After a week-long break (nobody wants to talk during the holidays), TMMI is back. And to kick off the new year, we have one of the most powerful men in all of Hoops Nation, Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin. He's led the toughest mid-major conference in the land since 1988, spent four years on the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Committee, and some even believe he cracked the RPI's code on the way to the league's four bids in 2006. All we know is that he's one of the most knowledgeable, forthright and friendly people in the game, and we don't deserve to have him on our rinky-dink web show. We caught up with him on Sunday after a Drake-Evansville game; tune in as we discuss the Valley's "down year," scheduling policies, the possibility of a CAA-MVC Challenge, and the things that make the Missouri Valley so great.TMM: So what's been your take on this crazy first week? Indiana State, Drake and Illinois State are undefeated, and a lot of the Valley brand names like Southern Illinois and Bradley and Wichita are really struggling.DE:
It might appear to be wacky at this point, but the really good teams will rise to the top as we head through January and February, leading up to our tournament. I think what we're seeing, at first blush, is outstanding coaching. We have five new head coaches. I see a trend in our league now that you might compare to the marquee programs nationally, where you see programs develop or breed a line of coaches who succeed each other down a line... we're seeing that now in our league.
Here you have Kevin McKenna going from playing at Creighton and later serving as an assistant there, then becoming a head coach at Indiana State. By our research, it appears that Kevin is the first assistant coach from a Valley program to be hired at another Valley school since Tony Barone
went from Bradley, where he was an assistant, to Creighton. I don't know the year, you probably have that at Basketball State [ed. note: 1985]
But the trend continues. You have Marty Simmons, played at Evansville, assisted at Evansville, went away, now he's been brought back to the program. Same with Jim Les at Bradley, although he's not a new coach. Keno [Davis], bred as a head coach, mentored by his dad at Drake, he succeeds his father. Marshall was really the only new coach that didn't have any Valley ties. But the point of all this is that like the marquee national programs, we're seeing the Missouri Valley bring up head coaches from within the Valley family. And that's a very, very good trend.TMM: Like the Pitino tree, the Calhoun tree... now there's an Altman tree.DE:
The Valley programs are developing assistant coaches that aren't just going on to bigger stages, like Tubby Smith and Kevin Stallings and Bob Bender. We're also developing assistant coaches who have moved laterally to other schools, or who have left for further development then come back... the McKennas and the Leses and the Simmonses.
We did have some concern about the coaching turnover -- we haven't had five changes since 1979, the summer after the Bird-Indiana State season. We had that again this year, but this is proof that change can be good. We've seen reenergized programs with new head coaches at those five schools. It's still early January, but there are some very positive signs. Some of the programs that have been down in our league this decade are now building themselves up to championship contention.TMM: So if four teams that haven't had any NCAA appearances lately are getting stronger, what does that mean for the future? This could be a real Valley of Death in coming years if there aren't any easy marks.DE:
You are seeing some programs that have been conference have-nots that have certainly sent early indications that they're going to be contenders this year. But what we've proven as a league in the last few years is that your conference RPI is heavily dependent on the strength of the bottom half of your conference. If you look at the last there years in particular, we had extremely strong teams at the bottom. Many of the arguments that we've put forth lately about our conference's Tournament worthiness were based on the victories of, say, Indiana State... they beat Purdue and Butler last year. That was our 10th place team! Beat Butler! Missouri State, which didn't get a bid last year but was one of our NIT teams, beat a No. 2 seed, Wisconsin.
We've enjoyed extreme strength at the bottom. But you're always going to have a 5-13 team in a conference race since 50 percent of league games end in defeat for somebody, your cumulative league record in conference play is always .500. Lots of losses to absorb there.
But in terms of nonconference play, we were 55-1 in home games two years ago, and the reason that our league is sometimes grouped among power conferences is that we don't really have any bad teams. Most leagues have bad teams... and sure, Evansville's struggled a little bit, but I was encouraged about what I saw today from them. I think the success we've had as a league has helped those programs recruit better talent. A big reason you're seeing teams that haven't been big winners lately get better, at least in conference play, is that the Missouri Valley is attracting the kinds of freshmen that we couldn't get four or five years ago. And the talent level only stands to increase.TMM: Let's talk about scheduling policies for a minute. After the four-bid year and how you had hacked the RPI, it seems like every league at this level now has some sort of policy about nonconference scheduling, with limits on low-RPI and guarantee games. In your opinion, is this good for basketball or just more competition for those last few at-larges?DE:
I don't think it's more competition, because I do think... I hate to use an old clichÃ©, but the cream is going to rise to the top no matter what. To a certain extent, this has broken up the scheduling group that existed, that was much more prevalent five or six years ago. The elimination of the 2-in-4 rule has enabled schools in our leagues to play in Multi-Team Events, and it's been a real boost to the possibilities of at-large bids for schools at this level that can't get power-conference games on their own courts.
