The State of the Valley

6 12 2011

8-7, not quite the Valley heyday, but a winning record against BCS-conference foes is a great step for a conference who expects an abundance of early-season success.

Once considered the hands-down top mid-major conference in the country, the MVC’s recent plight as a single-bid league in the NCAA tournament could finally end in 2011-2012.

Proving the conference’s worth has become the focus for MVC and league commissioner Doug Elgin (good interview in the Examiner from August)

“I think our people understand that they simply have to prove they are worthy of an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, and they cannot accomplish that without playing strong non-conference schedules.  Our teams have to be better than teams from higher-profile leagues, and the best way to make that point it is to schedule strategically… early-season tournaments provide the best opportunity to play NCAA Tournament-caliber teams at neutral sites.”

Solid wins (WSU over UNLV, Evansville over Butler, etc) and a combined 46-23 non-conference clip (through Dec.4), may just push the Missouri Valley conference back toward mid-2000 prominence.

Creighton and Wichita State are carrying the torch, but look who is making an appearance in the top-five of CBS’s early season RPI Report (Sorry Panther fans, but I’m not sure it’s quite deserved).

Irrespective of your feelings on early-season ranks (please see BCS issues), there’s little question that the powers-that-be in the national media are starting to take notice.

Heck, Valley-friendly media like Joseph Book are already throwing out Doug McDermott’s name for All-American contention (Joseph Book’s MVC ranking at the Examiner).

And it’s hard to argue. Not only is Dougie McD in the top-5 in scoring, but his leadership and clutch play have Creighton in the national rankings.

Where the final record falls as conference season draws closer remains to be seen.

Most likely, Evansville will not be able to put-away fourth-ranked North Carolina on the road.

(8-8).

But I do expect UNI to take care of business at home against the lowly Hawkeye (5-3 against a very weak schedule).

9-8.

Missouri State hosting an Oklahoma State team yet to garner a solid win deems this one a toss-up, slight edge going to MSU at home.

10-8. At worst. 9-9 (a vast improvement over last year’s 11-22 mark).

Give the commissioner and the league’s coaches some credit. This year’s MVC is playing at a higher level and certainly giving fans around the Midwest cause for excitement.

Now if only we can Jim Nantz on board…





Not another pig suey

26 04 2010

Recent news:

  • The Detroit Lions drafted Ndamukong Suh and appear to be on the right track for the first time in years. Yes, I am a Lions fan despite their perennial losing. And yes, I know people in Iowa don’t care about the Lions. But until you get a team of your own, I’m going to act like you do.
  • The Detroit Red Wings are approaching a game-seven battle with the Phoenix Coyotes (again, the lack of team for Iowa). The Wings haven’t had their greatest season, limping through countless injuries to barely sneak into the playoffs. Fortunately, I have confidence in this star-studded roster. Lets get to round-two Wingers.
  • Oklahoma City won their second-consecutive home game to even the Lakers series at 2-2. I’ve liked this team from the beginning, but really Kobe? Twelve points in a 20-point game 4 loss. Thats very un-Kobe-like.
  • The short-handed Utah Jazz have looked far superior to a talented Denver Nuggets team. Even with Kyrylo Fesenko (from Dnipropetrovsk, and no I didn’t spell that wrong) as their starting center. (More on him coming soon)

However, the big news comes straight from Omaha, Nebraska. Longtime coach and MVC godfather Dana Altman is headed to Oregon to become the Ducks’ head basketball coach. This time, it’s for real.

In 2007 we heard a similar story. The classic Pig Suey incident, when Dana left to become Arkansas’s head coach, only to return to Creighton within a day after seeing the state of SEC basketball. Altman sprinted back to Creighton with his tail in between his legs. He vowed to remain at the University for the rest of his career. Fortunately for him, Creighton opened him back with open arms.

Three seasons later, Altman’s streak of 11 straight 20-win seasons was snapped. His BlueJay team looked over-matched, maybe even outcoached for the first time in years. Long gone are the days of Rodney Buford, Ryan Sears, Kyle Korver, and Anthony Tolliver. Instead, players like P’Allen Stinnett dominate the headlines with off-the-court issues. Dana Altman looked at the future of the Creighton program and decided it was time for a change (again).

