The big six in basketball is now the big seven.
Mock if you must, but the Missouri Valley has every right to claim the vacant, and seemingly ever-evolving, seventh spot among the top conferences in the country.
Sure, when Conference USA, was well, the original C-USA, with Bob Huggins-led Cincinnati, Louisville, Marquette and Charlotte as the leaders of the pack, the debate was over. C-USA owned a spot at the big table next to the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-10, SEC and Big 12. But since the conference's breakup, that spot is up for grabs.
C-USA now essentially is Memphis and everyone else, with only one NCAA bid for the league not out of the question in any given year. The Atlantic 10 went one-bid twice in the last five seasons, including immediately after sending four teams to the dance and two to the Elite Eight in 2004. The Mountain West put only one team in the NCAAs in 2001. The WAC had only one in 2003.
Meanwhile, the Valley has gone multiple-bids in every season since 1999, with three in '99 and 2005 before last season's record four NCAA teams (and six in contention for berths). Better yet, the Valley put two teams (Bradley and Wichita State) in the Sweet 16. That's the third time since 1999 that the Valley has been in the Sweet 16 (Missouri State in '99 and Southern Illinois in 2002).
This season? The Valley tips off with three potential Top 25 teams -- Creighton, Wichita State and Southern Illinois and the TV package is at an all-time high, with 23 games on ESPN (not counting BracketBusters). Four seasons ago, according to MVC commissioner Doug Elgin, the Valley had a four-game package on ESPN. Also, the Valley conference title game will be on CBS for the second straight season.
"We've earned our way," Elgin said. "We felt a bit of the pressure last year, with the CBS talent talking about our Valley teams, and [the teams] stepped up and defended the league's honor. We're at a point where the league is one to be reckoned with."
To that end, Elgin said he doesn't really care whether or not the Valley is considered to be with the BCS conferences in basketball.
"It's almost irrelevant," Elgin said of the Valley's place in the college basketball landscape among conferences that play Division I-A football. "A lot of people think we're a flash in the pan, but year in and year out, we've had three or more teams in play for the [NCAA] Tournament."
But the Valley is hardly some new league crashing the big boys' party. Sure, the last Valley team to be in the Final Four was Larry Bird's Indiana State squad in 1979, but the Valley just celebrated its 100-year anniversary. It has had plenty of members during its century of basketball, including current Big 12 teams Oklahoma, Nebraska, Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State, all of which broke away in 1927.
"Name a Midwestern school and it might have been in the Valley," Elgin said. "Our teams are local treasures."
He's right. The passion for these schools in Omaha (Creighton), Wichita (Wichita State), Carbondale (Southern Illinois), Peoria (Bradley), Springfield (Missouri State) and Cedar Falls (Northern Iowa) is as intense as it is at most major conference sites, if not more. Elgin said there are sponsors and legions of fans that cross generations.
Part of the reason that the Valley is hanging around the top seven now is that it can keep the top coaches. Sure, Greg McDermott bolted UNI for Iowa State because his salary doubled, but the norm might end up being more like at Creighton and Wichita, where Dana Altman and Mark Turgeon, respectively, have pulled themselves out of job searches when their universities offered them $750,000 a year.
"Dana refused to go for the money and now he's making the kind of money he could anyplace else," Elgin said. "He stays in our league where he can stay in the top three or four and be in the postseason every year, plays in front of an arena that fills 18,000. Turgeon is in the same situation, filling his place (10,000). And now we've got the Bruce Weber coaching tree at Southern Illinois, too."
A new arena also is popping up at Northern Iowa and one is in the works at Missouri State.
Last season, the Valley found itself in the middle of a media firestorm concerning the RPI, as a number of its teams maintained computer rankings higher than their perceived level of ability. Elgin claims he doesn't have some mystery solution to the RPI, noting that the Valley's 73-33 non-conference Division I record last season speaks for itself.
"People were tired of hearing about the Missouri Valley," Elgin said. "But the reason we're so good is that we won most of the games we should win, [and] the games we might win, we won, too. We lost almost no games against the bottom 150 teams across the board."
The key now will be whether the bottom of the league, programs such as Indiana State and Illinois State, can climb higher, although even bottom-half clubs such as Evansville and Drake have had their share of wins that drew attention to the league. The balance from No. 1 through 10 is still as competitive as any league in the country, with every home court a tough spot. There are no easy wins in this league, which is another measure that makes it a legit member of the elite seven leagues in the country.
"We're not like any other league. We're unique," said Elgin, knowing that the Valley's schools aren't household names. "I'm not offended if someone calls us a mid-major because arguably we're the best mid-major [conference]. I don't like the name, but that's fine. Just look at the recruits coming in here. We're getting top-notch [recruits]. You can say we're in an elite group of conferences."
That's right, we can say it. We just did. The Valley has arrived and it's not going anywhere. So deal.
Andy Katz is a senior writer for ESPN.com.