EVERY MVC SCHOOL’S BEST BASKETBALL TEAM OF THE 21ST CENTURY
Updated: Dec 29, 2020
The twenty-first century has been pretty good to the Missouri Valley Conference. We’ve seen multiple Final Fours and a plethora of Sweet 16s. Arch Madness has grown into one of the best league tournaments in the nation, with its Championship Game broadcast on National TV. The league now enjoys a TV deal that gets a number of games on TV, and every game available online. Most every team has had at least one shining moment, and some have had a lot of great success. Today we are going to look back at the last 20 years and pick out each MVC school’s best team. I’ll also briefly talk about some of the other options that just missed. Finally, I’ll be ranking the teams from ten to one overall because I just can’t help myself, I love a list.
Fun fact, there are a couple of schools who used to play in the MVC in this century but left for other conferences. Who knew?
-2012-13 Creighton Blue Jays: It was tough to pick the Blue Jays’ best team because all their good ones sort of run together, but I ultimately had to go with their final MVC season. They won the MVC regular season and tournament titles, finished the season ranked in the top 25, were seeded 7th in the big dance, and won an NCAA Tournament game. They were also led by first-team All-American and the Valley’s Benedict Arnold (yes, I am fully aware how silly that is to say) Doug McDermott. Even into their Big East years, Creighton has had a lot of solid seasons but none really stand out among the crowd. I also considered the 01-02 team and the 11-12 team that won NCAA Tournament games. CU has been very consistent but is still looking for the true breakout banner year.
-2013-14 Wichita State Shockers: The Shockers had a very good 17 seasons in the MVC this century. They qualified for the NCAAs seven times, the NIT five times and won an NIT title. Curiously, Wichita made it to the NCAAs each of their final six years of their Valley residence including grabbing a #1 seed and a Final Four, in separate seasons, despite the league “holding them back”. I’m sure they’ve been much more successful since their move to the American. I went with the undefeated and top-seeded Shocker team over the Final Four team because I think the consistent success of winning every single regular season game (and losing a barnburner in to the eventual national runner-up) is more impressive than an admittedly solid run to the Final Four the year earlier. But both are impressive (he had to make sure he said before the rage of Shockernation fell upon him). I do not miss them.
OK now that we got the technicalities out of the way, let’s get to the real teams.
10.) 2019-20 Valparaiso Crusaders (19-16, 9-9, 7th in the MVC, Arch Madness Runner-Up, No Postseason): Valpo gets a pass because they’ve only been in the league for three years. They still have two more tries to make the Final Four before they’re considered failures. Sorry fellas, Loyola set the bar. That isn’t to say this team doesn’t deserve praise. They fought through adversity for much of the year and ended up making an historic Arch Madness run to the title game as the seven seed. They’ll forever stand as the first team to play their way to the championship game out of the play-in round in the long and storied history of the event. The performance was their coming-of-age moment in the MVC, and it cemented them as legitimate Valley members. -Also Considered: Both of Valpo other MVC teams were garbage, however there are a number of other 20th century Valpo teams worth mentioning. They were running a Horizon League dynasty at the ARC just before their move to the MVC. They won league titles five out of their last six years in the league with two NCAA Tournament appearances and three NIT bids. They also won the Summit League (then Mid-Continent) every season from 1995 through 2004 with seven NCAA Tournament bids and a Sweet 16 in that period. The best of the group may have been the 15-16 team that didn’t even make the NCAAs, but finished 16-2 in the Horizon, won 30 games overall, and made a run to the NIT title game at Madison Square Garden.
