By John Bohnenkamp
The Missouri Valley Conference hasn’t been immune from conference realignment in the last few seasons.
The conference lost Loyola (Chicago) after last season and added Belmont, Murray State and Illinois-Chicago beginning this season.
Commissioner Jeff Jackson said during the Valley’’s men’s basketball video conference on Thursday the conference is stable now, but in the turbulence of college sports right now, all options are considered.
“It’s one of those things where we obviously dealt with it, and I think quite well last season with the addition of UIC and Murray State and Belmont,” Jackson said. “They’re tremendous additions to our institutions, but I think our schools are mindful of the fact that this is a very fluid, very dynamic market. We always want to be aware of what’s going on and we always want to be proactive.
“I don’t think we’re … I wouldn’t go as far as maybe some people are, saying that we’ve got a sign where we’re open for business. But at the same time, we’re very mindful of what’s taking place in our landscape. And if opportunities avail themselves, which would allow us to improve, we obviously would be very interested in having those conversations.”
Jackson said the Valley is happy being at 12 teams, with all of its schools in the Midwest. We feel like we’re in a very, very strong space.”
The expansion of the conference has led to some changes for men’s basketball. The conference, which played an 18-game round-robin schedule with 10 teams, will play a 20-game schedule — eight home-and-home opponents and four single-plays. The conference tournament in St. Louis will feature all 12 teams, with the top four teams in the standings drawing first-round byes.
The additional games, combined with the fact that the conference tournament is played one week before the NCAA tournament’s Selection Sunday, means the Valley will play two conference games before Christmas. That will force teams to be ready earlier, instead of having two full months of nonconference play to prepare.
“Those games are the ones that really matter,” Missouri State coach Dana Ford said. “You look at us last year, we lost our game before Christmas, and we finished one game out of first. I just don’t think you are who you’re going to be at the end (of the season). Our teams here have always been better late, just due to the fact that you always have some things to figure out. But I understand why we have to do it. You run out of dates.”
“The schedule will be who’s in front of you, and you’ve got to play the games,” Drake coach Darian DeVries said. “I don’t know if you prepare any differently. But I know everybody realizes in college basketball that conference season is a long grind. Now you’re taking it from 18 to 20, so it will be a battle of attrition just trying to survive those 20 games, and staying healthy is obviously a big part of that.”
Jackson thinks the addition of the three schools will help strengthen the conference’s overall NCAA tournament resumé. Loyola was a team that was 28th in the NCAA’s NET last season. The highest Valley team after that was Missouri State at 72nd.
Among the new additions, Murray State was 29th, Belmont was 79th and Illinois-Chicago was 283rd.
“If you were one of our institutions that were already in our conference, and you said, you know what, I’m going to add two games (to a schedule) this year. I’m going to add Murray State or I’m going to add Murray State and UIC, or you are going to add Belmont and UIC, I think everybody would feel pretty comfortable,” Jackson said. “You enhanced your (schedule).You gave yourself a better chance in terms of when that (NCAA tournament) committee is sitting in the room on Sunday.”
“I know by adding 20 games that we added quality opponents to our league,” Bradley coach Brian Wardle said. “I love Belmont, Murray State, UIC. Those are games I couldn’t get in the nonconference. We were always trying to schedule tough, and in the nonconference the Valley is a league that people avoid. I mean, that’s a fact.”
It also means a stronger schedule for the newcomers — Belmont and Murray State are coming from the Ohio Valley Conference, while UIC is coming from the Horizon League.
“We know being in the Valley will help us maintain those metrics,” Belmont coach Casey Alexander said. “If we’re fortunate enough to be good in the nonconference, it will be easier for us to maintain that in league play.”
UIC coach Luke Yaklich, a former assistant at Illinois State, said he has been talking with his team about the different arenas in the Valley, and has shown the players clips of the teams’ style of play.
“They understand (the Valley),” he said. “They know the media exposure, and the level of play the Missouri Valley has.”
“We’ll find out and learn what adjustments we need to make,” Murray State coach Steve Prohm said. “We’ve had some pretty good teams here. We’ve had several teams ranked in the top 25, we’ve had several postseason teams. Obviously the night-in, night-out challenge of the Missouri Valley Conference is going to be extremely tough, grueling, from that standpoint.
“There may be some things we have to adjust as we go. But I don’t think we need too much.”
“We recognize the strength of the league, what the Valley has done for a long time,” Alexander said. “We know we’ve got to get better as a program, we’ve got to get better players.
“We’ve got our work cut out for us. We know that.”
Photo: Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Jeff Jackson speaks to the media during Thursday’s video conference.