Going into the men’s basketball season, it was widely speculated the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) would be up for grabs after Wichita State University’s departure. Six games into conference play, that prediction, so far, is accurate.
When I voted in the MVC preseason poll this season as a Loyola men’s basketball beat writer, I had trouble predicting where each team would finish. I felt the field would be so wide open this season, any team could win. I eventually picked Missouri State University to finish on top with Loyola, University of Northern Iowa, Valparaiso University and Illinois State University rounding out my top five.
Right now, Drake University leads the conference with a 5-2 record, Loyola and Missouri State sit tied for second at 4-2 and four teams sit tied for fourth at 3-3. That means two games are the difference between first place and eighth place out of ten teams.
Given some of the tweets I’ve seen over the last couple weeks, I know I’m not the only one surprised by Drake’s hot start. This is a team that finished 5-13 last season and went through its third coaching change in two years over the offseason.
The other surprise is how poorly Northern Iowa has played so far. The Panthers were picked second in the preseason poll — with eight first-place votes — and are the only team to start 0-5 in MVC play before getting their first win over Valparaiso University Jan. 13. I had them third because of the loss of do-it-all guard Jeremy Morgan to graduation, but a 0-5 start was the last thing I expected.
At one point, five teams — including Loyola — were 3-2 and three were 2-3. This shows just how even the playing field is this season. No team has been able to separate itself from the rest, even with Drake starting 4-0 in MVC play. MVC head coaches discussed how open the conference is during the weekly MVC teleconference Jan. 15.
In his first season as Drake head coach, Niko Medved said he isn’t surprised by how tough the MVC is.
“It’s going to be a war,” Medved said. “I felt that way coming [into] my first year, and it’s even shaping up more than I thought. I don’t think there’s any score that would surprise me. Everybody is so well-prepared [and] they’re well-coached.”
Loyola head coach Porter Moser said he knew the conference would be a fight since the beginning of the season. Moser, who played in the MVC while at Creighton University from 1988-90 and coached at Illinois State from 2001-04, added the MVC is also tough because of how much work the players need to do away from the court.
“As much of a physical grind it is, it’s a mental grind,” Moser said. “It’s a mental grind every single game … and it’s an every night deal. I think you’ve got to be mentally tough to go through this grind as well as physically tough.”
Although only six games have been played, I’m excited to see how the MVC shapes out before the conference tournament March 1-4 in St. Louis. Given how crazy the start of conference play has been, I have no idea how things could end up at Arch Madness. The team that wins gets an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, but I think there’s a chance for at least one other team to get an at-large bid to the big dance.
The MVC ranks eighth out of 32 Division I conferences in Rating Percentage Index (RPI), which is a stat based on D-I winning percentage, opponents’ D-I winning percentage and those opponents’ D-I winning percentage used by the NCAA tournament selection committee. Four teams — Missouri State, Loyola, Illinois State and Bradley — are in the top 100 in the country. Last year, only Illinois State and Wichita State were in the top 100. The last time four teams were in the top 100 was when five teams were top 100 in 2015. That year, Wichita State and Northern Iowa ended up in the NCAA tournament, Illinois State appeared in the National Invitation Tournament (NIT), Loyola won the College Basketball Invitational and Evansville won the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
This shows the strength of the MVC this season, and it’ll make Selection Sunday one to watch for MVC fans. If any of the MVC teams in the top 100 miss out on the NCAA tournament, I’m sure they’ll find a postseason tournament to play in.
On top of the RPI success, seven teams are at 10 overall wins this season —Northern Iowa and Illinois State each have nine while Indiana State has eight. The last time all 10 teams had double-digit wins before Feb. 11 was 2007, when two teams — Creighton and Southern Illinois University — made the NCAA tournament. If all 10 teams reach double-digit wins this season, it would be the 14th time in conference history and the first time since Loyola’s first season in the league in 2014.
The only thing I see against the MVC being a two-bid league is Illinois State’s snub last season. The Redbirds went 27-7 overall and 17-1 in MVC play to finish 39th in RPI, which was better than 31 teams that made the NCAA tournament. Despite that, they had to settle for a NIT bid because they lost to Wichita State in the Arch Madness title game.
I’ll be watching the MVC closely this season. If the trend keeps up — which all signs indicate it will — it’ll be a roller coaster ride to Arch Madness. Buckle up. This is going to be a fun ride.