If you want to bring a frown to a Missouri Valley Conference basketball coaches' face? Just mention scheduling.
Regardless of where a MVC team finished in the standings or how its finances stack up against its peers, scheduling is hardest for the conferences like the MVC, who are in the middle of Division I pecking order.
Unlike Power Five schools, finances for even the best-financed schools rarely offer the opportunity to "buy" lower Division I teams at-will. And unlike the lowest tier of Division I, MVC teams don't have the opportunity to play Power Five teams at-will either as most Power Five schools have been reluctant to schedule mid-major competition.
It's a situation that's only become worse as some Power Five conferences, such as the Big Ten, have gone to a 20-game conference schedule. Open slots on the schedule are drying up for mid-majors.
For the league itself, it's been a moving target as this situation has evolved in the last half-decade. The MVC has long tried to find creative solutions to the scheduling problems the league membership has had. The league has tried the Bracket Busters series in partnership with ESPN in the 2000s and has engaged the Mountain West Conference in two four-season challenge series since 2009.
The Mountain West-MVC Challenge expired after last season — a series that guaranteed at least one game against a peer opponent. So what does the MVC have up its sleeve to help its membership in the future? The Tribune-Star spoke with MVC commissioner Doug Elgin on Thursday to see what the league has in mind.
First, there is no challenge series with any conference currently planned. Rather, the league is engaging with its peer conferences — the Atlantic 10, Conference USA, the West Coast Conference and the Mid-American Conference — to try to set up individual matchups that are mutually beneficial for both parties.
Elgin noted that process is on-going at present.
"We had the opportunity to engage Conference USA and the Atlantic 10 in some crossover series. It didn't involve all 10 of our teams, but we were successful in getting that together," Elgin said. "We've had discussions with other peer conferences. The Mid-American Conference makes a heck of a lot of sense in that they border on our geography. It would sort of be in a our sweet spot to play the top end teams in those leagues."
ISU is a school that could logically play a MAC opponent. Though the only confirmed ISU games thus far are a home game with Ball State, a road game at Wright State, and the Junkanoo Jam in the Bahamas in November. It is possible the Sycamores might play Miami of Ohio in one of the crossover games.
In the past, the MVC was renowned for the strategies it developed with member schools in terms of unlocking what the NCAA Tournament selection committee wanted to see from its at-large candidates. The league initiated scheduling mandates and held institutions responsible if they didn't hold up their end. These efforts reached their zenith in 2006 when the MVC put three at-large teams in the field, two of whom advanced to the Sweet 16. The MVC was heralded at the time for "unlocking" the RPI.
In some ways, the changes made to the RPI after the mid-2000s, and the NET that is used today, are a legacy of the MVC's success in strategically attacking the problem — even if the MVC has been a victim of those changes.
"We're kind of in unchartered waters in developing a nonconference strategy. The RPI is out and that was clear cut of how playing teams of a projected RPI strength would impact your ability to have a high RPI. The new NET is uncertain in how that might be adjusted," Elgin noted.
No matter what scheduling philosophy is chosen? It has to be backed up with wins — and those were hard to come for MVC teams in 2018-19.
The MVC was just 2-17 against Power Five competition, with both wins occurring at neutral sites, including ISU's win over Colorado at the Diamond Head Classic. The MVC was average against Elgin's aforementioned peer conferences, finishing 16-14 against the Mountain West, Atlantic 10, Conference USA, West Coast Conference and MAC schools, but none of those wins moved the needle as far as at-large consideration.
That poor nonconference performance, along with rampant parity in the league, led to a 15th-place finish for the MVC's in Kenpom.com's conference rankings, the worst rating the league has had since the website began tracking league performance in 2002.
"It's understood that you have to play a good nonconference schedule — and win — to have any chance to get in the NCAA Tournament," Elgin said. "You really can't contend for at-large bids if you don't have some separation at the top. In years where we have had multiple bids? It usually was because we had three or four teams separating from the pack, but this year we had such compaction that it made it very difficult for us to contend [for an at-large bid].
"We didn't win enough in nonconference play to strengthen whomever was at the top of the league. Parity doesn't often benefit conferences except at the very top of Division I. When you have a lot of parity as we had this year, it doesn't promote opportunities for at-large consideration," Elgin added.
Nonconference scheduling is the major part of building a resume, but many leagues have turned to their in-conference scheduling philosophies as another way to assist their at-large chances. Conference USA has gone to a tiered system where the league's best teams play one another late in the season. Other leagues have considered 20-game schedules.
The 10-member MVC has long had an 18-game round robin schedule — and remains committed to it.
"Equal schedule strength is important. If you get to a 12 or 14-team model where you don't have that round robin, there's often a wide range in scheduling strength depending on who you play," Elgin said.
Which brings to mind another issue that plays a role in scheduling — league expansion. There has been fan and media sentiment for the league to expand its footprint and the depth of quality. Murray State, a finalist for MVC inclusion in 2017, did nothing to dampen that enthusiasm with its 28-5 season that saw the Racers advance to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
Elgin said that each time the league was in a position where it had to add a member, it considered going past its current 10-team alignment. But Elgin said expansion is only viable if two members can be identified.
"I think it has to be an even number. I don't think 11 [schools] is an answer because then you get weird variance in schedule and sequence of games, how many games you play in a week compared to the opponents you're playing that week," Elgin said. "I think if we felt we could take two member institutions that could lift men's and women's basketball — and our other programs, but men's and women's basketball being the priority — I think we would aggressively pursue expansion."
But it's not imminent.
"There are downsides in my opinion. You lose the round robin. If you look at the Power Five conferences, they lose that family atmosphere. Not that any of our coaches in the league look at their opponents as family, but that's the truth of the nature of our league, that we almost have a family atmosphere of everyone pulling together," Elgin said. "Imagine in your mind's eye, the larger conferences out there and they don't seem to have that same feel. The larger you get, the less that culture is likely to occur."
MVC vs. Power Five
It was a rough year for the Missouri Valley Conference schools when they played the Power Five conferences and the Big East. Here's the breakdown:
* Beat Penn State in Cancun
** Beat Colorado in Hawaii