The Missouri Valley Conference will look completely different in a few months.
After Illinois-Chicago officially announcement his plans to join the nation’s third-oldest conference on January 26, the final piece of the jigsaw had been placed. For the first time in its history, the Valley will have 12 full members after Murray State and Belmont are ready for the opening doors of the MVC when the 2022-23 academic year begins July 1.
Loyola-Chicago, an MVC member since 2013, decided to forgo her potential decade-long stint after her announcement in November to join the Atlantic 10 conference next July.
Texas-Arlington, Kansas City, Omaha, and northern Kentucky are rumored to be potential candidates for Valley expansion at one time or another. UTA has found its way into the Western Athletic Conference and there are currently no substantial rumors that the other three schools will change their affiliations.
So now that the dust has settled, the soda has stopped fizzing, and the winds of conference change are calm — at least for now — let’s look at who benefits and who doesn’t benefit from the changes in the MVC.
WINNERS: State of Murray and Belmont
We’ll start with the most obvious decision. The Racers and Bruins have been members of the Ohio Valley Conference and were the MVC’s primary acquisition targets. Pulling off the decision to contest Murray St. in the Valley was particularly impressive since the Racers had been founding members of the OVC since the conference’s inception in 1948.
Both basketball programs have had plenty of success and March Madness offers over the past decade. Most remember Murray St. for being one of the best mid-major teams in 2018 and 2019 when Memphis Grizzlies and NBA All-Star guard Ja Morant ran the show. At the time of this publication, the Racers are 21-2 this season and ranked 27th in the NCAA NET rankings, higher than any team in the Missouri Valley.
Belmont has gone dancing eight times (all since 2006) and is 126-33 over the past five full seasons. Two successful NBA role players, Ian Clark and Dylan Windler, have also gone through the Bruins program over the past decade.
The OVC is generally a single-candidate basketball league, so it wouldn’t be fair for either program to stay in the “other valley” any longer. The addition of Murray State and Belmont should make the MVC a long-lasting multi-candidate league.
Belmont’s announcement in September to join the MVC wasn’t enough to keep the Ramblers in their potentially geographically best-suited conference. After a Cinderella run to the Final Four in 2018 and a Sweet Sixteen trip in 2021, Loyola felt it made sense to jump to the Atlantic 10, home of Davidson, Dayton and St. Bonaventure, among others.
The Ramblers have packed a punch in the MVC for the past few years, but have only reached the NCAA Tournament once since Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. The Atlantic 10 regularly places more than one team in the Big Dance, but it’s more than reasonable to assume that the MVC will now do the same.
Loyola has one of the most experienced teams in the country and will lose starters Lucas Williamson and Aher Uguak along with key players in Ryan Schwieger, Chris Knight, Keith Clemons and Tate Hall until they graduate. That’s over 55% of their scoring, two outstanding defensemen and the last remaining players who were part of the Ramblers’ last two NCAA offers.
Loyola has reason to remain optimistic with the return of Braden Norris and Marquise Kennedy and a promising head coach in Drew Valentine who can recruit at a high level. However, staying in the valley rather than making a apparent half a step to the Atlantic 10 would have propelled the VMC’s national respect into the stratosphere.
Shame on you, Loyola.
WINNER: MVC Athletic Departments
MVC Schools offices likely breathed a sigh of relief when rumors of Texas-Arlington and Kansas City joining the conference died down. Rather than traveling hundreds of miles to Texas and having skyrocketing travel expenses, teams (and their corresponding athletic departments) won’t have to spend as much to travel to the Ohio River Valley.
Evansville and southern Illinois were geographically relatively isolated from most of the conference. However, Murray State, located in western Kentucky, and Belmont in Nashville provide opportunities for shorter travel distances and potential future rivalries between the MVC’s southern contingent. Sure, Des Moines to Nashville isn’t the most desirable bus trip, but it certainly beats Loyola having to get to Philadelphia.
As mentioned earlier, the increased possibility of the MVC receiving multiple offers for the NCAA tournament will result in more money being allocated to the conference, which may eventually trickle down to member school offices.
LOSING: Conference tournament format
Consistently one of the most intriguing men’s basketball tournaments in the country, Arch Madness (and Hoops in the Heartland for women’s basketball) is all but certain to be very different.
Every MVC school wants to avoid the dreaded first-round games on Thursday, reserved for the bottom four teams in the conference standings. Now, with 12 teams, it’s safe to say the MVC will likely see the top four teams receive byes through Friday and the remaining eight teams play their first games on Thursday.
Adding Thursday’s games will make it harder for a 5 or less seed to win Sunday’s league game, as they would play four games in four days. Valparaiso was the first team to do so when they faced Bradley for the MVC Championship in 2020. Astute Braves fans will recall Valpo looking completely exhausted as Bradley won by double digits. Seeing underdogs and teams that aren’t physically exhausted play Sunday in St. Louis may not be happening at all now.
WINNER: Luke Yaklich (and the rest of Chicago)
Illinois-Chicago is easily the “ugly brother,” if I had to name one, among MVC newcomers. The Flames have trailed in the bottom half of the Horizon League for recent memory, but head coach Luke Yaklich gives them reason to be optimistic.
Yaklich began coaching in 1999, leading Illinois high schools such as Sterling, LaSalle-Peru and Joliet West. He then held assistant positions at Illinois State, Michigan and Texas before taking charge of UIC last season. Although the Flames haven’t been hugely impressive this season, Yaklich is a defensive mastermind, leading Michigan to the second-highest defense in the nation in 2018, and he became highly respected in just his second year in the Windy City.
The addition of UIC also allows the valley to retain Chicago’s media market. Nobody will be upset by the possibility of playing a game on the NBC Sports Chicago network. The Flames will also be able to reignite their Horizon League rivalry with Valparaiso just across the Indiana border.
Let’s not forget, Loyola also wasn’t exactly a conference title contender when they joined the MVC in 2013. They also didn’t have the majority of college basketball fans in Chicago, but the Ramblers turned their mediocre fortunes into something special. There are too many similarities here to think Illinois-Chicago can’t do the same thing.