June 24, 2013
Wichita State finished last season with a stirring run to the Final Four that was a point of pride for Missouri Valley Conference.
Yet like many leagues around the country, the Valley is dealing with realignment-induced change that could alter its future.
League cornerstone Creighton, arguably the MVC's top program in recent years, is off to the reconfigured Big East in 2013-14.
The Valley quickly added Loyola (Ill.) University of the Horizon League to take Creighton's place. But while the Chicago-based Ramblers have a chance to someday flourish in the more prominent Valley, losing the Bluejays stings.
"Obviously, not having Creighton is something that, collectively, we're going to have to do a great job of covering up," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said Monday. "I think we're in very good position to cover up for Creighton."
The Bluejays, behind two-time All-American Doug McDermott, are expected to contend immediately in the new Big East after winning the MVC last winter.
It could take much longer for the Ramblers to find their footing in the Valley.
The Ramblers, who haven't reached the NCAA tournament since 1985, finished just 5-11 in the Horizon League a year ago. Loyola beat Mississippi State and DePaul, but it was just the first time in 21 years the Ramblers defeated more than one BCS-level school.
There are indications that Loyola is getting better, though.
Coach Porter Moser — who coached at Illinois State from 2003-07 and played at Creighton from 1986-90 — led the Ramblers to an eight-win improvement in 2012-13. That was the biggest jump by a second-year coach in school history.
Loyola returns five players with starting experience, including star forward Christian Thomas, from a roster that was the sixth-youngest in the nation last season. But even Moser said Monday that it's tough to predict how Loyola will fare in its first season in the MVC.
"We are preparing guys, to let them know how good (the Valley) is. The coaching, the atmosphere, the level of players," Moser said. "There's really good teams. There are some teams in some other leagues that can be really talented, but I think the Valley is talented and has great teams."
Loyola's biggest selling point to the Valley was its presence in a major media market. Most of the league teams already recruit heavily in Chicago, and Moser said he's already begun to notice Loyola resonating more with recruits in the classes of 2014 and 2015.
"The Valley has such a strong name, and it's been a very, very positive reception," Moser said. "It's now going to be an even bigger stage. The TV package in the Valley is very exciting ... almost every game that (we'll) be playing will be on some type of TV. That's just exposure. That's such a different level, and we're excited to be a part of that."
The Valley's national buzz will undoubtedly take a dip next season by losing the Bluejays, especially considering that McDermott is one of the most recognizable stars in the country.
But Wichita State's profile is higher than ever, and the Shockers will likely open the season in the Top 25. There's depth behind them, too, as every team in the league won at least six Valley games and 10 overall in 2012-13 for the first time in 106 years.
"We've never been a one-team league. We're never going to be a one-team league," Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said. "Certainly we're going to miss the Bluejays. It would be great if we could have them back. But at the same time, we're adding a new team in Loyola that's a great market. Chicago is a much better market than Omaha."