On July 1, the Missouri Valley will have a new commissioner in Jeff Jackson who is currently the executive associate commissioner of the Big 12. While little is known about Jackson, I got the outside hire I wanted. Now we’ll see what his agenda will be for the league. He used the phrase “move the needle” in his press conference. It is a cliché that I really love. I hope that he takes the league in a new forward-thinking direction instead of the status quo type approach we have had recently. Let’s move the needle forward instead of trying to just keep it where it is. Jackson’s primary role at the Big 12 included oversight of basketball and the league tournament, both of which were likely huge draws for the hiring committee as men’s basketball and Arch Madness are points of pride for the league. The Big 12 Tournament has been in the same venue for over a decade, and I can tell you it is a very fun time. The Big 12 has also gone through some significant transformation in membership during Jackson’s tenure, although it has been the least aggressive of the power conferences in adding members. It is the only league that has chose to remain at ten institutions instead of expanding to twelve or fourteen (or fifteen). When asked about expansion, Jackson left the door open but did not make any definitive statement. Finally, Jackson’s name rhymes with “Jett Jackson”, of the Disney show from the aughts that bears his name. This was stuck in my head the entire day of his announcement.
How ‘bout those Ramblers? They’re doing it again. For the second time in three tournaments, the Ramblers are in the Sweet 16. And they’ll be the favorites, too, when they play 12th seeded Oregon State. Can Loyola actually make it to the Final Four again? With Illinois, West Virginia, Oklahoma State and Tennessee all out of their region it is a very real possibility. This Rambler team reminds me of another MVC team that knocked off a top seed to get to the Sweet 16. The Ramblers certainly have talented offensive pieces, but they win with their defense. And they had an outstanding defensive game plan against Illinois. I’ll take a great defense over a solid offense any day. Offense can be prone to a bad day, but defense can pretty much always be there. And a poor defense can make an ordinary opponent look extraordinary. Just ask Iowa. Oregon State may be a 12-seed, but they are no pushovers. They have won eight of nine games including wins over UCLA, Oregon, Colorado, Tennessee and Oklahoma State in their last five games. They will not be intimidated by the Ramblers. Nor will Loyola be intimidated by them. It’ll be the first Sweet 16 game on Saturday and I am looking forward to it. (Oh, and I didn’t even mention how sweet it is to beat an in-state rival who is too chickensh*t to play you during the regular season……but that too.)
Drake ran out of gas on Saturday, but that should not take away from what they were able to accomplish this season. First, let’s talk about that First Four game. They were carrying the MVC flag against Wichita State and even though they didn’t have a point guard and Tank Hemphill was clearly not 100% they found a way to outlast the Shockers. That was such a fun game. Drake has looked disorganized since the loss of Roman Penn. That is to be expected when you lose the heart of your offense with just two weeks left in the season. But that makes what they did all the more remarkable. They really looked lost offensively for most of the Wichita game, but they simply dug deep and found a way to get it done. Throw in the fact that it was the program’s first NCAA win in 50 years, and you have a hugely impressive accomplishment. Its just too bad we couldn’t see what they could have done had they been 100%. I think the Bulldogs we saw for most of the season could have beaten USC. But what they did was mighty impressive nonetheless, and Joseph Yesufu is a star in the making. He’ll pair nicely with Tucker Devries for the next few years. They’ve got something brewing down in the 515 if they can keep it all together. Kudos, Bulldogs.
There were five conferences outside the power six that got multiple bids this year and they were the five you would expect: the American, the West Coast, the Mountain West, the A-10 and of course the Missouri Valley. In a tournament that has thus far been defined by the number of stunning upsets we have seen, the performance by the top mid-major leagues has been disappointing. The Mountain West got trashed. Sixth seeded San Diego State got blown out by Syracuse in the first round, 78-62, and 11th-seeded Utah State got blown out by Texas Tech, 65-53. The A-10 was also a letdown. Saint Bonaventure got blown out by LSU in an 8/9 game, 76-61. VCU, seeded tenth, didn’t even get to take the court as several COVID positives forced them to forfeit to Oregon. BYU out of the WCC was one of the highest seeded mid-majors (at a 6) and also didn’t really show up, losing 73-62 to 11th seeded UCLA. The WCC is still represented in the Sweet 16 by Gonzaga, but they barely count as a mid-major and that was certainly no surprise. In the American, Wichita got knocked out in the First Four (yay) and 2nd seeded Houston required a furious rally to avoid a second-round upset to 10th seeded Rutgers. Only the Valley repped well with Drake getting the first-four win and Loyola advancing to the Sweet 16. Oral Roberts is the only other mid-major besides Loyola (and Houston and Gonzaga if they count) to get to the Sweet 16 in this tournament of upsets. But mids still fared better than the Big 10.
Speaking of the only mid-major league to represent, the MVC continues to defy the college basketball world and the low expectations placed upon them. For the last fifteen tournaments dating back to 2006, the MVC has a combined NCAA Tournament record of 29-22 (and counting). This, despite the fact that MVC squads have worn white in the first round just ten times in 24 appearances. They were expected, based on seed, to make the Sweet 16 just twice. But they have done so eight times. If the league’s combined record followed their seeds, the MVC would have been 14-24 in tournament games since ‘06. But the league has actually won at twice that rate with a 29-23 record. That includes a top seeded Wichita team going 1-1 in 2014. If you omit that one squad the anticipated record is 10-23, and the actual record is 28-22, for nearly three times the Ws as expected. According the MVC website, since 1994 Valley members have “beaten the following teams from “power” conferences in the NCAAs: Alabama, Arizona, Cincinnati, Florida, Georgia, Georgia Tech, Illinois (twice), Indiana, Kansas (three times), K-State, Louisville, Miami (Fla.), Ohio State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State, Pittsburgh (twice), Seton Hall, Tennessee (four times), Texas, Texas Tech, UCLA, Virginia Tech, Vanderbilt, and Wisconsin”. Also, from those notes is this tid-bit (updated by me to reflect games played since its publication), “The NCAA used a seeding process for the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 1979. Since then, the league has had teams seeded No. 9 or worse 48 times, including this season. Those 48 teams have combined for 29 tournament victories, seven Sweet 16 appearances and two Final Fours. Since 1994, the MVC has posted 14 NCAA Tournament first-round wins as a lower-seeded team.” But please, keep underestimating the Valley.
-The women’s teams were at it as well this weekend. There was a whopping six MVC women’s teams participating in the postseason. Loyola, despite a losing record, participated in the WBI where they finished 7th of eight teams after losing to Stetson and Manhattan before beating Abilene Christian. Three Valley squads participated in the WNIT. Drake got blown out by Milwaukee in the first round (before rallying for two consolation wins), and Illinois State lost in round one to Tulane (before splitting a pair of consolation wins). UNI, however, has made some noise. The Panthers advance to the WNIT Final Four next weekend after beating Dayton, Creighton (they beat both “aytons”) and Saint Louis. UNI’s second round win over Creighton was notable in that they beat the Blue Jays by one point on a late basket by Emerson Green (sister of AJ Green). UNI will play Ole Miss in the semifinals on Friday. In the NCAAs, Bradley (who, to be honest, advanced to the big dance somewhat inauspiciously) were handled by Texas in an 6/11 game, 81-62. The Valley’s best team plays on, however. A 5th seed in the Alamo region, the MSU Lady Bears handled 12th seed UC-Davis 70-51. MSU has a legitimate shot at the Sweet 16 as they’ll take on 13th seeded Wright State at the historic Convocation Center (home of the UTSA Roadrunners) in round two at 2pm on Wednesday. Wright State upset Arkansas in round one.
We are nearing the end of March and MVC basketball is still alive and well. You love to see it! Good luck to the Ramblers, Lady Bears and UNI women as they continue to play in their competitions!