As Wichita State stormed through the first two weeks of the NCAA tournament on its way to the Final Four last March, Missouri Valley Conference commissioner Doug Elgin admits he couldn't enjoy the run the way he normally would have.
College Hoops Countdown, No. 10: Missouri Valley Conference
Creighton announced it was leaving for the Big East the day before the opening round of the NCAA tournament tipped off, so Elgin's time was consumed by the challenge of trying to find a suitable replacement for one of the Valley's flagship programs. He spent most of March crisscrossing the Midwest visiting prospective schools, compiling research and updating the university presidents about the process on early-morning teleconferences.
"It was a bittersweet month," Elgin said. "The uncertainty of the expansion of the Big East kind of cast a shadow over our year and made our tournament unusual to say the least. What I admire about our leadership is that nobody panicked or felt any sense of despair. They rolled up their sleeves and went to work."
The outcome of Elgin's efforts was the April 15 announcement that Loyola-Chicago had accepted an invitation to become the Valley's 10th member, a controversial addition given that the Ramblers lacked the basketball clout Creighton provided.
Creighton finished fourth or better in the Valley every season since 1998 and reached the NCAA tournament nine times during that stretch. Loyola-Chicago managed only four winning seasons during that same span and hasn't received a bid to any postseason tournament since 1985.
Not even Elgin will argue that the Valley is stronger entering the 2013-14 season having traded Creighton for Loyola, but he believes the Ramblers will become an asset in time. Elgin insists having a foothold in metropolitan Chicago will boost the rest of the Valley from both a TV revenue and recruiting perspective, plus he envisions Loyola investing in its basketball program so it can be competitive with the top teams in its new league.
"What they're focusing on this current period is athletics," Elgin said. "They have a great future, they have the wherewithal financially to ramp up their athletic program and they have tremendous leadership. We really feel strongly that they will improve as they enter our league and they'll be able to compete for championships."
What's critical for the Valley is for other programs to fill the void left by Creighton and help make sure the league can continue to contend for multiple NCAA tournament bids more often than not. Between the buzz from its Final Four run, a string of solid recruiting classes and the leadership of Gregg Marshall, Wichita State appears poised to remain nationally relevant for years to come, but the Shockers need other programs to step up around them.
Indiana State has the talent and experience to challenge Wichita State for the Valley title this upcoming season, but the Sycamores are likely to slip once seniors Jake Odum and Manny Arop graduate this spring. Northern Iowa has consistently been an upper-echelon Valley program under Ben Jacobson, but the Panthers haven't truly contended for an NCAA bid since their Sweet 16 run in 2010. Beyond those two, the best hope in the future may be rapidly improving Bradley, especially with Illinois State rebuilding and no other program poised to make a big leap in the next year or two.
Even though the loss of Creighton will still sting for a while, Elgin points to the Valley's resilience historically. Tulsa left the league in 1996 on the heels of Sweet 16 appearances under Tubby Smith in 1994 and 1995, but the Valley didn't crumble as programs like Creighton, Illinois State and Wichita State eventually emerged to soften the blow.
"When you lose a program like Creighton, there's no sugarcoating it," Elgin said. "It's a devastating loss. They're going to go on and have success in the league they've joined, but we've already turned the page. In college athletics these days life definitely goes on when there's realignment, and we're going to be just fine."