Bradley’s win over Creighton, the first for the Braves in conference play, was not the most significant news to come out of the Missouri Valley Conference Tuesday.
With Wichita State’s 70-54 win over Indiana State, the Valley has essentially become a three team race. The loss dropped the Sycamores — who rode a soft early schedule and a couple of buzzer beaters to a 7-1 start in league play — to fourth place, a full two games out of third with only six games left to play.
The Shockers are now all alone in first at 10-2 in league play, with Missouri State a half game back in the win column and Northern Iowa a game behind the Bears. Its sure to be an exciting finish — Wichita State still has to play at Northern Iowa and Missouri State, while the Bears and the Panthers have already split their home-and-home — but the more interesting question is whether the Valley will be able to earn a second bid to the NCAA Tournament this season.
The bubble is wide open this year, but a major reason there are so many at-large bids up for grabs is that their really aren’t many suitable mid-major threats. Tourney stalwarts Gonzaga, Butler, Memphis, and even Xavier all have quite a bit of work to do if they are going to get in without winning their conference tournament. Teams like St. Mary’s and Utah State have pretty records without much in the way of impressive wins.
Here’s a quick look at the tournament resume for each team:
- RPI/Kenpom/SOS: 48/43/109
- Record: 19-4, 10-2
- Best Wins: Evansville, Indiana State, LSU, Tulsa, Virginia
- Bad Losses: None
- RPI/Kenpom/SOS: 46/70/111
- Record: 17-5, 9-2
- Best Wins: at Wichita State, at Northern Iowa, Evansville, Creighton X 2, Pacific
- Bad Losses: Tulsa, Oklahoma State, Indiana State
- RPI/Kenpom/SOS: 51/95/108
- Record: 17-6, 8-3
- Best Wins: New Mexico, Indiana, Wichita State, Missouri State, Morehead State, Iowa State
- Bad Losses: Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Iowa, Southern Illinois, Indiana State
Its not difficult to tell that all three of these teams struggled in non-conference play against schedules that were, frankly, pretty bad. They have combined for all of five wins against the RPI top 100, and only one of those — Northern Iowa’s win over New Mexico in Las Vegas — come against someone other than one of these three teams.
Wichita State probably has the best chance to get an at-large bid because they don’t have any bad losses — in addition to losing to UNI and MSU, the Shockers lost by four to UConn and 14 at San Diego State. They play both of those teams on the road before the season is done, while also getting a shot at VCU in Bracket Busters.
That said, Missouri State has already notched road wins against Creighton along with UNI and WSU in league play. They easily have the softest finish to MVC play, and being able to claim a conference regular season title will hold some weight.
Northern Iowa seems to finally be rounding into form. They struggled to start the season, including a 1-3 start in league play, but the Panthers have bounced back with seven straight wins. The last game in that winning streak happened to come against Missouri State. Remember, this is a team that has been there before (who can forget Ali Farokhmanesh) and that win over New Mexico could still end up looking quite impressive.
Whether or not the Valley ends up getting a second bid to the tournament may likely depend on the league’s performance in Bracket Busters. The conference as a whole didn’t have a great non-conference season — they lost 8-1 to the Mountain West in the MVC-MWC Challenge — and wins over teams like George Mason, VCU, and Valparaiso can only help boost the league’s overall profile, especially against other mid-major bubble hopefuls.
The problem with talking about the bubble, however, is that it takes focus away from what truly is important here.
Once again, the Valley is going to have a terrific race for first in the regular season. Its going to, once against, have a terrific conference tournament. All of it is going to be happening in front of packed arenas full of loyal and loud fanbases.
The Missouri Valley is what mid-major hoops is all about.
Lets celebrate that instead of discussing the league’s bubble hopes.