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October 24, 2006
Rivals.com selected the top 25 storylines for the upcoming 2006-07 college basketball season and will be releasing articles daily, counting down from No. 25 to No. 1. The No. 15 storyline focuses on what we can expect from the Missouri Valley Conference after landing a record four NCAA Tournament bids in 2006.
The Missouri Valley Conference doesn't have to worry anymore about not getting enough attention or being snubbed when the postseason arrives.
Not after landing four NCAA Tournament bids ? a record for a mid-major league ? and having two teams, Bradley and Wichita State, reach the Sweet 16 last season.
That success had led to a preseason full of change for the MVC, which finds itself in the national spotlight. There are new, loftier expectations this season in what is the 100th year of the league's existence. The college basketball world is eager to see what "The Valley" will do for an encore.
Can they land four bids again? Can they produce another Cinderella? Is it time to start considering the MVC a major conference?
It looks plausible ? much to the dismay of the major conferences ? that the answer to the first question will be yes.
Just revert back to last season. Lost in all the talk of the four NCAA bids was the fact that it was almost six. Creighton and Missouri State both put together r?m?that were arguably worthy of the field of 65. The Bears had the highest RPI (No. 21) of any team ever left out of the tournament.
Creighton and Missouri State probably won't be sweating out the next Selection Sunday. Both appear to have improved.
The Bluejays got great news when senior guard Nate Funk, one of the league's top players and one of the nation's top 3-point shooters, was granted a fifth year of eligibility. He averaged 17 points and 5.1 rebounds per game in 2004-05, but a shoulder injury allowed him to play just six games last season.
The healthy return of point guard Josh Dotzler, who missed the last seven games with a knee injury, should also provide a lift. The Bluejays went 3-4 down the stretch without their best ballhandler.
The Bluejays also landed the league's top recruiting class, a five-man group full of players who can contribute right away and provide much-needed depth.
Power forward Ty Morrison, a junior college transfer, had scholarship offers from Missouri, Oregon and Washington. Three-star shooting guard Isaac Miles was ranked among the nation's top 150 prospects.
The Bears are one of the league's most experienced teams, thanks to the return of four starters from a team that went 22-9 and led the league in scoring at 74.2 points per game.
Much of their offense comes from guard Blake Ahearn (16.3 ppg), who is a career 95 percent free-throw shooter.
They'll also get a boost from the return of an injured player. Small forward Deven Mitchell, a former role player, missed all of last season with a knee injury.
Perennial power Southern Illinois is probably the slight favorite. The Salukis bring back all five starters from a program that won the MVC Tournament last season and reached its fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament.
Wichita State, the reigning regular-season champ, remains dangerous despite losing Paul Miller - the league's 2005-06 Player of the Year. Seven players who averaged at least 16 minutes a game are back, including guard Sean Ogirri - who scored 35 points in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
The Shockers also add Israeli guard Gal Mekel, one of the top players at the European Under-18 championships last year.
Northern Iowa looks the least dangerous off the four teams coming off NCAA Tournament trips. The Panthers aren't as talented as last season, but the proven inside duo of Grant Stout and Eric Coleman might make them a contender again.
There are some dark horses out there, too.
Drake should be much better than the 12-19 record it posted last season. Talented junior guard Klayton Korver, the brother of former Creighton star and NBA player Kyle Korver, is healthy after missing every game with a knee injury.
Evansville brings back five starters and its top four scorers.
There are also off-the-court signs that show the MVC may be ready to join the ranks of the big six conferences.
The MVC recently signed a lucrative television deal that will put 22 of their games on the ESPN network, many nationally televised on ESPN and ESPN2.
Attendance numbers are on the rise as well. The league averaged a record 7,716 fans per game last season, 193 short of the Pac-10.
Creighton pulled in 13,900 a game, ranking 20th nationally in Division-I. Bradley, Southern Illinois and Wichita State each averaged more than 7,000.
Many of those programs also won a few recruiting battles against teams from the Big East, Big 12 and Pac-10 in 2006.
If the MVC can duplicate its success, that will become much more than a one-year phenomenon. The same goes for the league's newly earned spot alongside some of the premier programs in college basketball.