By Craig Phelps
Missouri State held off Wichita State 59-56 in a winner-takes-all battle for the MVC regular season title at the JQH arena Saturday afternoon. Fan’s rushed the court and the players celebrated the Bears first MVC regular season title and there was that sweet smell of an NCAA tournament bid in the air. The MVC regular season title might not be enough to get the Bears, a team that has been snubbed in the past, into the Big Dance.
The Missouri Valley Conference has repeatedly seen their teams snubbed out of the NCAA Tournament and Missouri State has been the equivalent of the Big Dance’s ugly step child. The Bears are the holders of a title they would much like to give back; three out of the top five RPI’s to never get into the National Tournament.
While the one seed in the MVC Tournament has made an NCAA appearance every year since 1993, Missouri State is still on the bubble. Heading into Saturday’s match up, they had an RPI of 46 and are 138 in the strength of schedule department. The Bears only really have two quality wins under their belt, both coming against Wichita State by a combined total of just eight points. Heading into Saturday’s action, Wichita had an RPI of 48 but had a 109 strength of schedule ranking.
That’s about it for the MVC regular season champions. It doesn’t get much brighter in the win’s department from there. Sure the Bears end the year with a 23-7 regular season record and went 15-3 in the Missouri Valley, but a big win over an out of conference team would really help Missouri State’s case. The MVC is ranked as just the twelfth best conference in the NCAA this year, finding themselves behind Conference USA, as well as the Atlantic 10, Colonial Athletics, and Horizon League conferences as well as the traditional “Big Six.”
Missouri State, who has not made an NCAA Tournament appearance since 1999, has just one game against a top 25 opponent, and even that might not be the case when the new rankings come out. The Bears lost to #23 Tennessee 60-56 back on November 17; but the Volunteers dropped a close one to Mississippi State on Saturday, 70-69.
The report card continues to go downhill from there. The boys from Springfield, Missouri lost to Tulsa 62-50 on November 19, a team with an RPI of 93. Missouri State also lost to Valparaiso in their ESPN Bracket Buster game 80-67, a team with an RPI of 69 and strength of schedule of just 95. The Bears lost to Oklahoma State 84-70 on December 11. While the Cowboys could be considered a quality loss with an RPI of 59, they are just 5-12 in Big 12 play and just barely snapped a four game losing streak when they played against Texas Tech on Saturday; they beat the Raiders 70-68.
It is also important to note that one of Missouri State’s wins came in a 101-61 blowout against the 5-22 Central Arkansas Bears, who have an RPI of 338. That puts them as the eighth worst team in the NCAA, at least by RPI. If the name Central Arkansas does not ring a bell, that’s because they are a bottom feeder out of the Southland Conference. Central Arkansas has one big positive thing going for them though, they did produce NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen.
With all that said, a trip to the championship game in the Missouri Valley Tournament could be enough to put the Bears into the Big Dance. Wichita appears to be the only team really standing in the way of the Bears and a conference tournament title. The two teams are in similar situations with both teams being on the bubble. Missouri State and Wichita may be able to punch their March Madness tickets if they can reach the Sunday game at the Scottrade Center, regardless of the outcome of the game.
The NCAA Tournament was expanded to 68 teams this year. The expansion could provide extra room for a team like Missouri State or Wichita, or it could just a few extra bids for another Big East team that is under .500 in conference play.