Ncaa tournament loyola lifts mvc, provides boost for mid-majors

The entire 111-year history of the missouri valley conference is a story of evolution, of being loved and then left behind by members whose athletic ambitions outgrew the league.

All the way back to 1928 when a group of original members split off into a conference that would eventually become the big eight, survival and change have become defining characteristics of the valley, whose basketball prominence often has been threatened by events it couldn’t control.

Another one of those seismic shifts occurred last year when wichita state, the league’s biggest brand name, left for the american athletic conference.Missouri valley by leaving the comfort of its longtime basketball home for a league whose primary interest is football success, wichita state essentially said it was tired of being considered a mid-major and everything it includes from lack of television exposure to the frequent disrespect of the NCAA tournament selection committee.

For the valley, and frankly for all of mid-majordom, losing wichita could have been a crushing blow to its standing in the landscape of college basketball. It still might in the long run, as gonzaga considers following the same model and linking up with the mountain west.Missouri valley

But under the circumstances, there rarely has been a more timely postseason run than loyola-chicago rising up from its no. 11 seed to make the final four, validating that the missouri valley is indeed still part of the conversation at the very moment its cachet could have eroded.

“this was probably for me the most special (tournament run) in my 30 years in the league,” MVC commissioner doug elgin said saturday. “they answered the bell in terms of, we needed to prove to the country the missouri valley was still relevant. And we certainly are.”

Loyola’s rise, in fact, is itself a product of the treacherous ground mid-majors have had to walk on since football-driven realignment shook up division I in the last half-decade.Wichita state when the big east broke apart in 2012 and became a basketball-driven conference of private schools anchored by the likes of villanova, georgetown and marquette, it had a trickle-down effect on several conferences as it added members including creighton, which had been the MVC’s other premiere program opposite wichita.

At the time, there weren’t a ton of slam-dunk options, especially for a league that has historically had a high standard of basketball and values geographic congruity. Loyola’s selection, in many ways, was rooted in the idea that its program, which hadn’t been to the NCAA tournament or done much of anything worthwhile since 1985, would be able to parlay the valley’s brand into better recruiting, more financial support and ultimately basketball success.Wichita state

“there were cranes all over the campus,” elgin said. “it’s the largest jesuit school in the country, and the potential for loyola to become a relevant basketball program in chicago was there.”

But even when that potential was realized this year with a team that went 28-5 and won at florida in the non-conference, loyola only earned a no. 11 seed. And had the ramblers slipped up in the conference tournament, the reality is they almost certainly would have been left out of the NCAA field despite winning the regular-season title by four games in the eighth-best conference according to the ratings percentage index.Missouri valley

Though the valley undoubtedly became a less prestigious league when creighton and wichita state left, it has had staying power in the bracket. Eight out of the last nine years, an MVC team has won at least one tournament game. And that’s frustrating to someone like illinois state coach dan muller, whose team got denied a bid last season despite going 17-1 in the league (28-7 overall) because it lacked big non-conference wins.

“the committee has and will always say, past success has no impact on this year’s current selection or seeding and if you say that in a blanket statement, I think that’s appropriate in a lot of ways,” muller said.Missouri valley “but clearly you’re wrong about the quality of teams we have.”

There’s no doubt the mid-major conferences have gotten the short end of the stick from the committee, a trend that will only accelerate should gonzaga — the one mid-major program that consistently has transcended its league schedule — join up with the mountain west.

The selection committee has clearly put an emphasis on number of “big” wins, which is reflected in the quadrant system that was put in this year. Naturally, mid-majors get fewer opportunities to get those valuable wins, which is why middle tennessee and st.Elgin said mary’s got left out.

But a run like loyola’s, combined with other notable upsets in this year’s tournament such as UMBC over virginia, marshall over wichita state and buffalo over arizona certainly raises a question about whether such a big emphasis on schedule is appropriate when the deck is so stacked against the mid-majors.

Muller claims the committee’s overemphasis on the number of “quadrant 1” wins leads to mistakes. Loyola, for instance, went just 1-1 against quadrant 1 teams but ends up in the final four after taking down miami, tennessee, nevada and kansas state.

“it’s impossible to make it quote-unquote ‘fair,’ ” muller said.Elgin said “if you have a team that’s 2-2 against quad 1 and team that’s 6-6 that’s quad 1 who’s getting in? It’s going to be 6-6 every time, but it’s the same percentage. They have more wins, but they have more losses, too.”

Maybe loyola’s success will plant a seed for next year that, perhaps, the mid-majors need to be evaluated on a different basis. At the very least, it re-establishes the MVC at the top of that group after realignment did a number on a league that had had a lot to be proud of over the years.

“that’s our history. We’ve always been resilient,” elgin said. “to have (loyola’s run) happen this postseason, the timing was great.Elgin said they come into the league, they rise to the top in a year we lose a top-25 member and I just think on a bigger level, against the backdrop of the current climate in college basketball, this is one of the great stories.”