It's that time of year when basketball coaches aren't afraid to climb aboard the soap box and sing the praises of their conferences.
Selection Sunday is approaching rapidly. No league wants to find itself with only its tournament champion advancing to March Madness. A little lobbying probably doesn't change the way things shake out next month, but it can't hurt, right?
Perception can be everything these days, and the perception this season is that play in the Missouri Valley is down a notch or two from where it was a year ago. If true, that's news to the guys in the trenches slugging it out twice weekly from Terre Haute to Wichita.
“When I was in the Mid-American Conference, there were a couple of places in the league that were hard to play,” said Geno Ford, in his second season as Bradley's head coach. “The other road games were only difficult because you weren't playing at home.
“This league is a nightmare every night out. You better be ready to play, and even if you are, you may not end up winning. When the teams at the bottom pull an upset, everyone wants to blame that on the league not being good. I think that actually shows the depth of this league.”
Each of the three teams at the top of the Valley standings has lost a game that fuels talk that the league isn't as strong as it was a season ago and nowhere near where it was in the recent glory days of 2006 and 2007.
Wichita State slipped at last-place Southern Illinois a week ago. Creighton dropped a mid-January game at Drake, a team the Bluejays had beaten by 30 points two weeks previously. Indiana State, the last team to knock off No. 3 Miami, lost its share of the league lead Tuesday by losing to a Missouri State squad that had won just seven games.
Beating up on each other is seen as a strength in some conferences. In a mid-major conference such as the Valley, it is often viewed as a sign of weakness. A logjam in the standings of some conferences is championed as parity. Use that word to describe what's transpiring in the Valley this season, and some outsiders will roll their eyes.
“I know a lot of people view it as coachspeak, but I mean what I say when I say this league is tough,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “You come off a really big win, and you're sitting in the office talking with the guy that has the next scout and it's like, 'How are we going to beat these guys?'
“You just have to get ready for the next challenge. Everyone in this league is so prepared it's almost ridiculous. We know each other so well, and everyone gets their guys to play hard.”
A week after handing Creighton its worst loss of the season, Lansing's team stubbed its toe in dropping a two-point decision on Missouri State's court. It's the kind of loss that could damage Indiana State's at-large hopes, but Drake coach Mark Phelps said it shouldn't.
“I just don't think there is a great enough appreciation for all that the Missouri Valley Conference brings,” Phelps said. “The competitive nature of the players and coaches makes this a great basketball league.
“We're seeing that demonstrated on any given night in this league.”
Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson has been a part of the Valley for more than a decade. What he's seeing this season is no different than what he's experienced in the past.
“The league is as competitive as it's ever been,” Jacobson said. “Look at a team like Southern Illinois. Their league record is not great but they are no fun to play against. Look at the improvement Bradley has made from last year to this year.
“It's not always about the teams that are at the top of the league. When you have that kind of improvement from teams that were at the bottom a year ago, that makes it hard to get through 18 games.”
The Valley is ranked ninth in the conference RPI ratings, down a spot or two from last season depending on which rankings source is used. Jacobson said the numbers don't underscore the challenge each league team faces on a nightly basis, and outsiders don't fully appreciate that either.
“They don't realize how hard it is to go out there every two or three days and try to roll people over,” he said. “It's not that simple.”
Contact the writer:
402-679-2298, email@example.com, twitter.com/PivOWH