Mid-Major Monday: Missouri Valley Basketball Ain’t Done Yet

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One could make a compelling case last decade that Missouri Valley basketball rivaled many power conferences in quality. Southern Illinois, Creighton, Wichita State, Northern Iowa: all were perennial Valley contenders and NCAA Tournament regulars, with others like Bradley and Drake at times interjecting into the conversation.

The seismic shifts football-fueled conference realignment wrought produced aftershocks felt in leagues with non-football members, fundamentally changing the basketball landscape. Non-football universities Creighton joined the Big East, and this year, budding national powerhouse Wichita State exited for the American Athletic Conference.

Two of Missouri Valley basketball’s most consistent and best programs transferring out coincided with a downturn at places like Southern Illinois, Bradley and Drake. In just a few years, the Valley seemingly deteriorated from the pinnacle of mid-major — more comparable to lower-tier power conferences like the Pac-12 than it was the typical mid — to a potential one-bid league.

It may well be a one-bid conference in 2018, but Missouri Valley basketball isn’t fading without a fight. Valley teams scored big wins in the past week, the most noteworthy of which came with Loyola Chicago’s 65-59 defeat of Florida on Wednesday.

Loyola’s path to at-large consideration come March is complicated; the Ramblers have not played a particularly strong non-conference, the Florida win notwithstanding. Loyola could have used a win at Boise State the previous week in the Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge.

Still, the Ramblers sit as one of four Valley members with a KenPom rating of 85 or better. With the opportunity to rack up Top 100 wins in conference play, the Missouri Valley regular-season champion will build a compelling at-large case.

Among those four teams with a top 85 KenPom ranking, Northern Iowa has the greatest potential for upward mobility.

The Panthers have an impressive run of four Top 100 wins in their last six games over SMU and NC State at the Battle 4 Atlantis, and last week in a Bracket Buster-quality matchup with UT-Arlington on Thursday. Northern Iowa’s only loss in that six-game stretch came in the Battle 4 Atlantis championship against top-ranked Villanova.

UNI plays a pair of games before Christmas that could make or break the Panthers’ at-large resume, traveling to Iowa State on Saturday, and hosting Xavier on Dec. 22.

Bracket Buster for A New Era

ESPN ended its Bracket Buster event in 2013, leaving a hole in my heart every February. The past week served to fill the void, somewhat. The aforementioned Northern Iowa-UT Arlington game on Thursday joined a collection of excellent mid-major matchups.

UT Arlington played a second on Saturday against Florida Gulf Coast, where the former Dunk City scored an impressive road win. Another recent NCAA Tournament darling, Stephen F. Austin, also came up huge on the road at Louisiana Tech.

SFA experienced considerable turnover from the rosters that went to three straight and won in two NCAA Tournaments, including standout guard Thomas Walkup and head coach Brad Underwood. Last year’s Lumberjacks endured growing pains, but second-year coach Kyle Keller appears to have SFA ready to make another run at the Southland championship.

Despite the loss Louisiana Tech’s a team that could well contend for the Conference USA championship MTSU has locked down the past two seasons.

Between UNI, UTA, Florida Gulf Coast, Stephen F. Austin and Louisiana Tech that’s five programs with legitimate NCAA Tournament prospects. Add rising MAC contender Ball State’s win over Missouri Valley basketball newcomer Valparaiso, and that’s a lot of quality mid-major competition over the course of one week.

The Bracket Buster, in its original incarnation, had outlasted its usefulness. Conference realignment and power programs’ increasing reluctance to schedule upper-echelon mids reinforced the glass ceiling mid-major conferences face come Selection Sunday.

Scheduling non-conference games — especially late into the conference season with short notice — also proved challenging. Bracket Buster’s concept had merit, but execution became increasingly difficult.

The concept can live on in today’s college basketball landscape, just with some retooling.

A Bracket Buster event that showcases potential Tournament caliber mid-majors during the non-conference season could help address the scheduling concerns mids face. I spoke with Brad Underwood in the 2015-16, and he said a mid-major program with a bright forecast coming into the season can struggle to finalize its slate, in part because power-conference programs don’t want to risk the loss.

Guaranteed games with other strong teams for one week can help address that problem.

What’s more, the potential for TV inventory is high. The sports calendar is at something of a lull, with college football in a dormant period before bowl games. ESPN could spotlight quality mid-major games, but not just the games; build a week around showcasing the programs themselves.

Send reporters to spend some times with the programs, bring out Tom Rinaldi for human interest stories, make an actual event of it. There’s a reason College Gameday episodes at North Dakota State and James Madison in recent years have been some of the most popular, because it’s something fresh.

Vermont vs. Georgetown

An idea proposed on Twitter by @JosephNardone: Where would undefeated Georgetown finish in the America East Conference?

On its face, it’s an outlandish question. The America East is a low-major conference, for all intents and purposes. Georgetown is a one-time powerhouse and member of the one of the premier basketball leagues, the Big East. The Hoyas had a hot spell at one point last season that warranted consideration for an NCAA Tournament berth.

However, as Georgetown has started unbeaten with a schedule so loaded on cupcakes it could induce diabetic shock, America East preseason favorite Vermont played at Kentucky; beat Horizon League favorite Northern Kentucky on a neutral floor; went to Georgetown’s Big East counterpart, Marquette; and lost a nip-and-tuck affair against Bucknell last week.

Now, the Bucknell loss is particularly germane to the conversation because, at No. 95 in the KenPom rankings, Bucknell sits two spots behind…Georgetown.

So, the Question of the Week here in Mid-Major Monday: Would Georgetown win the America East?