9.) 2015-16 Evansville Purple Aces (25-9, 12-6, 2nd in the MVC, Arch Madness Runner-Up, No Postseason): Evansville had some pretty good teams in the years just prior to the start of the 20th century, but the last 20 years have been devoid of much to celebrate for the purple and orange. The Aces have not qualified for the NCAAs or the NIT during this period, but came closest in 2016 when DJ Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius led them to 25 wins and a second place finish. From there the Aces cruised to their only MVC title game appearance of the 20th century, where they lost on the only championship winning buzzer beater in league history, because of course they did. They were tragically left out of the NIT, and chose to end their season there leaving this team without a postseason. Despite that, it was easily the best Evansville team of the century so far. Hopefully it wont hold up for the next 80 years.
-Also considered: The only other UE team worth considering is the 14-15 team which played with much the same roster as the 15-16 team mentioned above. They finished with 24 wins and a CIT title, bringing at least some form of post-9/11 hardware home to southwest Indiana. The title was probably the reason why the superior 15-16 team chose not to play in a third-tier tournament as they really had nothing to prove there. It also should be mentioned that UE had an NCAA Tournament team that missed this list by two years, and won a crapload of D2 titles in the 50s, 60s and 70s.
8.) 2010-11 Missouri State Bears (26-9, 15-3, 1st in the MVC, Arch Madness Runners Up, NIT Second Round): Missouri State has not qualified for the NCAA Tournament in the last 20 years, but that doesn’t mean we haven’t seen quality basketball out of the Ozarks. MSU brought some quality teams to the table in the Barry Hinson years, but I ultimately went with Cuonzo Martin’s 2010-11 MVC regular season championship squad that went 15-3 in the MVC. Led by MVC Player of the Year Kyle Weems, the Bears made a run to the title game of Arch Madness where they lost to Indiana State. They had to settle for an NIT berth where they beat Murray State before losing to Miami (FL).
-Also considered: The 2005-06 team had to settle for an NIT bid despite finishing 3rd in a four-bid MVC. Camera crews were on site to watch the Bears’ celebration when their name was called on Selection Sunday, which was a sad cautionary tale for all bubble teams moving forward. They still have one of the best RPIs for a team left out of the dance in NCAA history. The 2006-07 may have been better in many ways, although they didn’t sniff the NCAAs. Also, it should be noted that if the timeline of this list were extended two years Mo State could claim a Sweet 16 team from the Steve Alford era.
7.) 2000-01 Indiana State Sycamores (22-11, 10-8, 5th in the MVC, Arch Madness Champions, NCAA 13 Seed, Beat 4-seed Oklahoma, Lost in 2nd Round to Gonzaga): This was a very tough one, but I ultimately went with the 2001 Indiana State team that had a few special moments despite finishing fifth in the league. The first thing that differentiated this team was that they beat Indiana which had to have been awesome but also ruined their chances of playing them ever again because Big Ten teams are sissies when it comes to scheduling. They lost six of eight to end the year as the 5-seed, but picked it back up for Arch Madness beating SIU, Creighton and Bradley to win the title. They were the lowest seed ever to win the title (a record matched in 2019 but still not broken) and were the lowest to even make the title game (a record broken in 2019 and again in 2020). Then they knocked off 4th seed Oklahoma in the NCAA Tournament before falling in the second round to Gonzaga. That for me is what put them over the top in these rankings.
-Also Considered: The 2010-11 team also made the NCAAs, winning Arch Madness as 3-seed, but was one of the weakest MVC NCAA Tournament teams of the century. The best team may actually have been the 2013-14 Jake Odum team which was only able to qualify for the NIT as the 2nd place MVC team, but probably would have won the league had they not run into the undefeated Wichita buzz saw. Also you can’t have any list of greatest Indiana State teams without mentioning Larry Bird and the 1979 National Runner Up team. So mentioned.
6.) 2016-17 Illinois State Redbirds (28-7, 17-1, 1st in the MVC, Arch Madness Runners Up, NIT Second Round): It was tough to choose just one squad from the plethora of near-miss Illinois State NIT teams of the last 20 years. However, the 2016-17 team stood out as they more-or-less dominated the Valley to the tune of 17-1, splitting the league title with Wichita State. They made a run to the Valley title game where they lost badly to the eventual top-20 Shockers. Despite humorous politicking from head Coach Dan Mueller for an NCAA bid, Illinois State ended up a 1-seed in the NIT where the three-headed monster of McIntosh-Lee-Hawkins lost a heartbreaker to UCF at Redbird Arena after an….uh…..questionable foul call with 1.3 seconds to go.