Ultimately, the Valley has changed. Power has shifted. For almost an entire decade, Creighton and Southern Illinois were top-dogs. Often ranked in the top-25, both teams were perennial post-season contenders. Now, UNI dominates headlines. Illinois State moved from bottom-feeder to contended. And even Drake had one good year (come on, you knew I was throwing that in somewhere).

I can’t blame Altman for leaving. He’s done everything he could for Creighton. Sixteen seasons after arriving in a place without basketball heritage, Altman turned them into a team no one in Division-1 wanted to play. One season under 20-wins and the fans are grumbling. How is that fair?

Look at it this way – as a college coach, you are the focal point of the team. True. Accepted. So you are going to receive a disproportionate amount of credit either way. Ditto. But, fans expect loyalty to the school. They also expect perfection.

When Keno Davis left Drake a few years ago, some fans were upset. How? Would you really turn down someone quadrupling your salary? I wouldn’t say no. Especially if, like Dana’s case, people are always expecting more. He raised the fans level of expectations. One season with less than 20-wins and Creighton fans are grumbling about his ability to coach.

Believe me, I am not blaming the fans. Its just the nature of the business. Fans want their school to win. Coaches need to do whats best for themselves and their families. As much as we like to think college basketball is wholesome, it really is a cut-throat business.

Basically, I’m just trying to say congrats Dana. I wish you the best.

Looking to the future, it will be interesting to see how the BlueJays proceed. Greg McDermott looks to be a perfect fit. After planting the seeds to get UNI to their current level, McDermott’s struggles at Iowa State have been well documented. The Valley and the Big 12 represent different beasts. At Iowa State McDermott has to recruit a different type of player. And these players haven’t exactly fit to his system. Moving from the hot-seat at Iowa State to a storied Valley program in a conference he’s very familiar with seems like a good move. (Oh, and it helps that Creighton can offer more money than Iowa State. Remember, its a business.)

Succeeding in the Valley requires hard-work, tireless recruiting, and having an eye for the diamond in the rough. Coaches have to know how to recruit to this level. MVC teams are too good for average players. But outside of the power-six conference teams, it is extremely difficult to get top-100 caliber athletes. Finding the best of the rest is imperative for Valley success.

To win against the big boys, Valley teams have to play together. And coaches have to find the right mix of players. Kansas is going to be more athletic. But what does UNI do? They stick to their strengths: play great team defense, get Kansas out of their rhythm, and make timing baskets. What they lacked in athleticism, they made up for with size and hustle in the frontcourt, strength and shooting ability in the backcourt. Of course, an Ali Farokhmanesh doesn’t hurt.

It also helps to have mature teams. The last three MVC champs have been junior/senior laden groups. The 2007-2008 Drake Bulldogs had a fifth-year senior, two four-year seniors, and two four-year juniors in their rotation. UNI from 2008-2009 and 2009-2010 boasted a similar mix.

As more prime-time players become one-and-dones, the advantage often resides in experience. Valley coaches don’t recruit these players. They can’t. But they have a knack for picking the next best thing. No way Ali Farokhmanesh goes to Kansas or Kentucky. But with the right teammates, in the right system, the kid can shine.

This is what Greg McDermott struggled with at ISU. And this is why Greg McDermott is a great fit for Creighton. The Valley is a special place. But each school needs to have the right kind of coach.

Ultimately Altman leaving will be good for everyone. He needed a change. Creighton needs a change. And McDermott and Iowa State could definitely use a positive way to get out of that situation. This could be a win-win-win for all three programs. Stay posted.





If Gambling Were Legal…

25 03 2010

In March, this is what you talk about. Dominating sports pages, front pages, and even the Wall Street Journal, the NCAA tournament is impossible to ignore. Everyone, from everyday basketball fans and alums to presidents fills out a bracket. Everyone also offers their two cents, explaining who will win and why. Well, now that we’ve finally reached the Sweet Sixteen, I’ll take a crack at it. Here’s a short little breakdown of tonight’s games:

Butler vs Syracuse

Butler has had an amazing year. Starting the season in the top 10, going undefeated in conference, and winning every game they “should win”, it has been quite a ride. They have good balance and play really well together. That being said, the mid-major’s great ride will come to an end tonight.

