Arch Madness Post Mortem & What’s Next for the Valley?
The 2021 edition of Arch Madness has come and gone, and it was probably the most unique edition of the event in its 31-year history. Congratulations to the Loyola Ramblers for winning the title and good luck in the NCAAs. Drake, you battled hard. I hope you are rewarded with a spot in the NCAA Tournament as well.
The biggest national story that emerged from the event, other than perhaps Loyola’s title, was UNI’s expulsion and the way it went down. Just days after bragging about how they were the only conference to complete the entire regular season schedule (provoking me to make this poorly aged post on MVCFans), the Missouri Valley cancelled a league tournament game and forced one of its members to forfeit. Had this been a standard “positive COVID test, shut it down” situation, it would have been frustrating but acceptable. It was pretty clear there was some gray area right from the start, however, as the MVC dragged its feet on making an announcement. When the announcement was finally posted, the league admitted that UNI followed all league and CDC mandated contact tracing protocols to be allowed to play, but the City of St Louis had protocols that superseded the league’s and UNI would not be allowed on the court despite doing everything correctly per the guidelines they had been given. The error was with the league for not determining in advance which protocols were in place for this event, and essentially misleading the teams on how to proceed. Even if you don’t give credence to the rumors that the test may have been a false positive, and that Bradley apparently had a similar issue and was allowed to play, the league failed UNI and did them dirty.
As many of you may have gathered from my mini-meltdown on Twitter, I was none too pleased about UNI’s ejection from the tournament. I have tried to be impartial on this blog, but I also openly state in the header that I am a UNI alum. I had gone to Arch Madness for seventeen consecutive years before sitting this one out, and thank goodness I did. This is the second consecutive year UNI’s season has come to an end while suspended in motion. Last year it was a possible NCAA berth and probable NIT home games that were left on the table. This year their conference tournament run was halted by factors beyond their control. The situation in 2020 was certainly not unique and was shared by not just college basketball squads but athletes of all levels throughout the world. This year, UNI is one of just a handful of teams to have their chance taken away from them, and as far as I can tell the only one to have it happen in these circumstances. It leaves me feeling let down by the league that I have fervently loved and defended for two decades. We lost our shot, and all we really got was an “oops, my B” from the league as they quickly moved on with the competition. Typically, Arch Madness is one of my favorite weekends of the year even if the Panthers lose early. I wasn’t able to watch live on Thursday due to work, but I came home and watched the BU-SIU game on demand in its entirety before taking in the UNI-ISU game late in the evening. I planned to do the same Friday after work, while vegging out in front of the TV on Saturday and Sunday watching live. But as I got word of what had happened to UNI while still at the office, the wind was taken out of my sails. I didn’t watch any of the quarterfinal games when I got home Friday (although the Wandavision finale may have had something to do with that) and was only able to muster up enough enthusiasm Saturday to watch the last five minutes of the Drake-MSU game. I wanted to care, but I just didn’t. The outrage for UNI fans has been extreme, probably more than what is warranted. We may or may not have beaten Drake, but we weren’t likely to win the tournament. However that really wasn’t the point, at least for me. I just felt let down.
This is not going to be a “poo on Doug Elgin” article. You won’t get that rhetoric from me. To be clear, it was a colossal mistake by him and his staff that led to UNI being ejected from the tournament. It will also be an absolute shame if his career ends on perhaps his biggest mistake as commissioner. I have seen a lot of hate for Elgin on message boards over the years. It was especially strong coming from the purple and gold this weekend. But newer and more casual fans need to know that the MVC would not be what it is without Doug Elgin and the rest of the long-tenured staff that have spent the last two to three decades building the MVC into the best mid-major league in the country. For one, he created Arch Madness and he did it from essentially nothing. When Elgin took over, the Valley was a decent mid-major league with history. But it was struggling a bit as well. The conference tournament took place on campus sites and was a mediocre event that strongly favored the home team. From what I can tell, Doug Elgin almost single handedly created Arch Madness and made it a success through pure force of will. He saw it grow from a small event that drew just a handful of fans in 1991, to an event that drew a sellout crowd of 22,000 for the semifinals and finals in 2007. You can say what you want about how the event has not been what it used to be, but Arch Madness continues to be one of the premier conference tournaments in the country. Doug Elgin did that. He also took several steps that grew the league’s profile. I don’t think that the MVC has four bids in 2006 without Doug Elgin, nor do I think Creighton is in the Big East nor Wichita in the American without Elgin. I doubt UNI is in the Sweet 16 in 2010 without Elgin, nor do Wichita or Loyola make their runs to the Final Four. The work of Elgin and his staff set up the MVC to grow and get on a stage big enough to make those runs possible. He grew what was more-or-less the Horizon League into what it is today, and despite changes to membership and a consolidation of power amongst the P6 leagues the MVC continues to compete for multiple bids in the NCAA Tournament into 2021. In addition, the women’s league is as strong as it has ever been and has gotten in position to win high seeds and at-large bids, the league regularly garners multiple bids in baseball and volleyball, and the conference has seen growth throughout all of it sports. This for a league made up of midwestern regional public and small private universities mostly set up in rural areas. Quite frankly, the man deserves a statue outside the MVC offices for what has done for this league.
