- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 14, 2006

The Missouri Valley Conference typifies the new wave of March Madness.

When the NCAA tournament begins Thursday, the mid-major league headquartered in St. Louis will have as many representatives in college hoops’ big bracket (four) as the venerable ACC, not to mention other major conferences like the Big 12 and Pac-10.

None of the selection committee’s decisions were questioned more or engendered more ire than the seemingly skewed respect it paid to the MVC and less directly to the RPI rankings, which provided the primary validation for that league. CBS analyst Billy Packer openly criticized committee chairman Craig Littlepage over the MVC movement on the network’s selection show.

“I don’t give a [darn] what that guys says,” MVC commissioner Doug Elgin fired back during a Sunday night teleconference after the MVC earned an unprecedented four bids.

Come Thursday, the debate will begin to settle itself on the hardwood.

Because fair or not, the league known as “The Valley” will carry the standard for mid-majors everywhere this postseason. And the level of legitimacy afforded those leagues in the future might well be contingent on this week’s performances.

“All season long, the national media has said, ‘Put the MVC teams in the Big East and we’ll see how they do,’ ” said Chris Lowery, who coached Southern Illinois (22-10) to the MVC tournament title. “Obviously, the selection committee listened to them, and now we’ve got an opportunity to prove how good our conference is.”

Three MVC teams — Southern Illinois, Northern Iowa and Wichita State — draw first-round, mid-level Big East opponents (West Virginia, Georgetown and Seton Hall, respectively). And the Valley’s fourth representative, Bradley, gets an unenviable first-round date with torrid Kansas, which trounced Texas two days ago in the Big 12 tournament final.

But MVC schools certainly are accustomed to extraordinary challenges.

Critics of the league and its four bids point to the fact that teams from the Valley are 1-7 in the last three NCAA tournaments, and no team from the league beat a major conference opponent after Christmas. Northern Iowa (23-9) picked up the league’s only true marquee wins (vs. Iowa and at LSU) in December.

But Valley coaches universally respond by explaining that major conference teams routinely refuse their scheduling requests.

“We get laughed at when we ask for a home and home with a BCS school,” said Northern Iowa coach Greg McDermott, who readily admits he has the most advantageous position in the league on that front because the state of Iowa mandates that both Iowa and Iowa State play the Panthers every season. “In my mind, the only way for a team to say we don’t belong is to play us home and home. And if they beat us, then we don’t have a gripe.”

Scheduling snubs cost Valley member Missouri State an NCAA bid this season. The Bears finished 20-8 but lost their only marquee nonconference matchup at Arkansas (79-75) and became the highest-ranked team in the 26-year history of the RPI (No. 21) spurned by the NCAA selection committee.

Only two other teams in the RPI top 30 have missed the tournament: Texas Tech (No. 29 in 1997) and Hofstra (30) this season.

“I want to be angry, but I don’t know who to be angry at,” Missouri State coach Barry Hinson said. “I guess I should be angry at us for losing in the first round of our tournament to Northern Iowa. … I just hope the selection committee realizes that teams at our level, we are the magic of the NCAA tournament. It’s not the Dukes of the world who are the magic. It’s teams like us.”

Missouri State notwithstanding, obviously the selection committee agrees, though there are plenty of people like Packer somewhat mystified by an RPI formula that had five MVC teams ranked in the top 35. That’s the same number as the Big East and Big Ten and two more than the ACC, SEC, Pac-10 or Big 12.

The RPI simply might be too weighted toward teams who play a bevy of solid teams instead of rewarding those who beat a handful of excellent ones. After all, if either Georgetown (RPI 36) or Maryland (49) played a home and home against the top five MVC teams in the RPI (Bradley ranking last at an RPI of 33), the ratings would seem to indicate the Hoyas and the Terps would finish with lopsided losing records. Try finding anyone who believes that.

“Frankly, people can argue all they want, but we’ve got four in,” Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon said. “[Our critics] have no idea. They don’t have to live in our shoes. We walk into a Nike or ABCD camp, and the other coaches look at us like, ‘What are you doing here? You aren’t going to get any of these players.’

“So it’s hard on a lot of different levels for our teams. But I can promise you this is one heck of a league, and I have confidence that we’ll acquit ourselves accordingly this week.”

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide