By Kevin Sweeney
With Wichita State departing the Missouri Valley Conference for the American Athletic Conference earlier this month, “The Valley” has a big question to answer:
“Do we need to add more teams?”
The answer to that question is most certainly “yes”. In a time in which it is harder than ever for mid-majors to get at-large bids (as the MVC saw itself this season with Illinois State), losing your premiere program without replacing it would be disastrous for the long-term future of the league. Without Wichita State, the Missouri Valley seems destined to be a one-bid league the vast majority of years unless it can add more teams to the fray.
So, who could join the Missouri Valley?
Murray State seems like the most likely candidate to join the MVC. In yesterday’s Board of Regents meeting, the school’s president and athletic director both made it sound like it would seriously consider accepting an invitation to the MVC should it receive one. Murray State has great fan support, is a “basketball school”, and consistently produces a winning product. It would also maintain the current split between public and private institutions in the Missouri Valley. However, it would add significant costs in travel and would require stepping away from a conference they have been the premiere program in for a long time. From the MVC’s perspective, adding Murray State wouldn’t really expand the conference’s reach into larger media markets.
Another very logical potential addition, Valparaiso shares many of the same qualities as Murray State (other than being a private school). Valpo has been a model for mid-majors over the past 2 decades, with consistent success done the right way. In recent years, we’ve seen the Crusaders put together some incredible seasons, just to fall in their conference tournament and be left out of the Field of 68 on Selection Sunday. With a move to the Missouri Valley from the Horizon League, an at-large bid would become much more possible. I believe that Valparaiso would accept an invitation if one were to be extended.
UWM is a relatively new candidate to join the discussion. However, they make a ton of sense as an MVC addition. For the Panthers, it would provide the opportunity to re-energize a fan base that has been frustrated over the past few seasons. And while UWM may seem like a questionable addition from a basketball perspective given their 11-24 mark this season, it wasn’t long ago that the Panthers went to 3 NCAA Tournaments in 4 years and have won 19 or more games 9 times in the last 15 seasons. For the MVC, UWM would allow the conference to expand into the Milwaukee media market, which could provide increased revenue.
Early in the process, it seemed like Belmont was a frontrunner to leave the Ohio Valley and join the Missouri Valley. Momentum for a move has seemed to halt in recent days, for reasons detailed by this article in the Tennessean by Mike Organ. However, it’s a move that makes sense from a strictly basketball perspective. Like Valparaiso, Belmont has been hit hard over the years with losses in their conference tournament. That hasn’t taken away from how Rick Byrd has produced a perennial power, having won at least 20 games in all but one season since 2005.
A Mystery Candidate
It’s entirely possible that a candidate could come out of left field to join the league and leave the college basketball world shocked. St. Louis is the ideal choice, though I don’t see a scenario in which they leave the Atlantic 10. If the MVC is looking to expand into larger markets, Denver could makes sense, as could Nebraska-Omaha. North Dakota State has also been briefly mentioned in connection with the MVC, with South Dakota State often mentioned with them in order to ease the travel burden adding just one of them would cause.
How many teams will the Missouri Valley add?
This is perhaps the essential question to be asked, and it’s one without a “right” answer. Remaining at 9 teams makes very little sense in my mind, as it would leave the conference weakened in a time in perhaps the most important time in its history. However, that doesn’t mean the MVC couldn’t test 9 teams for a couple of years to see how it works out.
Adding one additional team to bring the total back to ten would be the simplest solution. The conference’s scheduling, tournament, and revenue sharing system could all remain in tact, with the new member swapping with Wichita State.
Two additional teams to bring the total to 11 could work as well. However, going to eleven teams might create more problems than solutions. For one, it would cause there to be an unbalance between public and private schools in the conference. Additionally, it becomes very difficult to fit 20 conference games in if the MVC wants to continue to play its conference tournament the first weekend in March (avoiding media conflicts with power conferences). To fit all those games in, more midweek games (lower attendance and ratings) or playing a pair of conference games in December would likely be necessary. Also, by playing 20 conference games, MVC teams would be playing shorter non-conference schedules, which could hurt their strength of schedules.
The final option is adding 3 teams, which would leave the Missouri Valley with 12 teams. This approach makes a lot of sense, as it would allow the conference to grow its reach and add multiple top mid-major programs to its ranks. However, the plan is not without its flaws. Revenue would have to be divided up into smaller segments than the current members are used to. The hope would be that bringing in additional teams would bring in enough more revenue to the league to at least offset that difference, but it would still be a smaller piece of the pie. It would also lead to not being able to have a traditional round-robin schedule with every team playing each other twice. Instead, the MVC would likely go to the division system.
So, What Should the Missouri Valley Do?
Here’s my proposal: add Murray State, Valparaiso, and UW-Milwaukee. That strengthens the league with a pair of currently successful mid-majors in Murray State & Valpo, while adding a high-upside program in UWM that is located in a large market. Divide the programs into two divisions by geography to play an 16 game conference schedule (play teams in division twice and outside division once). Here’s an idea of how the conference would look, thanks to PantherU.com on Twitter.
What do you think the Missouri Valley should do? Comment below or send me a tweet (handle is @CBB_Central)!
Note: The original article stated that a 12-team conference would play 18 games, it would actually play 16. It also stated that the Missouri Valley would have an even public/private split, which it wouldn’t.