Basketball coaches know October predictions of which teams will reach the NCAA tournament probably aren't worth the paper they're printed on or the Internet memory they displace.
Still, it chafes Evansville coach Marty Simmons and some of his Missouri Valley brethren to see some “experts” already predicting that the conference will be a one-bid league in 2013.
“I think the league this year can be as good or better than it was last year,” Simmons said. “I've never looked at the Missouri Valley as a one-team league. With the coaches and players we have and the environments in which we play and the success we've had, it warrants more than one bid.”
Last March, the Valley ended a streak of four straight seasons in which it placed only its conference tournament champion in the NCAA field. Regular-season champion Wichita State and tournament winner Creighton both advanced to NCAA play.
The Valley, which finished the season eighth in the RPI, would have had a third team in had Illinois State hung on to defeat Creighton in the tournament final. The Redbirds squandered a late lead and lost 83-79 in overtime.
Illinois State is one of several Valley teams that return almost every major contributor from last season. The Redbirds lost only point guard Nic Moore, who transferred to Southern Methodist after Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich became an assistant coach at the Texas school.
Creighton also needs only replace point guard Antoine Young from its regular 10-man rotation. Northern Iowa has everyone back but guard Johnny Moran and is bolstered by the addition of a pair of redshirts and Nate Buss, a sharpshooting big man who missed all but two games last season with a broken arm.
“The league is going to be a bear,” Bradley coach Geno Ford said. “We're coming off a very good year, and things look like they're on an upswing. A lot of teams have a lot of players back, and the one that lost the most did a great job of recruiting.”
Ford was referring to Wichita State, which lost five key contributors to the 27-win team that went 16-2 in league play last season. Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall has said this is the best recruiting class he's had in seven seasons at the Kansas school.
Of course, this is the time of year in which every team is optimistic, including a Bradley squad that won only seven games in Ford's debut season in Peoria. It's also a time for posturing for perception.
The Valley will get a chance to back up its talk beginning next month when several of its teams embark on what figure to be challenging nonconference schedules. Most of the teams appear to have strengthened their out-of-league schedules, thanks to the prodding of Commissioner Doug Elgin.
Elgin was instrumental in getting the league to adopt scheduling guidelines in the spring of 2011 that are being implemented this season. A weak schedule comes with financial penalties as schools that don't meet the standards will be docked a portion of the conference's NCAA tournament payouts.
All of the Valley teams are playing in multiple-team events, the catchphrase for what used to be referred to as exempt tournaments.
“Those opportunities are critical because they give you a chance to play high-major teams with good records and profiles often on a neutral court,” Elgin said. “We have implemented some scheduling guidelines and policies that have financial repercussions.
“I think you will see a gradual strengthening of nonconference schedules, and I think the league is on a tremendous upsurge.”
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Northern Iowa will play in a tournament in the Virgin Islands that will have it facing No. 2 Louisville in the opening round, followed by a game against either Missouri or Stanford. Duke, Memphis, VCU and Minnesota are on the other side of the bracket.
Creighton will play Wisconsin and either Arizona State or Arkansas in Las Vegas. Indiana State opens the season at UCLA and plays in a tournament with teams such as Mississippi, San Diego State and San Francisco. Illinois State, which under Jankovich was known for playing a light nonconference schedule, will play at Louisville and also will face Northwestern and Dayton.
“We have a number of teams in our league this year that have difficult schedules that give them an opportunity to get quality wins that help you get at-large bids,” said Dan Muller, who replaces Jankovich at Illinois State. “I think that will help the profile of our conference.”
Muller, who had been an assistant at Vanderbilt, played on the Redbirds' last NCAA-qualifying team in 1998.
“The tournament is something we obviously want to be involved with and it's something we expect to be in contention for,” Muller said. “The way to get that done is to get better every day.”
Muller said he would be surprised if two or three Valley teams didn't make the tournament. Elgin puts the number at three or more.
He points to the depth that several league teams possess as a positive. He points to the star power of individual players, such as Creighton's Doug McDermott. He is the only returning first-team All-American and this week was named to the Associated Press preseason All-America squad.
The other eight players who received consideration for the Valley's preseason all-league team, Elgin said, make for a strong supporting cast.
“It's as strong a cast of players as we have had in the 25 years I've been in the Missouri Valley,” Elgin said.
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