The Missouri Valley Conference has made quite an impression these last few years. There was the four-bid performance two seasons ago that yielded two Sweet 16 entries in Bradley and Wichita State. Southern Illinois streaked to the Sweet 16 last year. Northern Iowa had a recent three-bid streak. Creighton is seemingly perpetually appearing in the 7-10 game. And then there was Missouri State's RPI heartbreak (No. 21) two seasons ago, which kept the Valley from earning a record five NCAA bids in 2006.
But now, in 2008, forget everything you've learned about the MVC.
If this is a down year, we're going to be making some leaps in the next several seasons as a conference. We might even make people forget about 2006.
Coming out of the league's second weekend, none of those six above-mentioned teams is over .500 in their league games. Instead, three schools with no NCAA appearances at all since the 2001-02 season currently rule over the Valley. Illinois State, Indiana State and Drake found fresh starts this past summer -- new coaches and new systems. Instead of more steps backward, however, the three retooled programs are wasting no time in making immediate impressions of their own. All are currently undefeated in MVC play, with key wins over the conference's established elite.
"It's way too early in the race to draw any conclusions, but what we're seeing is a transition," said MVC commissioner Doug Elgin on Sunday. "It's a changing of the guard of sorts, in terms of the teams that are in a position to contend. Nobody back in the summer would have thought that after three games, these three teams would be at the top of the standings."
Few thought that Drake, a school that hasn't been to the Big Dance since 1971, would be anywhere near the middle of the standings this season. But the Bulldogs have won 11 straight games and are the current No. 21 team in the RPI after being picked a distant ninth in the preseason coaches' poll.
Drake has enjoyed a season of firsts. A 56-51 win at Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Dec. 14 was its first win at Iowa in two decades. Last Wednesday, the Bulldogs celebrated a 61-51 home win over Southern Illinois on Caucus Eve in front of a packed house at Des Moines' Knapp Center. That one broke a 17-game losing streak against the defending regular-season champion Salukis.
Drake has not lost since Nov. 10 at Saint Mary's despite breaking in four new starters and a new head coach. The 69-year-old Dr. Tom Davis retired after the 2006-07 season, stepping aside to allow son and longtime assistant, Keno, to take the head position. So far this season, the younger Davis has been winning with deep 3s and defense -- the Bulldogs give up only 57.4 points per game and cause turnovers on 27 percent of their opponents' possessions (only VMI forces a greater percentage). And the team has been managing despite an unconventional roster makeup.
"We had a problem for a while getting kids interested in coming here," said Dr. Davis, who was Iowa's all-time winningest coach before coming out of retirement a first time to lead Drake for four seasons. "We just couldn't attract good enough talent. So that's why there are two walk-ons in the starting lineup."
Indeed, undersized 6-foot-8 junior center Jonathan Cox (11.5 points and 8.4 rebounds) and senior point guard Adam Emmenecker (2-to-1 assist-turnover ratio) played their way onto the squad via tryout. Both key cogs in Drake's system finally received scholarships the day before the 2007-08 season began, and their hunger for roster spots has translated to desire and determination on the court. The former walk-ons are Nos. 1 and 2 on the team in rebounds, respectively. The 6-1 Emmenecker, in particular, has a voracious appetite for loose balls and cleans almost as much glass per game (4.2 rebounds) as he dishes dimes (5.0 assists). In total, Drake gets 15.1 rebounds per game from players 6-2 and under.
"My father's teams at Iowa were always near the top of the charts in rebounds," said Keno Davis. "They didn't have the best inside talent or real big guys. If there's anything we emphasize in practice, it's rebounding. You see Adam Emmenecker, a three-year walk-on, and there are games where he gets seven or eight rebounds a game. He can't jump, and he's not tall, so how does he get those rebounds? We sell our guys on the concept that there are enough rebounds that hit the floor and anyone can go get those if they go after them."
Illinois State teams of recent vintage have been Drake's opposite -- too much talent and not enough identity. Former coach Porter Moser assembled a high-caliber collection of promising prospects but couldn't get them to mesh and click. So this spring, after a disappointing 15-16 (6-12 MVC) season, Tim Jankovich was brought in from Bill Self's bench at Kansas, and the Redbirds have quickly gained a new reputation for silencing opposing crowds.
