Wichita State's departure gives the Missouri Valley Conference an opportunity to become one of the best mid-major leagues in the Midwest.
The Shockers accounted for 10 of the Valley's 13 wins in the NCAA men's basketball tournament the last five years. They made the Final Four in 2013, and they've won the MVC All-Sports Trophy four years in a row. There is no team available that the Valley can realistically pursue that can replace that presence.
Saint Louis has invested too much in basketball, and appears content in the Atlantic 10 Conference, to move to the Valley. Illinois State is probably not winning that many games in the tournament, and neither is Northern Iowa, in the next five years.
So, the Valley has three options, all which involve creating a bigger presence in their current geographic footprint. Adding a national presence will be tough, if not impossible, but the league can add depth, at least one great new market, and become a real player for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament next March.
Here's a quick look at their options:
No. 1 — Add Valparaiso or Belmont right now
The Valley still has a national brand, and still has an automatic bid to the Big Dance for the winner of Arch Madness. Adding Valparaiso or Belmont in the next month or two — the league added Loyola in less than 40 days after Creighton left in 2013 — gives the league a solid 10th member that can compete for the league championship.
Valparaiso competes in the Horizon League, where the Valley got the Ramblers. The Crusaders won 30 games in 2015-16 and 24 this past season, reaching the NIT, where they lost to Illinois on the road, and produced the Horizon League player of the year in forward Alec Peters. Three Division I transfers sat out this season and will be eligible in 2017-18.
Valparaiso is located in northwest Indiana, kind of between Chicago and South Bend, Indiana, and could help the Valley get a bigger hold in the Hoosier State.
Belmont is a home run because it would get the Valley into Nashville. The Bruins went 23-7 this past season and 20-12 in 2015-16 under longtime coach Rick Byrd. They are yet to win an NCAA Tournament game. Maybe joining the Valley would be a new beginning, and open up new recruiting areas for them.
Pick up Valparaiso or Belmont, you've got 10 teams, you've added a program that wins a lot, and the Valley gets into a new market close to its current geographic footprint.
No. 2 — Stick with your nine teams and look to expand next season
Every coach always says there is a favorite every year, but that the parity of the league will shine through. With the Shockers gone, they'll all be telling the truth for once. Every team in the Valley — who knows what Niko Medved has in store for Drake — will think it has a shot at winning in St. Louis, if not also the regular-season title.
Yes, the Valley will lose some luster if it stays at nine teams. The national media will talk of losing Wichita State and Creighton most of the season, and the league will have to tough it out. It's just going to have to tough it out, anyway, because Saint Louis, Western Kentucky and Butler are not coming over. If the Valley can't pick up Valparaiso or Belmont, wait it out until next year and re-evaluate.
No. 3 — Add a 10th member, and get greedy
If the league can add a 10th member, its third option is to stretch out to new markets. Valley reps reportedly visited Missouri-Kansas City and Illinois-Chicago before adding Loyola four years ago. Even though the Kangaroos don't appear poised to challenge for an at-large berth to the NCAA Tournament, is the market more important since you'd already have, say, Valparaiso or Belmont?
When the Valley added Loyola it hoped to build a presence in Chicago, which hasn't exactly happened. It will have to decide if adding someone like Denver, Missouri-Kansas City or Oral Roberts is worth it for the market. This is the worst option, because there's nothing better than a true conference champion, which would be tough with a 12-team field.
With the RPI, you're only as strong as your weakest link, and a strong 10 will always be better than a pretty good eight and four really great cities to visit.
TODD HEFFERMAN covers SIU athletics for The Southern Illinoisan. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 618-351-5087 or on Twitter at @THefferman.