The Missouri Valley Conference's parity made the men's basketball race one of the best in years last season, but did little to help the league's non-conference scheduling.
After two four-year stints against the Mountain West Conference, the MVC was unable to find another peer league to play this winter, for a lot of reasons. The Valley's conference RPI (14) was its lowest since the 2002-03 season, when it also went winless in the postseason (0-3). Bradley, a team that was 9-9 in league play during the regular season, won the MVC tournament but lost to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament. Loyola, the regular-season champion, lost its first game in the NIT, and Drake fell at Southern Utah in the first round of the Collegeinsider.com tournament.
The MVC also went without a win against a top-25 team for the first time in 10 years.
Still, even if it only benefits four or five teams, the league is after a conference challenge against a peer league or one just a bit higher, according to Commissioner Doug Elgin. The league kicked the tires of Conference USA, the Atlantic 10, the Mid-American Conference and the West Coast Conference, but was unable to close a deal.
"While we may not want to play all the teams in another conference top to bottom, we do want to schedule the best teams we can from peer leagues," Elgin said. "The difficulty is getting all of our teams, even those that are rebuilding or projected to be toward the bottom of the field for the following year, to get them involved with meaningful matchups that can certainly move the needle and get us into positions where we have NCAA or NIT-type competition."
The Mountain West was a great fit for the Valley because it was just a bit above the Valley. The Atlantic 10, Conference USA and West Coast were also above the Valley. The MAC was appealing because Buffalo vs. Loyola was appealing, but, say, Drake vs. Toledo? Not as appealing as Drake vs. Saint Mary's (California) and Missouri State against BYU.
You'll have to settle for SIU taking on San Francisco at the Banterra Center this season and the Salukis returning the game to California next season. Gonzaga, a perennial 30-win team, not a perennial 20-win team, doesn't need a top-tier game against the MVC, and neither does Saint Mary's.
The Valley's top-to-bottom power will swing someone. The league has finished in the top 10 of the RPI in five of the last 10 years. It has veteran coaches like Ben Jacobson at Northern Iowa, Illinois State's Dan Muller and Loyola's Porter Moser, and is rebuilding some of its core programs with new and young leaders (Bradley's Brian Wardle, Missouri State's Dana Ford, SIU's Bryan Mullins, Drake's Darian DeVries and Evansville's Walter McCarty).
Three wins divided regular-season co-champions Loyola and Drake and three teams that tied for fifth place (Bradley, Illinois State and Northern Iowa all went 9-9). And this year could have a similar race, with better talent. No team in the league returns all five starters, and all 10 teams can point to promising newcomers who could make a difference for their squads.
That kind of fun could prove to be fun for other leagues beginning in 2020-2021.