MVC Here to Stay?
Don’t look now, but it seems the Missouri Valley Conference is not content with being just a feel-good story from last season.
Wichita State (#17 AP / #22 Coaches) vaulted into the Top 25 thanks to a victory over a solid LSU team (#10 AP / #12 Coaches) that is looking for return trip to the Final Four.
Fellow MVC programs Missouri State, Creighton, Southern Illinois and Bradley all received votes in both the coaches and AP rankings. For good reason.
Missouri State had a huge win over Wisconsin (#12 AP / #13 Coaches) before dropping a heartbreaker to Oklahoma State in overtime. Southern Illinois dispatched with a rising Virginia Tech program and a falling Minnesota. Still, that gives the Salukis two wins over major conference foes in a week. Their only loss thus far has been to a dangerous Arkansas team that just won the Old Spice Classic.
Bradley had a couple of blowout wins over Big East squads Rutgers and Depaul, before losing to Illinois by just 4. This despite losing superstar Patrick O’Bryant to the NBA.
Even Illinois State got in on the Big East romp, with a win over St Johns.
It is possible that as many as four MVC teams could find themselves nationally ranked at some point in the season. That would easily give the conference as many Top 25 schools as most of the major conferences. Wichita State may even crack the Top 10 should they survive Syracuse (#15 AP / #14 Coaches) in the Carrier Dome this week.
Much has been written about the emergence of the MVC and how they truly compare to the BCS conferences. Some have gone so far as to suggest that the conference should be considered an equal of as many as half of the so-called major conferences. Indeed, after having four NCAA Tournament berths and two Sweet Sixteen teams last season – beating the likes of Kansas and Pitt along the way – the MVC appeared to stack up pretty well. The same could easily be said so far about this season.
However, even with all the parity in college basketball, there is still a big difference between the mid-majors and the six power conferences. Namely, for the major conferences, sweet sixteens are not good enough. For them, nothing less than the Final Four and a national championship are expected year in and year out. Obviously it doesn’t always work out that way (such as for the Big Ten last season), but at least one representative from each of the six BCS conferences has been to the national championship game in the past four seasons, with no less than four conferences sending multiple teams to the Final Four in the past five years (SEC in 2006, Big Ten in 2005, ACC in 2004 and the Big 12 in 2003 and 2002).
To become the seventh major conference, not just the best mid-major, the MVC will one day have to match that kind of excellence. They will have to consistently put up multiple top 10 teams, national title contenders and at least one Final Four berth. They must become a conference where great coaches choose to stay put rather than move on to a bigger payday. They will have McDonald’s All-Americans that arrive in a whirlwind of publicity, and leave for the NBA just as quickly.
The MVC is not nearly there yet, but it’s not entirely impossible they will be in the future, the way things are progressing in the college basketball world. Only time will tell.
Hail to the Bulldogs
Speaking of mid-majors, how about Gonzaga (#22 AP / #21 Coaches) and Butler (#19 AP / #18 Coaches)? Both of whom entered the AP Top 25 this week.
Butler, as you may already know, is undefeated and has already defeated Notre Dame, Indiana, Tennessee, and Gonzaga en route to the preseason NIT championship. Not bad for a team picked to finish sixth in the Horizon in the preseason.
Although the Bulldogs lost leading scorer Brandon Polk, AJ Graves is filling in nicely, averaging nearly 20 points a game, although only shooting 35% from the field. Butler starts 3 seniors and 2 juniors, and should already be considered close to a lock for the NCAA Tournament, barring a dramatic collapse in conference play.
As for the other Bulldogs, do not be surprised to see Gonzaga in Atlanta next year. I know, I know, the Zags are seemingly a trendy pick for the Final Four every year, and just about every year since their magical Elite Eight run in 1999 they have managed to be on the wrong end of a classic game in the second or third round.
This year is different. Despite losing all-everything Adam Morrison and JP Batista, Gonzaga has not lost a step and are playing great team basketball, as opposed to simply letting their superstars carry them. The Zags flat out outplayed North Carolina in the NIT, with four different players scoring in double digits.
Josh Heytvelt has come off an injury-plagued season last year to average almost 17.5 points and 6.5 rebounds a game so far. Senior Guard Derek Raivio is proving himself to be a dangerous outside threat and the clear leader of the team. Sophomore Jeremy Pargo looks to be ready for a breakout year. Kansas transfer and McDonald’s All-American Micah Downs will be eligible to play come December.
Should Gonzaga continue to maintain their team chemistry, they will be ready to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament come March.
Year of the Frosh
It is rare when hyped events actually surpass the hype, but it looks more and more likely that the predictions by numerous sportscasters, most notably Dick Vitale, that this year’s freshman class will rank up there with some of the greatest of all time may in fact be coming to fruition.
Darrell Arthur scored 19 points in just 16 minutes against Florida (#4 AP / Coaches) and may already be the best player on the loaded Kansas (#5 AP / Coaches) roster. Daequon Cook of Ohio State (#3 AP / #1 Coaches) is averaging 18 points and 7 rebounds a game, and Greg Oden hasn’t stepped on the floor yet. If North Carolina (#7 AP / #6 Coaches) wins the ACC, the freshmen duo of Brandan Wright and Wayne Ellington will be a big reason why. Kevin Durant of Texas (#25 Coaches) may be one of the best freshmen to play in college in the last 15 years.
There are too many more great freshmen to list them all here. In fact, as many as 10 of the Top 25 teams in the nation have freshmen as major contributors already at this early point in the season. Think about that. Just six or seven months ago these same kids were playing against high school kids and thinking about the prom. We used to call players like that prodigies. Now they are becoming the norm.
Enjoy them while you can. Most will not be in college next year.