To me, Syracuse is the best team in the tournament. They are athletic. They shoot. They share. They have size. And more than anything else, they play a unique defense and play it really well. Despite not having Arinze Onuaku to anchor the middle, the Orange still have the size and depth making them very difficult to beat.

For Butler to win, they need to shoot well. They have a lot of three point shooters, but it will be even more important tonight because the length of Syracuse’s zone will bother smaller Butler guards from scoring on the interior. Butler is too good, too experienced to be blown out, but Syracuse will dominate this game.

Final: Syracuse 74- Butler 61

Side note: Butler continues to dominate the Horizon conference. Don’t you think it would be good for them to join a more competitive league… say the Missouri Valley? Even though the odds of this actually occurring are slim to none, hear me out. Butler is a small private school with a strong academic background, very similar to Drake and Creighton. So the other Bulldogs fit from a size standpoint. What is the major sport of the Valley? Basketball. Butler fits. Location? The Valley already boasts Indiana State and Evansville in Indiana, traveling a little further north and west to Indianapolis would hardly be a deterrent.

Butler also provides a larger media market, with what would be come the largest city in the conference. For Butler, this would offer better opponents, better exposure, and a meaningful conference tournament. Rather than strolling through conference, the other Bulldogs would be challenged every night, a better deal for fans and the players. So that means the Valley would have to expand to 11 teams or boot a current school. Evansville anyone? The Purple Aces are the smallest school in the conference and continue to struggle against the level of competition. Would they not be better served in the Horizon if traded straight up for Butler? I vote yes. Plus, both schools reside in Indiana, meaning it wouldn’t be a stretch. Oh, and Butler was a Valley member from 1932-1934. Just saying…

Washington vs West Virginia

There’s a lot of intrigue in the matchup. West Virginia is a deep, talented team that can beat you a lot of different ways. But, U Dub is athletic and hot. The early conference season was not kind to the Huskies despite lofty preseason expectations. Hitting their stride at the perfect time and winning 14 of 16, they have a great chance to be rare double digit seed in the Elite Eight.

West Virginia needs to deliver one of their best performances of the year to fend off the upset-minded Huskies. Losing point guard Darryl Bryant probably hurts more than many think, but opens the door for Joe Mazzulla to prove himself on the game’s biggest stage. If the 6’2″ can repeat his performance from the Big East tournament championship against Georgetown (6 pts, 2 rebs, 7 assts, 0 turns) then look out. However, if he struggles early WVU could struggle to find their rhythm for a full 40 minutes.

I pick WVU to win because of size, interior scoring and talent, but look out Mountaineer fans, this will be a bumpy ride. This is gonna be a fun one.

Final: WVU 83 – UWash 81

Cornell vs Kentucky

I was shocked by Cornell’s 18-point shellacking of Wisconsin, but see this as the end for the Big Red. To win, Cornell needs to build a 5-point lead in the first five minutes. Period. This team can play from ahead with their deliberate style. But, if Kentucky gets up early and Cornell is forced into more of an open floor game, look out.

Kentucky is too athletic and too talented to lose to a team like Cornell. They are deep and surprisingly play well together. Despite what many say about John Calipari, he again has proved to be a master motivator at the college level. John Wall may be the most unstoppable player in this tournament. Look for him to push the tempo and make life miserable for Cornell.

Final 1 (Kentucky gets off to a fast start): Kentucky 80- Cornell 60
Final 2 (Cornell ahead by 5 after 5 min): Kentucky 70 – Cornell 59

Xavier vs Kansas State

Despite two tough wins in the tournament so far, Xavier is an enigma. The talent, athleticism, and size are all there. They’ve proven they can beat the best, but are also very inconsistent. Star play Jordan Crawford averages 20 per game, but is very capable of laying an egg. He’s a great player but can detract from his team’s success. He takes bad shots and takes Xavier out of their offense. If he’s hot, Xavier is as good as anyone, if he’s not it could be like playing at Dayton all over again.

Even though they somehow lost to Iowa State at home (seriously, thats a bad loss, sorry ISU fans), Kansas State has great balance and is built to win in the tourney. Frank Martin’s aggressive personality ensures his team will be up to the challenge. Look for the Wildcats to be physical with Crawford and frustrate him from start to finish. I like KSU.

Final: Xavier 75 – KSU 82








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