College Basketball: Can the Missouri Valley get three teams into the Big Dance?

When searching for the more competitive conferences in America, there aren’t many folks who would vouch for the Missouri Valley Conference… well, maybe they should.

The last time the Missouri Valley Conference got more than two teams in the NCAA Tournament was 2006 – a year that saw a pair get to the Sweet 16. This marked the second straight season the conference got three teams in the field. However, since then, the conference has had multiple teams in the field only three times. This season will very possibly break that trend.

The 2014-’15 field in the conference may be the strongest since 2006. While doing work under the radar for the most part, the non-Wichita State portion of the conference boasts of four teams with at least 11 wins. There are also two more over .500 in non-conference play.

The favorite to win the conference is still the Shockers, who have been fairly shaky during their non-conference schedule. While they had several close scares, Wichita State only fell to an underrated George Washington team and a strong Utah squad in overtime. They also have wins over suddenly strong Seton Hall and an underrated Alabama team.

Northern Iowa has also spent time in the top 25 this season and has some quality wins of its own. The Panthers have wins over Iowa and they pounded both Virginia Tech and Northwestern. Northern Iowa also took Virginia Commonwealth to the brink and lost in double overtime in Richmond to the Rams. Both Wichita State and Northern Iowa, outside of any implosions, should be shoe-ins for March, based on their non-conference successes and the aided strength of schedule from within the MVC itself.

Evansville and Loyola (IL), which are both getting zero publicity so far this season, are both sitting at 11 wins. The Purple Aces’ win over Northern Iowa was overshadowed on New Year’s Day by football, but was still impressive and helps to build their resume. Evansville’s three losses are by a combined eight points. Two of them came at the hands of 11-win teams, Murray State and Green Bay. The other was at Indiana State in overtime. The main issue with Evansville is the lack of a signature non-conference win. While the Aces will probably get a couple in conference play, wins against the MAC will probably not be enough for an at-large bid.

Loyola (IL) has only three losses this season as well — to Northern Iowa on the road by 11, at Michigan State, and against an 11-win Tulane team. The Ramblers have wins over a pair of 10-plus-win teams in Boise State and Texas Tech. They also have a win at Kent State. The view in the committee’s eye will depend on the success of those teams’ wins and Loyola’s ability to get a couple of strong conference wins.

While Missouri State doesn’t stand much of a chance to get in, barring a conference tournament run, fellow eight-win Illinois State is an interesting squad. The Redbirds fell to Wichita State on the road by eight and also lost to VCU and Seton Hall by four each, and at Murray State by 12. While the non-conference portion brought several losses to Illinois State, they were close losses to good teams. It would be hard to make an at-large case for the Redbirds, but they were also playing without a pair of starters against Wichita State. Leading scorer DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell has a broken hand, while conference block leader Reggie Lynch (back) and Deontae Hawkins (foot stress fracture) have also missed time. If the Redbirds are able to get healthy again, they appear to be a team capable of a late season run.

While the conference is looking at two at-large bids with Wichita State and Northern Iowa, 2015 could be the year for the MVC to get a third team in with the amount of depth in the league. It would probably take one of the other contenders getting hot and winning the tournament known as Arch Madness, but, as we all know, crazy things happen in March.

Either way, one thing is clear: The depth in the Missouri Valley Conference is nothing one should overlook.