Retrieved on 2006-11-07.
http://www.mvc.org Official Missouri Valley Conference Website.