I think the one thing that people were wrong about was that we came up with a magic formula, or that we've figured out the RPI. That couldn't be further from the truth. It's a very imperfect system, you're shooting at a moving target. You have no idea how good Team X is going to be in any given season. You can't base anything on last year, and you only have to look at Final Four teams of the past four or five years to see how quickly the bottom can drop out. Coaches are smart enough, in most cases, they have a pretty good feel for how good teams they've scheduled are going to be.TMM: For people who may have forgotten the whole thing -- including myself -- what was that formula?DE:
When we created this policy years ago, we had three yardsticks of measurement. Three thresholds that you had to reach. You had to reach the threshold one of three ways. One was a season-ending measurement. If you were 149 or better [in the RPI], you earned your $50,000 distribution. The other two ways had to be achieved before the next year began. The three-year average RPI of all the teams you were scheduled to play had to be 149 or higher. The third way was that you could take the year-end RPI of all the teams you'd played the year before, if that was 149 or better you made it.
But we found out in that first year it wasn't so perfect. One of our conference teams had an extremely weak schedule, and they had a tremendous run of success against that schedule, and they ended up with a mid-70's type of RPI. We had teams that scheduled too tough, they made their mark with the scheduling and got their distribution. There were two ways to make it: schedule up, or schedule weak or win. There was a kind of a sliding scale to opponent strength in the old way we did it.
We found that we didn't want to force teams to reach a certain SOS threshold if it meant that they would be unsuccessful against that schedule during the year. So we relaxed those policies, it's now done more by feel. But I do think that our athletic administrators and coaches have proven that they get it, they understand the linkage between good, strong schedules, quality wins and quality losses, and the ability to build an RPI and resumÃ© that puts them in a place where they can be in that proverbial discussion in the committee room on selection weekend.TMM: Your conference, these past few years, has had a great rivalry in the BracketBusters with the Colonial Athletic Association. That was such a great part of the 2006 run, culminating in the "Mid-Major Super Bowl" in the Sweet 16 round between Wichita State and George Mason. I remember there was some talk back then about a CAA-MVC series, their commissioner Tom Yeager told me that you two had some preliminary discussions about such an event. Has that gone anywhere, and what are the challenges in putting something like this together? The fans would certainly love it.DE:
Right before that Wichita-Mason game at the Verizon Center, Tom Yeager, Andy Katz, Mike Tranghese and I stood at the corner of the court, and we had a discussion about how such a series could be put together. We were excited about the prospects of pulling off an event like that, but we've been thus far unsuccessful.
The BracketBusters event involves a leap of faith by coaches and athletic directors, to have someone schedule two games a year for them, essentially. I think there probably would not be a universal acceptance of more games being scheduled for teams in our league. It almost has to be either-or, because AD's and basketball coaches have such differing philosophies from school to school. On a limited basis, I would love to see a challenge series that would include schools like Xavier, Dayton, Charlotte, Gonzaga, Davidson... teams that have had a run of success and are expected to be good. But crossing conference lines beyond BracketBusters, there would be an appetite for that.
But there are so few TV windows before college football season ends that would be available... it would be impossible, I think, to carve another date or two out of the traditional conference season. That's what makes it very difficult. Not to mention that these early season tournaments and exam periods can play havoc with a desire to have a widely-endorsed, widely-embraced event like that. Call it the "Big Challenge" or something. It would be difficult to get a cross-section of teams that would be willing to put their hat in that ring and have it be on a date or two in November or December. Difficult, but not impossible.
If we did put together an event like that, it would be on a much more limited, selective basis than we have with the BracketBusters.TMM: I've just spent the last week here in the Valley, again, and I just want to go over the things that make this conference so unique and special. I love how the crowds are so energized, how they'll cheer for pretty much anything... including the media timeout free-throw shooting contests. Folks like you and I who are from back east are used to much more cynicism and apathy.DE:
You know, the one thing that the Valley has always had is great tradition and fan support. When the marquee programs in our league are way down, they still get great crowds and great interest in their programs. That's not the case antionally in all other conferences and corners of the country. A couple of years ago, a well-known dot-som writer tourned the Valley and I said to him, "What league would you compare us to?" And do you remember what he said?TMM: Ummm, no... I don't know what or who you're talking about.DE:
This was you!TMM: I'm just playing along, Commissioner.DE:
He said there's no conference that's quite like the Missouri Valley. And he was right. It's so unique, it's so Midwestern in a sense. We've used this tired phrase before: "great coaches, great arenas, great tradition."
I go into [Evansville's] Roberts Stadium and I haven't been there for a year. And I think, it's so different from our other buildings. It's such a diverse group of buildings -- some new, some ancient, some refurbished. Only some are in real need of any rehab. The end result of all that is that kids want to play at our schools. Coaches want to coach at our schools. I get asked all the time, what's made the Valley rise over the past 10, 20 years? It comes down to commitment. Commitment of our players and coaches to their programs, and the amazing commitment of our fans. And now that commitment is two-way. You have commitments from presidents to improve facilities, athletic directors to keep coaching continuity on their campuses, to be competitive in compensation.TMM: What's the main difference between now and the old days?DE:
I think what's really different about our league now versus 10 years ago is that the stage has been broadened. It used to be that you had to finish in the top two of our league, and the second place team would have to win the championship game in triple overtime for us to get two bids. The planets had to be perfectly aligned to really solidify our second team. Now we've proven that our teams can play with the best teams in the country.
You'll have to forgive me, I'm starting to sound like an SID here.No problem, Commissioner. If you're interested in learning more about the Missouri Valley Conference, it can be found all season long on a cable or satellite television set near you.