Expanding its horizon: Missouri Valley’s future decided soon

I woke up Thursday to various reports saying the Missouri Valley’s university presidents will hold a meeting next week on expansion.

A school hoping to join the Valley will need seven of the nine presidents to say “yes” on Monday.  By Tuesday, we’ll learn if any are accepted – with those schools becoming a full member for the next school year.

It appears the Valley has narrowed it’s list to four schools; Murray State, Nebraska-Omaha, Valparaiso, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee.  MVC officials visited those campuses in recent weeks to see the facilities and meet their potential, new-partners.

For me, you lose one school – you bring in one school.  That makes the most sense.  But, as I started thinking about it I thought, “why not two or three?”

For this article, let’s just talk men’s basketball.  That’s the driving force behind the Missouri Valley.  Sorry, Stec.  Sorry, Keith Guttin – those baseball Bears are having an amazing year!

With two additions, yes the Valley would have 11 schools – but what’s wrong with odd numbers?  Schools could play a 20-game, conference basketball schedule.  Currently the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) is the only D-I league to have a 20-game conference schedule.

We’ve heard from coaches this past season, including Paul Lusk, saying it’s hard to schedule as a mid-major.  You cannot get home and home games with Power Five Conferences.  The good mid-majors already have full schedules or have scheduling conflicts to make open dates work.

So if you have 11 or even 12 schools in the Valley, you fill up your schedule easier.  There’s less open dates to find the Chicago State’s or Fontbonne’s of the world.  That might give you the flexibility to land that top-120 RPI school.

Also, there’s strength in numbers.  Let’s say a team, or two, has a bad recruiting year, defections or injuries.  With ten teams, those one or two schools bring down the entire conference RPI by a lot.  But, if there are 12 teams, the down years by those two schools don’t doom the entire conference as bad.

VALPARAISO CRUSADERS

If the Valley brain trust only goes with one school, my favorite would be Valparaiso.

It is a school rich in basketball history.  The Crusaders have gone to the NCAA Tournament nine times since 1995.  Since 2000, have won 352 games.  Valpo’s strength of schedule would help replace the loss of Wichita State.  In recent years, Valparaiso has scheduled Oregon, Kentucky, Purdue, Ohio State, Butler and New Mexico.

And the excitement around that program compares to other Valley schools as the Crusaders averaged just over 3,000 per game last year; the MVC average was 4,800 last season with the numbers skewed by Wichita State’s average attendance of 10,700.  The Crusaders were 24-9 last year, 14-4 in conference but will have to replace five seniors – including three of their top four scorers.

While Valparaiso would fit inside the current footprint of the Valley, a mark against it would be the distance from Missouri State.  Bears fans wanting to take in a game at Valpo would have an eight-and-a-half hour trip ahead of them.  The 536-miles between schools would be the most on the Crusaders schedule.

Valpo, however, would be reunited with former Horizon League rival, Loyola-Chicago with a distance of just 51-miles.  In-state, Valpo would have a 160-mile trip to Indiana State, and a 150-mile voyage over to Illinois State.

MURRAY STATE RACERS

After Valpo, which is a private school, my next choice is Murray State – a very close second choice.  The Wichita State Shockers are a public school.  Inclusion of the Racers would keep the public/private ratio intact for the Valley; if that’s important.

In recent years, Murray State has outplayed the aforementioned Valparaiso.  The Racers have been to the NCAA Tournament eight times since 1996, winning one game in 2010 and 2012.  They’ve also won the CIT in 2014.  Since 2000, they’ve won 366 games.

This past season, the Racers finished 16-17 with an Ohio Valley record of 8-8.  For a comparison of familiar teams, Murray State beat Illinois State on a last-second shot in the season opener.  Then the Racers lost lost at Southern Illinois in overtime and by 32-points at Evansville.  Murray State graduates three seniors – but return its top two scorers.

Murray State would add a new state to the Valley mix; bringing in Kentucky. It is 115-miles from Southern Illinois and 140-miles from Evansville.  This trek for Bears fans is a little easier to stomach; 320-miles a.k.a. five-and-a-half hours by car.

