CEDAR FALLS — To some, Ben Jacobson’s optimism regarding the future of the Missouri Valley Conference likely seemed misplaced in the spring.
Still feeling the effects of Creighton’s 2013 departure, the Valley was hit even harder in April when Wichita State, a conference power and the league’s longest-standing member, bolted for the American Athletic Conference.
Reaction to the Shockers’ exodus was negative across the board, with pundits calling it a “devastating“ blow that would leave the MVC teetering “on the verge of ‘Ugh.’” And a season after a 27-win Illinois State team failed to secure an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament, hopes were not high for the conference entering 2017-18.
At least not on the outside.
“I felt like the league was going to be as hard, as difficult as it always is,” Jacobson, the veteran Northern Iowa coach, said last week. “Pick whatever team we want to, playing against them at home has been difficult, playing against them on the road always been difficult. That’s not going to change because one team left our league.”
And while it’s still too early to determine what the Valley’s national standing both this season and long-term will be, the league enters the final week of the non-conference season on better footing than many were expecting.
Entering Monday, Valley teams had a non-conference winning percentage of .664, a big spike from last season’s mark of .558.
The conference has also seen its share of marquee victories. Loyola, which is currently tied with Evansville for a Valley-best 10 wins, made the league’s biggest splash with its Dec. 6 road win over then-No. 5 Florida.
Even the teams currently at the bottom of the non-conference standings have played a big hand in the MVC’s surprising success.
Despite being a game under .500, Illinois State has topped two teams from the SEC, the No. 2 RPI conference in the country, beating both Mississippi and 2017 Final Four participant South Carolina.
Fellow 5-6 squads Indiana State and Drake have also grabbed power conference wins. The Sycamores crushed Indiana by 21 on the road, while the Bulldogs earned a neutral-court victory over Wake Forest.
Behind those wins, the Valley currently sits eighth in national RPI with a ranking of 0.528, a step up from last year, when it finished No. 12 at 0.501
If the current ranking holds, it will be the league’s highest RPI finish since 2013, when both Creighton and Wichita State earned NCAA Tournament wins, with the Shockers getting all the way to the Final Four.
“It’s great,” UNI guard Juwan McCloud said. “It’s a positive in every team in the Valley’s direction to have it be as solid as it’s been so far. It’ll be good to see how it all turns out after the season.”
Whether or not the early season success results in the conference getting multiple March Madness bids remains to be seen. But if UNI hopes to improve an already strong at-large resume, it has a golden opportunity to do so in its non-conference finale.
Six days before opening MVC play, the 8-3 Panthers play host to ninth-ranked Xavier on Friday. Already the league’s top RPI team (No. 28), an upset would undoubtedly help UNI improve that number.
For mid-major schools, boosting their profile in the first two months of the season is a tricky proposition. As Jacobson points out, “Scheduling is difficult and getting more difficult every single year.”
But to get the Valley back to the level he and his fellow coaches want, he says it will be critical to continue taking on difficult games, and he believes this season can provide a good blueprint for future success.
“We can all talk about anything we want to talk about in the fall that we’re going to be great … it doesn’t matter,” Jacobson said. “You have to go out in November and December and you have to win games. And to this point … this feels like the best November, December we’ve had.
“My hope is that we finish it out.”