Missouri Valley teams look to close gap with Wichita State in upcoming season
DES MOINES, Iowa -- Wichita State kept the Missouri Valley Conference in the spotlight last season with a 35-0 start, the best ever in Division I.
The Shockers did so at the expense of nine league rivals who didn't even come close to an NCAA tournament bid.
Wichita State went 21-0 against league opponents in 2013-14 and 18 of those victories were by at least 10 points. Though Wichita State gave the Valley a boost by earning a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, the constant discussion over its weak schedule sullied the Valley's reputation.
This offseason, everyone else is focused on closing the gap with the Shockers and restoring the league to national relevance.
''They're not backing up for any of us. We have to have some teams be able to click their heels a little bit and compete with them. They're the standard in the league by a mile,'' Bradley coach Geno Ford said of the Shockers. ''I actually think it's possible for a couple of teams to push them this year, which didn't happen a year ago. But until somebody does it, that's all wasted breath and conversation because it needs to happen or our league can't grow.''
Two years ago, Wichita State and Creighton engaged in a thrilling fight for the league title that stretched from January until March. The Bluejays then left for the new-look Big East, and many feared the Shockers wouldn't have anyone to push them in 2013-14 and beyond.
It was even worse than anyone could have imagined.
Indiana State, which finished second in the league, lost three times to the Shockers by an average of 13.7 points. As the league's only representative in the NIT, the Sycamores lost by 20 points at Arkansas.
Northern Iowa was the only other Valley team to finish at more than .500 in the league at 10-8, and the five teams in the bottom half of the conference -- Southern Illinois, Bradley, Drake, Evansville and Loyola -- finished below .500 overall.
The Valley, which had prided itself on its depth, is now full of teams working to simply be competitive with the powerhouse Shockers. .
''Wichita State has set a bar. And I can just tell you by seeing the coaches on the road and the level of recruiting that's going on, everybody is chasing that thing extremely hard,'' Loyola coach Porter Moses said. ''They set a bar of excellence. ... and that's healthy.''
The Valley's issues in 2013-14 could be blamed largely on inexperience, which means last season's youth could spearhead a revival this winter.
Four of the six players named first-team All-Missouri Valley will be back next season, including Evansville's D.J. Balentine and Northern Iowa's Seth Tuttle. Five different teams had players named to the All-Freshman team - none of them Shockers - and more than 70 percent of the Valley's overall scoring and rebounding is expected back this winter.
''I don't think there's any doubt there will be better teams in the league this year than last,'' Illinois State coach Dan Muller said. ''The bottom line was last year was a young year for the league and a down year.''
Wichita State will still likely be the overwhelming favorite next season, with reigning player of the year Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton all back. But departed star Cleanthony Early could become the rare Valley player to be a first-round NBA draft pick Thursday night, so replacing him won't be easy.
''I think it's pretty cyclical,'' Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. ''When I came in the league, we were certainly not on top. In fact, we were down there near the bottom.''