All that said, with possible big changes on the horizon there are a few topics I would like to talk about to end my manifesto here. One has had surprisingly little discussion in MVC circles, one has been talked about quite a bit, and one has been discussed to the point that I am probably beating a dead horse. Those topics are: the hiring of a new commissioner, location of the MVC Tournament, and league expansion (or lack thereof). I think the events of this weekend shine a light on the first topic, and that topic leads to a discussion of the other two. So, if you care at all what I think, take a look below.
Hiring of a New MVC Commissioner
While Elgin is retiring at the end of this academic year, several longtime members of his staff remain. I think this week’s incident illuminates a weakness the Valley has had for some time. When you have the same group of people doing the same thing over a long period of time complacency starts to creep in. Some of the decisions the MVC has made recently, from conservative choices in membership and expansion decisions, to a lack of consideration for any other MVC Tournament host city (among others) reek of complacency. As an example, fans still poke fun at the 2014 announcement of the renewal of the league tournament in St. Louis. The league got fans excited about an “historic announcement” coming the next day, blasting it all over social media. Excited fans spent the evening speculating what the big news could be. The next day, they tuned in for a press conference announcing that the historic announcement was that nothing was changing, and the tournament was staying in St. Louis for three more years. It was very emblematic of what the MVC has been for the last decade or so in many fans’ eyes. They do the easy thing that has worked in the past and are reactive rather than proactive. And I personally think that comes from the comfort the longtime league staff members have in the status quo. I don’t say that as an insult to those folks, either. What they have done has for the most part been successful! Arch Madness is still great. The league is still competitive. But an aversion to risk, over the long haul, is often what slowly weakens and kills a once-proud enterprise. The Valley has to have some element of forward thinking.
The hire of the new commissioner will be made by the league’s Presidents with input from their ADs. I don’t know what the league’s Presidents and ADs are thinking when it comes to candidates for the position, but I hope they are considering candidates outside the traditional MVC circle. It would be quite easy to promote from within or bring in someone with close ties to this longstanding MVC group. Patty Viverito, Elgin’s #2, has been with the league 29 years and already has commissioner experience as the MVFC and Pioneer League’s commissioner for the last 36 years. Jack Watkins has also been in the league 29 years, and Mike Kern has 30 years of MVC experience. They have done an outstanding job representing the league and raising the profile substantially in the last three decades. That said, I hope the league Presidents and ADs (who will be reading this I am sure) are considering outside the box candidates with their hire. People who bring in a new perspective, new blood and some new ideas. If you DO make an internal promotion, I hope the new commissioner has the foresight to bring in some new people with new perspectives into high-ranking positions to challenge them and bring in fresh ideas. It is good business. Anyone who has been in the business for 30+ years can’t be THAT far away from retirement themselves and it is only wise to bring in some new blood to maintain consistency down the road. The complacency of not determining contact tracing protocols, dipping attendance at Arch Madness, and losing members to other conferences is a symptom of comfortableness and complacency. We can continue to try to maintain the status quo, or we can roll the dice a little and try to keep the league relevant for years to come.
I want to make it very clear, I don’t mean to poo-poo Elgin, Viverito, Watkins, Kern or anyone else involved with the MVC. I understand the work they have done has made the MVC what it is, and they are experts at their jobs. I don’t want to take away from that at all. I only mean to say that this is an opportunity the league hasn’t had in three decades. I hope the membership takes it seriously and makes the best decision possible by seriously considering all the possible candidates for the position.
When the new commissioner arrives, there will be some interesting issues sitting along the periphery that they will have to look at. I’d like to take a look at a couple of them that could be addressed as possible changes or could be left alone. They have both been debated ad nauseum, but with a new commish on the way we have an opportunity to approach it with a fresh perspective.