-Also Considered: Take your pick of any one of Illinois State’s NIT teams of the last 15 years, although the 2008 team that won 13 league games and 25 overall does stand out a bit.
5.) 2005-06 Bradley Braves (22-11, 11-7, 5th in the MVC, Arch Madness Runners Up, NCAA 13-Seed, Beat 4-Seed Kansas and 5-Seed Pittsburgh, lost to top seed Memphis in Sweet 16): Bradley enjoys a strong history and great fan support, but their success in the 20th century has been few and far between. The high point came in the 05-06 season when the MVC controversially got four teams into the dance. Bradley, after finishing 5th in the MVC and (after beating top seed Wichita State in the semifinals) losing to 2nd seed SIU in the final at Arch Madness, faced Kansas in the first round of the dance. The Braves not only handled Kansas but also sent the Pitt Panthers home two days later to head to the Sweet 16 where they ultimately lost to top-seed Memphis. The team featured NBA-bound Patrick O’Bryant, and a bunch of other guys who were not NBA bound.
-Also Considered: Bradley also won Arch Madness in 2019 and 2020, but this was clearly their best team. They also have the odd distinction of coming in second in the CBI and CIT in consecutive years in ’08 and ’09. The 06-07 team was good enough to get an NIT bid. Bradley was also very good in the 50s and 60s with multiple NIT titles and a couple NCAA runner-ups, and had some solid years in the 80s.
4.) 2007-08 Drake Bulldogs (28-5, 15-3, 1st in the MVC, Arch Madness Champions, NCAA 5-Seed, Lost First Round to Western Kentucky in OT on a buzzer-beater): For some schools on this list, it was difficult to decide which team to pick as their best. Drake was not one of those schools. The best Drake team of the 20th century was, by far, the 2007-08 edition that was led by coach Keno Davis in his lone season at Drake. Larry Bird Trophy winner Adam Emmenecker played a significant role as well, one might say. The Bulldogs were ranked as high as #14 in the nation at one point, cruised to an in-state sweep of Iowa, Iowa State and UNI, won the league by two games and dominated Arch Madness. They lost a heartbreaker in the dance to 12-seeded Western Kentucky as they made a wild buzzer beater to upset the ‘Dogs. The crazy thing about this team was how they just completely came out of nowhere. None of their players were highly regarded. They only returned one starter. But the group came together and just dominated.
-Also Considered: This was obviously the best Drake team of the last 20 years by a wide margin. It hasn’t been a great century for Drake, although the program does appear to be on the up-and-up lately. They did win a share of the league title in 18-19 despite going 12-6. And it should be noted that Drake made three straight elite eight appearances in the late 60s and early 70s including a nice run to the Final Four in 1969.
3.) 2006-07 Southern Illinois Salukis (29-7, 15-3, 1st in the MVC, Arch Madness Runners Up, NCAA 4-Seed, Beat Holy Cross and Virginia Tech before losing to top seed Kansas by 3 in the Sweet 16): All of SIU’s best squads come from the early part of the century. Their best effort was probably the 2006-07 season. This was the epitome of the SIU “Floorburn U” era. MVC Player of the Year Jamal Tatum, Randall Falker and future SIU coach Bryan Mullins led the team to the MVC regular season title. Despite a loss to Creighton in the MVC title game, SIU was ranked #13 in the nation and received a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament where they knocked off Holy Cross and Virginia Tech before narrowly losing to top-seeded Kansas in the Sweet 16. SIU also toppled the likes of Minnesota, Virginia Tech and Saint Mary’s during the regular season. We didn’t know it at the time, but this would be SIU’s last hurrah. They haven’t been to the NCAAs or NIT since.
