ST. LOUIS -- Last year, the NCAA men's basketball committee told us the Missouri Valley Conference was as good as the ACC. How else to explain how the upstart mid-major conference from the Midwest had as many teams in the NCAA Tournament as the league that has long been considered one of college basketball's best conferences, if not the best?
But a year after four MVC teams made the NCAA Tournament, and after MVC schools Wichita State and Bradley crashed the Sweet 16 party, MVC commissioner Doug Elgin sat courtside Saturday at Scottrade Center wondering whether his 10-school league would get only half as many teams in this year's NCAA Tournament when the 65-team field is announced March 11.
The results from Saturday's semifinals of the MVC tournament couldn't have been worse for the league: Top seed Southern Illinois beat No. 4 seed Bradley 53-51 on forward Matt Shaw's tip-in with three seconds left, then No. 2 seed Creighton roughed up No. 3 seed Missouri State 75-58 in the second semifinal.
Now, the Salukis and Bluejays are the only MVC teams that seem guaranteed of receiving NCAA at-large bids, regardless of the outcome of Sunday's MVC tournament championship game between the schools. Going into the tournament affectionately known as Arch Madness, both the Braves and Bears probably needed to at least reach the championship game to receive an NCAA at-large bid, or win the tournament to claim the league's automatic berth.
After failing to do so, it will be eight long, agonizing days for both losing teams in the MVC tournament semifinals. And the MVC, a league Elgin still describes as the "little engine that could," might have a lost a lot of its steam.
"I feel very strongly that the league is better this year than it was a year ago," Elgin said. "We learned a year ago that RPI rankings aren't the be-all, end-all. While our RPI rankings might not be as strong, I think our profiles exceed what we had a year ago. I think Missouri State is a better basketball team than they were a year ago."
"I feel better this year than I did last year. Knowing what I know from last year, I'm more optimistic going into the selections this year based on our body of work compared to last year's. The only thing that we don't have that we had last year is our RPI number, which we're coming to find out doesn't mean a lot."
-- Missouri State coach Barry Hinson
But can Elgin convince the NCAA committee the Bears are better than they were last season? A year ago, Missouri State was 21st in the RPI but was left out of the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the Bears were the highest-rated team in the RPI ever left out of the NCAA field.
Last season, Missouri State finished 22-9 (12-6 MVC) and went 3-5 against the four MVC teams (Bradley, Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Wichita State) that were invited to the NCAA Tournament. But the Bears also had a dearth of impressive nonconference victories, as their best nonleague win came against Wisconsin-Milwaukee and the majority came against low-level teams such as Arkansas State, Georgia Southern and Northern Illinois.
Missouri State coach Barry Hinson beefed up his team's nonconference schedule this season, and the Bears upset Wisconsin 66-64 on a neutral court in November. The Bears lost to Oklahoma State in overtime, long before the Cowboys choked away their postseason hopes, and won at South Florida, one of the worst teams in the Big East. Missouri State's worst nonconference loss came against Saint Louis, a game that ended in controversy when the Billikens appeared to tip in the game-winning shot after the buzzer.
But the Bears (22-10) also didn't play as well against the MVC's top teams. Missouri State lost three times to Creighton and twice to Southern Illinois, including a 20-point loss on the road. The Bears also lost to Northern Iowa at home and at Evansville and finished 12-6 in league play.
As a result, the Bears have their signature win against the Badgers and little else behind it. Missouri State's overall record is one game worse than it was in 2005-06, and its league record is the same.
"I feel better this year than I did last year," Hinson said. "Knowing what I know from last year, I'm more optimistic going into the selections this year based on our body of work compared to last year's. The only thing that we don't have that we had last year is our RPI number, which we're coming to find out doesn't mean a lot."
Missouri State went into Saturday's semifinals ranked 36th in the RPI. Bradley -- which played one of the country's toughest schedules but lost its marquee games to Illinois and Michigan State and even lost at Tennessee Tech (the Braves' best nonconference wins were over DePaul and Virginia Commonwealth) -- was 41st in the RPI.
"I think we have a conference right now that has six really good programs based on the results this year," Elgin said. "I don't think we'll be validated if we get three or four [into the NCAAs]. The whole tenor of this year was we had a stronger performance in nonconference and we were better top to bottom. Whether that translates into three or four NCAA bids, I don't know."
The biggest mystery in the MVC this season didn't even reach the tournament semifinals. Defending MVC champ Wichita State, which beat Seton Hall and upset Tennessee in the 2006 NCAA Tournament, started this season 9-0 and was ranked as high as eighth in the country.
Early in the season, the Shockers won at 2006 Final Four darling George Mason, LSU and Syracuse. But then Wichita State lost eight of its next 11 games. It never really recovered, finishing 8-10 in MVC play and ending the season with a five-game losing streak.
Hinson believes Wichita State's struggles are another sign of the MVC's overall strength.
"In their defense, they're playing in the sixth-best conference in the country," Hinson said Friday night after the Bears beat the Shockers 67-64 in the MVC tournament quarterfinals. "It's a bottomless league. You can't take a night off at any time. They got off to a great start, and you know what? It's hard to come right back in here. In all honesty, they played great teams at first, but it's not near as tough as what we're going to see when we get in the conference. We asked to be one of the best conferences in the country; we got it."
Hinson sure hopes so.
Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.