Location of the League Tournament
As anyone reading this probably knows, the MVC Tournament has a proud tradition of 31 years in St. Louis. For most of that time the competition has been held at the Enterprise Center (as it is now known), home of the St. Louis Blues. There is certainly something to be said about the tradition of having your league tournament at the same site each year. There is a reason the traditional basketball schools of the Big East fought to retain the rights to the tournament at Madison Square Garden when the league split into two conferences. MSG is synonymous with the Big East, and Arch Madness and the MVC are the mid-major equivalent. Heck, it is in the name itself…..Arch Madness. The Loo has gone through many changes over the years but continues to be a good host for the tournament.
Now that I’ve said all that, I think it would be a good idea for the MVC to consider other host sites for the competition. I know this is a divisive issue among the fanbase. Some love the St. Louis experience and are fiercely loyal to the city. Arch Madness continues to be one of the best league tournaments in the country and if it isn’t broke don’t fix it, right? But for others, the experience has become stale. You go to the same hotel, go to the same bars, hit up the same restaurants and go to the same arena with the same concession stands year after year. The MVC has a great relationship with the city, as evidenced by the literal marriage between the two, but at times I think it can be too comfortable. While the league has made a big show of considering other sites in the past, one has to question just how seriously those other locations were considered. If you’re going to seriously consider another site, here are a few that I think make sense given the current membership of the conference. If we did pull the plug and make the change to one of these sites, I would suggest a year-to-year rotation that includes a few of these and St. Louis as well.
· Des Moines: As someone who was born and raised in Des Moines, I can tell you that the city would pull out all the stops in hosting the MVC Tournament. As fans who have attended the men's NCAA Tournament first and second rounds, women’s Sweet 16, or NCAA Wrestling Championships in Des Moines can tell you the city is a blast with a solid host venue and vibrant nightlife and would be an outstanding host. I think fans from other schools who haven’t had a lot of experience in Des Moines would come one time and be hooked by Wells Fargo Arena and the adjacent 6th/Court Avenue bar and restaurant scene. Des Moines is a bit of a geographic outlier relative to the locations of the current membership, but I don’t think much more than St. Louis is in a post Creighton and Wichita world. Is it fair to have the event in one school’s hometown? Maybe not. But I would argue that Southern Illinois (1 hour, 49 minutes), Bradley (2 hours, 29 minutes), Illinois State (2 hours, 27 minutes), Indiana State (2 hours, 34 minutes) Evansville (2 hours, 49 minutes), and Missouri State (3 hours, 21 minutes) have had an advantage for years over Drake and UNI (both ~5 hours 30 minutes) when it comes to Arch Madness geography. All I can say is that if I were made king of the college basketball world, my first move would be to put Des Moines in the MVC Tournament rotation and once other school’s fans experienced it, I believe they would have to admit they had a blast.
· Chicago: If you’re looking for a midwestern city that is relatively close to all the membership (except Missouri State) look no further than Chicago. SIU and MSU would be the only schools travelling significantly further for a Chicago MVC Tournament while most schools would have a similar if not shorter trip than they currently have to St. Louis. The United Center probably doesn’t make sense for the MVC Tourney as it is a far bigger facility than the league would need and it is not located in a prime place for food and drink before, between and after games. However, Chicago offers several other venues. DePaul’s (and the WNBA’s Chicago Sky's) new Wintrust Arena would be a great Arch Madness venue. The capacity of 10K is the perfect size for the event as it currently stands and it is located in the south loop near several hotels, restaurants and bars. It is also a half mile walk to the red line train which will take you downtown, to Wrigleyville or to Lincoln Park for your weekend debauchery. Another option is Northwestern’s newly renovated arena in Evanston, which is just off the train line as well. Allstate Arena in Rosemont is quite a distance from the city proper and kind of on its own, but it is a short Uber to the Chicago Dogs ballpark area with several restaurants and bars. The G-League’s Windy City Bulls play at NOW Arena in the suburb of Hoffman Estates as well.