The Redbirds kicked off their MVC slate by winning at both Creighton and Wichita State, in front of a combined force of 27,286 angry fans. This past week, they showed they could win for a friendly audience too. Illinois State shut down SIU, 56-47, holding the Salukis to 26 percent shooting after opening an early and insurmountable 25-5 lead. On Tuesday night, they defended Redbird Arena against UNI by a score of 51-46.
"We really don't talk about winning that much," said the soft-spoken Jankovich after the 49-46 victory at Wichita on Jan. 1, which left the Shocker faithful shocked and silent for most of the second half. "We don't concentrate on winning, we concentrate on what we want to be. We want to be unselfish and play as hard as we can, and if we do that we get better."
The Redbirds are certainly hard to play against (as evidenced by their 37.6 percent field goal defense) and they have the unselfish part down as well. On offense, 67.3 percent of the team's baskets have assists attached, seventh-best in the country. And Illinois State's offense has a clear focal point in emerging Valley star Osiris Eldridge, a 6-3 sophomore in a No. 0 jersey who's averaging 15.1 points. Eldridge loves to swoop in on long drives from the 3-point line to the basket and he can stroke sweet baseline jumpers as well.
"Osiris has only scratched the surface of his talent," said Jankovich. "He has some surprises left in store."
Indiana State was a surprise NCAA first-round winner back in 2001 (a 13-over-4 victory over Oklahoma), but the Sycamores have since struggled with six straight losing seasons. They didn't look much like contenders early on in 2007-08 either, as they finished 5-5 in nonconfererence play with blowout losses to Butler, Tulane and Miami (Ohio). But the Terre Haute Trees are 3-0 in the Valley so far, on the strength of game-breaking runs by its young and explosive backcourt of Gabe Moore and Marico Stinson (23.3 combined points per game).
This past summer, Indiana State brought in a new coach with plenty of experience in the annual Valley wars. Kevin McKenna was a player and nine-year assistant at Creighton, where he learned a lot about what men's basketball can do for a smaller school.
"I remember in 1999, when we beat Louisville in the [NCAA] Tournament, Rodney Buford was on the front page of USA Today," said McKenna. "That kind of attention for a school like Creighton … you just can't buy that."
It remains to be seen if Moore and Stinson will end up on the front pages of any national newspapers during their Sycamore careers, but the new era is off to a promising start. After a season-opening road win at Evansville, McKenna's squad returned home and topped Northern Iowa and his old friends at Creighton.
Drake's Sunday win at Evansville, keyed by Emmenecker's 10-point, 10-assist double-double, set up the most unlikely of first-place battles on Tuesday. An Indiana State-Drake game, which in any other year might be the fourth- or fifth-best matchup in the Valley on a given night, was suddenly a battle of league-undefeated titans.
"I don't know if the conference is any weaker, I just think the rest of us have just gotten a little bit better," Davis said. "Now we can play with those guys."
The league's rising tide, however, has not lifted all recently rechristened boats. Last spring, longtime Valley cellar resident Evansville hired former star Marty Simmons, who more recently rebuilt a Division II program at SIU-Edwardsville. His start has paled in comparison to other new regimes, as the Purple Aces have slumped to a 5-8 record, including three straight dropped decisions to open MVC play.
"It's been tough," said a dejected Simmons minutes after the buzzer sounded on the Purple Aces' 71-68 loss to Drake on Sunday. "We've really asked a lot of our guys. I think we're playing hard; we have to play smarter and we've just got to get better at finishing our possessions."
Finishing, in a separate sense of the word, will be how the seasons of Indiana State, Illinois State and Drake are ultimately judged. But for a Missouri Valley Conference that only returned half its starters league-wide, a league that took a blow to multi-bid hopes when overwhelming favorite Southern Illinois stumbled to a 7-8 (2-2 MVC) start, the emergence of the perennial also-rans as real factors is impressive indeed.
Perhaps, even, it's a leading indication of an MVC of the future, one that's capable of handfuls of bids year in and year out.
"If this is a down year, we're going to be making some leaps in the next several seasons as a conference," Elgin said. "We might even make people forget about 2006."
Kyle Whelliston is the national mid-major reporter for Basketball Times and a regular contributor to ESPN.com.