CARBONDALE — There will be at least 16 games between Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball teams and Power 5 Conference squads in 2017-18 — 10 of which are true road games.
But, come next season, those contests will become harder to find.
The 14-team Big 10 Conference announced in October it will play 20 conference games instead of 18 beginning next season, a year earlier than the ACC, as it seeks to create more live content for the Big 10 Network and keep high-RPI games in-house. Last season, the Big 10 had seven teams finish in the top 75 of the RPI. Beginning in 2018-19, Big 10 teams will play seven opponents twice and six teams once a year (three home games, three road games), with league games beginning in December.
The ACC announced in the summer of 2016 it plans to go to a 20-game conference schedule in 2019-20, to coincide with the new ACC Network.
The SEC and Pac-12 could reportedly follow suit, pulling more Power 5 games away from mid-majors like the Valley in an already difficult game of tug of war.
"You'll have nine conferences that are going to go to 20-game conference schedules, and when they do that, there will be no games for us to play," said SIU coach Barry Hinson. "And if the Valley doesn't go to a 20-game conference schedule in the next two years, we are going to be left in the dark."
Hinson said he begged a number of multi-team event (MTE) directors to get the Salukis into a tournament that featured Power 5 conference squads and was turned down by all of them for the 2017-18 season. SIU got the next-best thing — a neutral-site game against Mountain West Conference favorite Nevada in Las Vegas right before Christmas as part of the Continental Tire Las Vegas Classic, but has only one more non-conference game against a team projected to be in the top 100 of the RPI by KenPom.com.
SIU is playing a buy game Nov. 21 at preseason No. 16 Louisville.
To pull off a 20-game conference schedule, the Valley would likely have to add one or two teams. The league pursued expansion after Wichita State bolted for the American Athletic Conference, eventually adding Valparaiso. It also considered Murray State, Milwaukee and Omaha.
Bradley coach Brian Wardle said the league might have better chances at securing at-large bids to the NCAA and NIT if its current members rise to the occasion. The Valley has had at least one at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament in four of the last six years.
"Any time we can match up with other good leagues, like the Mountain West, that helps, just to get some teams to come to your gym and play you," Wardle said. "The stats show, if you go to 12 teams, or even 11, you have less chance of at-large bids. I know that for a fact. Someone is going to rise to the top. Just like Wichita State did. Just like Creighton did. Someone invests in their program, and they rise."
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson, who has led the Panthers to the NCAA Tournament in three of the last eight years, said Valley teams will have the same difficult decisions they've had for the last decade. Do they take a sure road game against a Power 5 conference school if that's the only way to play one?
"As hard as scheduling is, it seems like every two to four years it gets harder, and that's gonna make it harder, again. Strictly from a math standpoint, you're taking games off the shelf, because they're gonna play a certain number of home games in the non-conference," Jacobson said. "And they're not gonna be home-and-homes, so, they're not returning those games. Some of the decisions we're gonna have to make are, 'Do we take buy games with top 20 teams?' Do we take those buy games so we can get those games on our schedule?"
Fortunately for Northern Iowa, they get at least one game against a Power 5 school on a neutral floor through the Hy-Vee Classic in Des Moines. Iowa State and Iowa play either Drake or Northern Iowa every year at the one-day event, which is slated to go through 2019. It sold out in 2014 and 2015.
Illinois State doesn't have that luxury, and was left out of the NCAA Tournament despite an RPI of 33 last season. Coach Dan Muller landed home-and-home series with BYU and Tulsa recently and was able to secure a road game at Mississippi this season. The Redbirds also play 2017 Final Four participant South Carolina on a neutral floor in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off (held in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, because of hurricane damage).
Muller said other leagues may struggle more than the MVC in getting big-name games next season.
"It's not like it's gonna eliminate all these home-and-homes we're getting," Muller said. "We don't get bought much. If I decide that it's good for us to get bought one year, I'm guessing I'll still be able to get bought, so, I really don't worry about it that much. I think it will affect other conferences more than it will affect ours."
MVC commissioner Doug Elgin would like to see leagues like the Valley, the Mountain West and Conference USA to band together.
"What needs to happen here is the Middle Tennessee (State)s, and Southern Illinois need to play each other," Elgin said. "Middle Tennessee is not gonna get a lot of games against the Tennessees. They're in the high-major group, so we've gotta work much more in a much more focused ways to get those series that can help both sides. If you can look at those schools that have finished in the top 60 of the RPI, and get those teams to play one another, those that are in basketball-centric leagues outside the major football leagues, then I think there are games to be made."