· Indianapolis: If you’re going to go to Des Moines, you’ll likely have to counter it with something that is closer to the Indiana schools. As someone who has attended the Big Ten Tournament in Indianapolis multiple times (fun fact: my favorite Power 6 team is Northwestern), I can tell you that Indianapolis does an outstanding job hosting college basketball events. There is a reason the NCAA chose Indy to host this year’s big dance. Banker’s Life Fieldhouse is a beautiful arena and it is located in absolutely prime real estate in downtown Indianapolis. If you want bars and restaurants within an arms length, you would be hard pressed to find a better spot than Banker’s Life. If that arena was not available, Indiana Farmer’s Coliseum is an acceptable venue although the capacity probably isn’t what you’re looking for and it is not as nice or centrally located. Indianapolis is actually closer to several MVC schools than Chicago (the biggest exceptions being Loyola, obviously, and the Iowa schools), and would be a manageable drive for most.
· Kansas City: With Wichita and Creighton out of the MVC, this is an unlikely choice for an MVC tournament host city, but I am throwing MSU a bone with this inclusion. Anyone who has attended an event at Kansas City’s T-Mobile Center knows how much fun the Power and Light District can be before and after an event. It probably doesn’t make geographical sense for a league that is 100% east of KC, but if the event was held in Kansas City it would be a blast for the fans that attended.
There isn’t a perfect answer, and perhaps the best one is in fact to maintain the tradition of Arch Madness in St. Louis. But I encourage a good hard look by the new commissioner. A relocation of the event, tradition be damned, might just breathe new life into an already first-class tournament.
Unlike the rest of this write up, I wont get terribly long winded with this one as most MVC fans have discussed this ad nauseum and understand the situation. However, with a new commissioner entering the picture, it is worth taking another look at this issue. As we all know the MVC has been reactive rather than proactive with expansion, replacing teams one-for-one and looking at several factors beyond men’s basketball competitiveness when considering a replacement. There are merits to the ten-team model including easy logistics for all sports, ability to easily play a full round-robin, and more. While the MVC has been reactive, several other conferences have been proactive with their membership decisions. In the Midwest alone the Big Ten, Horizon and Summit have all actively added members when the opportunity arose. As the MVC has lost a little bit of its competitive edge with the recent defections of Creighton and Wichita, as evidenced by several consecutive one-bid seasons (hopefully ending this year), it is worth looking at some options that might help the league build strength.
We all know that Murray State expressed strong interest in joining the MVC during the last round of membership changes. The Racers have a strong program, strong tradition, and a strong fanbase. They would presumably still be interested in a move especially after the OVC took a membership hit this spring. Murray State is the kind of mid-major program that can move the needle. The Racers will bring fans to Arch Madness and help regularly improve the Valley’s chances at getting a better seed in the tournament or even multiple NCAA bids. In addition, with several other leagues expanding their conference schedules and sucking up opportunities for quality non-conference opponents, an expansion of the MVC schedule could be warranted. I would be in favor of adding Murray State and moving to a 20-game schedule, maintaining the double-round robin. I know this is easier said than done logistically. To do this, you essentially need to add four gamedays to the league calendar (accounting for the two extra games and two “byes” each squad would have due to the odd number of teams). This can be done by either playing multiple midweek games a few times each year or adding conference game weeks to the nonconference season. Both have been done before to some degree. The MVC used to have one week each year where teams played multiple midweek games to clear room on the schedule for for the ESPN bracket busters. Other leagues have added conference games randomly to the December schedule to cover for lost time (as the Big Ten did two years ago and MWC did last year due to their tournaments being moved up a week). It is awkward but manageable. You would probably need a combination of both strategies (adding a week of conference games to December and playing a couple extra midweek games) to get it done. For me, its worth it.
I think you make this move with the intention of moving to 12 teams at some point, but you keep that option open until the right fit reveals itself. After locking up Murray, you make another play for Belmont who didn’t have interest the last time around but may have changed their mind after seeing so many teams jump ship from the OVC. You also make a phone call to SLU to see if they want to make a more geographically/travel cost friendly (and quite frankly way more logical) move back to the MVC. Failing either of those you stick that 12th spot in your pocket, and you wait for the next midwestern mid-major power to reveal itself. When it does, you have your 12th team.
Alright, I think that is all I have to say. While this may seem like my big conclusion for the year, I am not done with MVC content. I’ll be following Loyola and hopefully Drake’s runs in the NCAA Tournament and I have an idea for a fun mid-major article next week after all the conference tournaments are done. Regardless, if you have made it this far, I want to thank you for reading my manifesto today and your support all season long. I have enjoyed writing out my thoughts and it has been awesome to see most of my stuff get 200-300 views (or more) and hear from people who say they enjoy reading every week. I hope to continue to do it into next year, but we’ll see what my life will allow. Until next week, go Valley!