Despite the start of the season being more than a month away, the NCAA Tournament was one of the biggest talking points of the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) men’s basketball media day Oct. 16. Several head coaches expressed hope the MVC could send multiple teams to the biggest postseason tournament in college basketball.
The 68-team tournament — also known as March Madness — is made up of automatic bids and at-large berths. All 32 conferences earn an automatic bid that is awarded to the winner of each conference tournament. The remaining 36 at-large spots are filled by the best teams that failed to win their conference tournament and are chosen by the NCAA selection committee.
However, smaller conferences like the MVC are often on the outside looking in when it comes to at-large bids. The MVC hasn’t earned one since 2016 when Wichita State University was awarded a spot despite losing in the semifinals of the MVC Tournament. Following that season, the Shockers left for the American Athletic Conference and the MVC hasn’t received an at-large bid since.
Over the course of its history, the MVC has sent more than one team to the NCAA Tournament 23 times since the field expanded to allow at-large bids in 1975 — including every year from 1999-2007. However, in the past decade, the MVC has lost basketball powerhouses Wichita State and Creighton University to larger conferences, hurting the MVC’s chance at multiple bids.
At this year’s media day, Indiana State University head coach Greg Lansing was the one to kick off the conversation.
“I’d be shocked if this year wasn’t a multi-bid league,” Lansing said on the Zoom call. “We need to get back to that. We have some very talented teams that should be in the postseason.”
While it hasn’t happened as often lately, there were talks about the MVC having two representatives in last year’s NCAA Tournament. Bradley University repeated as MVC Tournament Champions, but the regular season champion University of Northern Iowa were still in the conversation for an at-large bid despite losing in the quarterfinals.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled and the question of Northern Iowa getting an at-large bid will never be answered.
The Panthers’ head coach Ben Jacobson said he thought the conference was good enough last year to send more than one team to the Big Dance, but he said he’s still hopeful for that to happen this year.
“We all know our league was much better a year ago, in better position to multiple teams,” Jacobson said at the media day. “I think we’ve got a terrific league coming up this year. We’re in position for multiple bids.”
This year’s preseason poll has Northern Iowa, Loyola and Bradley in the top three spots, respectively.
Loyola’s team is veteran-laden with the entire starting five returning, as well as notable players such as the 2020 Sixth Man of the Year sophomore guard Marquise Kennedy. Northern Iowa also brings back a strong crop of returning athletes, led by 2020 MVC Player of the Year AJ Green.
Drake University head coach Darian DeVries acknowledged the importance of Northern Iowa and Loyola’s returning squads, but said he thinks teams picked to finish in the middle of the pack this season could still make noise. Bradley has won back-to-back conference tournaments despite being the No. 5 seed in 2019 and the No. 4 seed in 2020.
“You’re sitting with Loyola and Northern Iowa with a ton of guys back at the top up there,” DeVries said on the call. “There’s a lot of other teams that feel like they have good rosters and if things go their way and can get on a roll then there’s going to be multiple teams who can be in that position.”
MVC Commissioner Doug Elgin said there are uncertainties about whether the MVC regular season or tournament will be impacted by COVID-19. However, he said he thinks this could be the year the conference returns to being a multi-bid league.
“You should look across the league,” Elgin said at the media day. “We’ve got veteran players coming back. We’ve got coaches who know how difficult it is to play in the Missouri Valley. And I think it’s going to be a heck of a season. I think the Valley is actually peaking this year.”