The Racers also had a better average attendance than Valpo with more than 3,300 fans per game.

If the Valley goes with 11, you cannot go wrong with the top two on this list.

Plus, with Wichita State leaving, the Sign Guy can tweak a new one for games saying, “Murray, Not A State.”

NEBRASKA-OMAHA MAVERICKS

If the Valley goes with 12 schools, I think Nebraska-Omaha has the edge over Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the battle of hyphenated schools.

On the downside, Nebraska-Omaha is new to the Division-I landscape.  Just six years ago, UNO made the complete jump from NCAA, D-II.  When it did, the 100-year-old football program was cut.  On a side note, that’s how the L.A. Rams kicker Greg “The Leg” Zuerlein ended up at Missouri Western; he was without a school when the football team folded.

Anyway, UNO also has a lot of upside.  This past season the Mavericks went 18-14, 9-7 in the Summit League.  Like Valparaiso, UNO puts together a mean schedule.  This past year alone, look at these opponents: USC, Kansas State, Iowa, and Iowa State. Along with the USC Trojans, the Bears and Mavs had some common opponents.

MSU beat Oral Roberts by 10 while UNO split their season series with the Golden Eagles – winning by seven and losing by 17.  The Bears beat North Dakota State by 14, UNO also played them twice; winning by four and losing by 12.

The addition of UNO would bring back the Omaha market to the Missouri Valley.  When Creighton left in 2013, it ended 57-years of Nebraska city being in the conference.

A Maroon and White voyage north would take roughly five-and-a-half hours.  But UNO could start up a rivalry with Drake which is just two hours away.

A positive for both Nebraska-Omaha and Wisconsin-Milwaukee, would be the exposure the Missouri Valley would provide.  The MVC has a television deal with ESPN that runs through the 2023-’24 season, and also has a deal through 2019-’20 with CBS Sports.

WISCONSIN-MILWAUKEE PANTHERS

Speaking of the Panthers, I’m not sure what to think of this school being added to the Valley.  Yes, it adds a large television market to the conference; second only behind Loyola-Chicago.  But with larger cities, comes more things to do – and the “local” D-I basketball game might not be one of them.

The current state of the Panthers basketball team is down.  UWM averages just over 1,400 per game – the lowest of the four finalists.  They’re coming off an 11-24 season, 4-14 in the Horizon League.

The Panthers have had recent success however.  UWM has won four Horizon regular-season men’s basketball championships (2004-’06 and 2011) and four tournament championships (2003, 2005-’06 and 2014).  UWM also has four trips to the NCAA Tournament (2003, 2005-’06 and 2014).

Like Murray State and UNO, Wisconsin-Milwaukee would also increase the Valley’s footprint.  But like Valparaiso, a road trip for Bears fans becomes very laborious.  To see a Bears game in Milwaukee, you’re looking at a nine hour drive – 590-miles away.

But like with the Loyola-Chicago vs. Valparaiso match-up, UWM would also reignite an old Horizon rivalry with the Ramblers.  Chicago is just 90-miles away from Milwaukee.  Bradley would be the next closest MVC game – a three-and-a-half hour drive.

FINAL THOUGHTS

We’ll just have to wait and see how the Valley president’s approach this expansion.  Will they add one, two, three of four?  Do they add one now, and reserve two more for two years down the road?  Does the private/public ratio matter?  Do they value exposure in big markets over history and potential of successful programs?

I wish I could be a fly on the wall at that meeting in St. Louis on Monday.

We will all find out on Tuesday.

I just hope someday soon, we’ll see a Missouri Valley Conference with multiple teams making the NCAA Tournament.

And of course, this is just men’s basketball.  The university presidents also have to consider women’s basketball, baseball, volleyball and all of the other sports.

And then there’s football.  Valparaiso already plays with one Missouri Valley school, the Drake Bulldogs, in the Pioneer League.  Murray State has it’s football program in the Ohio Valley with it’s other, primary athletics teams.  Would these teams also receive a future invite to merge into the Missouri Valley Football Conference?  Just Murray State?  Nebraska-Omaha and Wisconsin-Milwaukee do not currently have football.