Missouri Valley Has Cracked the Code

The RPI is all about scheduling


Oct. 30, 2006

By Phil Kasiecki

Special to CSTV.com



Phil is the Sr. Editor of Hoopville.com, and contributes regular content to CSTV.com. E-mail here!

It seems like every season the Missouri Valley Conference has a historic year, yet also looks like the next season could be even better. After placing four teams in the NCAA Tournament, two of which made the Sweet 16, it may seem hard to believe that it could be better.


Believe it.


Based on returning players - nearly 80 percent of the starters are back from last season's teams - we can expect to see a similar, if not better, showing in 2006-07.


But the conference isn't without its critics, many of whom say that with creative scheduling they have manipulated the RPI formula for their own benefit. The belief is that the conference's teams aren't as good as their ratings suggest. While a case can be made that there is an element of creative scheduling that has been involved, that's no more true for the Missouri Valley than any other conference. The scheduling aspect for these schools involves a look back in history.


In 1989-90, Southern Illinois went 26-8 and lost during the Missouri Valley Tournament, a record that if posted by a Valley team today would probably mean a sure NCAA Tournament bid. But the Salukis had a very high RPI, and no one was surprised when they had to settle for an NIT bid, losing to Wisconsin-Green Bay in the first round. That year, the conference RPI was 21; last year it was 6.  MVC Commissioner Doug Elgin said this gave them all a wake-up call about what has become a much-talked about subject these days.


"We realized at that point that we needed to pay closer attention to scheduling," Elgin reflected.


Even so, the conference didn't take a hard stand on this until about ten years later, when a new policy was implemented. What it essentially did was "fine" a team by withholding their distribution money if they did not meet a certain RPI threshold with their schedule. While there are a few conditions, the long and short is that teams had to start playing opponents with RPIs of 150 or lower on a regular basis. Three schools did not meet it the first year after it was implemented.


At first, there were some bumps in the road. Some teams that were in rebuilding mode wound up over-scheduling, as they loaded up on games with teams from BCS conferences and were crushed on a regular basis. That wasn't quite what Elgin had in mind, and teams had to realize, as Elgin notes, that they could still play plenty of teams outside of those conferences and still be within the top 150 in the RPI. 


The recent BracketBusters event has also added to this awareness, an important point considering the well-documented difficulties teams have had in scheduling teams from BCS conferences in recent years (especially getting home games). Elgin wanted teams that might be young or inexperienced to schedule some teams that they would have a good chance of winning in addition to playing some of the big boys.


"It gave all of our people a more discerning eye in how they went about scheduling," Elgin said of the early years under the new policy.


It has clearly paid off, as the conference's steady rise that looks like it began in the mid-1990s has accelerated over the past few seasons. In each of the last eight years, the conference has had at least two teams in the NCAA Tournament. In six of those years, at least four teams have seen postseason play via the NCAA or NIT, capped by six last season as two more teams made the NIT. Last season was the first time six schools won at least 20 games, and it was the fifth time - all coming since 1994-95 - that at least four schools did that.


The 2005-06 season saw Valley teams post an 80-34 non-conference record, its best in recent history and a slight jump from 78-35 the prior season and 60-42 in 2003-04. Included in this has been a steady improvement against teams from the BCS conferences. After going just 2-9 against schools from those conferences in 2002-03, and 3-13 a year later, they went 9-13 in 2004-05 and 12-12 last year, aided by Wichita State and Bradley each reaching the Sweet 16 in the NCAA Tournament. Since 1994, the conference is 13-22 against schools from BCS conferences, playing the role of favorite on only three occasions.


But the MVC appears to have proven itself against the elite in recent years, with last year being the best case.


"I don't think there's any more pressure on our teams to perform," Eglin said.  "We know we can play with teams from power conferences."


Elgin, who has served on the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee, said that he believes in the process they go through and doesn't feel like his conference has been regularly snubbed at all.  He puts a lot of stock in the RPI, although mainly as a relative, not absolute, indicator of strength. He also believes that the talent gap is narrowing as well, which may continue as young players realize that they can be on national television without playing in the Big Ten or Big 12.


It's been said that success starts at the top, and the Valley is a perfect example. Elgin enters his 19th season at the helm, and all four associate commissioners have completed at least 14 seasons with the conference.  They all have experience working together towards the same common goal. 


As the 2006-07 season beckons, plenty of eyes are on it.


"We understand we are being measured," said Elgin. "People are looking at us differently."

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