-Also considered: The 2001-02 team had a very similar season, beating Iowa State and Indiana in the noncon, winning the MVC regular season, losing to Creighton at the Arch Madness Finals and getting to the Sweet 16. The 02-03 team went 16-2 in the league, and the 03-04 team nearly had a perfect season only falling on the final game to go 17-1. They made six consecutive tournaments from ‘02 to ‘07.
2.) 2009-10 Northern Iowa Panthers (30-5, 15-3, 1st in the MVC, Arch Madness Champions, NCAA 9-Seed, Beat UNLV and top-seed Kansas to advance to the Sweet 16 where they lost to Michigan State): The UNI Panthers have had more than their share of success this century and have a few teams solid seasons to choose from. But to me the 09-10 team is the choice. This is a team that was “led” by MVC POY Adam Koch, but really the name-of-the-game was team defense. UNI played defense in 2010 at a level I had never seen before or since. The Panthers were defending league regular season and tournament champions and returned all five starters from the year before. They cruised through the regular season sweeping in-state rivals Iowa, Iowa State and Drake, and winning the league by 3 games. The Panthers were rated as high as #19 in the polls during the season (they finished the season at #13). UNI dominated Arch Madness as well, winning each game by at least 15 points and holding opponents to an average of 44 points a game. An underseeded nine-seed, UNI won a close one over #8 UNLV before shocking the nation by knocking out the #1 overall seed Kansas. Despite the loss to Michigan State in the Sweet 16, this team left their mark on college basketball history.
-Also considered: UNI has had several seasons that would likely top the lists of many of the other MVC teams. The most noteworthy would be 2014-15 when they were led by conference POY Seth Tuttle to a 16-2 league record and 31-4 overall, spending most of the year ranked (as high as 10, finished 13), and getting a 5-seed in the dance where they lost in the second round. UNI also had a team that spent much of the year in the top 25 in 05-06, a team that got to the NCAA second round in 15-16, and a team that won the league and had an MVC POY in 2019-20 (as well as three other NCAA teams and an NIT team). Unlike other teams on this list, however, UNI does not have a great history in the previous century. This list hits right in their wheelhouse. If the time period were extended it would likely look very different.
1.) 2017-18 Loyola Ramblers (32-6, 15-3, 1st in the MVC, Arch Madness Champions, NCAA 11-Seed, Beat Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State to qualify for the Final Four which they lost to Michigan): There can be no doubt that the greatest MVC season of the 20th century (by a current MVC team) belongs to the 2017-18 Final Four Loyola Ramblers. If you put all of these teams into an MVC season and played it out, would the Ramblers win? Maybe, maybe not. (Blog Idea: Put all these teams into an MVC season and play it out). But that doesn’t matter. Loyola did something that is a pipe dream for mid-major schools. Led by Valley POY Clayton Kuster (and future Valley POY Marques Townes) the Ramblers had a solid noncon that was highlighted by a win over #5 Florida. They won the MVC relatively easily, and won Arch Madness with some difficulty. It was a good season for Loyola, who had very little to celebrate for about 30 years prior, but we had no idea what it would elevate into. First, it was a close, exciting two-point last-second win over 6-seed Miami. Then, it was another close one-point win over 3rd seeded Tennessee. The Ramblers got another one-point win in the Sweet 16 over Nevada, and then beat 9th seeded K-State relatively easily to book their spot in the Final Four. The loss to Michigan in the Final Four did not dampen this amazing MVC season, which gave hope to all the other MVC teams as to what was possible.
-Also Considered: None. This was the easiest decision I have ever made in my life. Loyola did win the CBI one year and did go to the NIT the two years ago after sharing the league title. But nope. This is the one. Although in the spirit of the article I do feel compelled to point out their 1963 National Title.
And there is the list! What did I mess up, Valley fans? Let me know. I am seriously curious.