Wichita’s Success Boosts MVC

Wichita State's Cleanthony Early dunks the ball  during practice for their NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game against Louisville, Friday, April 5, 2013, in Atlanta. Wichita State plays Louisville in a semifinal game on Saturday. (AP Photo/Tim Donnelly)

Wichita State's Cleanthony Early dunks the ball during practice for their NCAA Final Four tournament college basketball semifinal game against Louisville, Friday, April 5, 2013, in Atlanta. Wichita State plays Louisville in a semifinal game on Saturday. (AP Photo/Tim Donnelly)

As many times as Doug Elgin has seen Missouri Valley Conference teams advance to the Sweet 16, he always has opted to enjoy the moment at arm’s length.

The MVC commissioner might have acknowledged players in the tunnel or congratulated a coach outside the locker room, but he chose not to invade their private space at the height of their season.

That was until last weekend when Wichita State advanced further than any team during Elgin’s 25-year tenure. After the Shockers beat Ohio State to reach the Final Four, Elgin not only attended postgame parties but allowed himself to enter the locker room.

“In all the years that I have enjoyed our Sweet 16 success, I’ve chosen not to do that,” he said. “That’s almost sacred ground, and if you’re not part of it, I don’t think inserting yourself is appropriate. But I wanted to go this time. I feel a strong bond to Wichita State and feel their struggles mirror the Missouri Valley’s struggles.”

Wichita State has put those struggles aside for the time by earning a national semifinal meeting with Louisville tonight.

Coach Gregg Marshall’s team also has eased some of the pain created two weeks ago by the announcement of Creighton’s departure by becoming the first MVC team since Indiana State in 1979 to reach the Final Four.

The Bluejays were eliminated in their second game. But by playing at least five tournament games, Wichita State has pushed the league’s payoff to at least $11 million, which will be distributed over the next six years without a single dollar going to Creighton.

As the leader of a conference that relies on the postseason for 70 percent of its revenue, Elgin certainly had reason to celebrate in Los Angeles.

“Seven units are a financial windfall,” Elgin said of the league’s seven tournament games. “Those (payments) are critical. Beyond that, what this does for the league is raise the level of respect and enhance the perception of the league nationally.”

The MVC has long faced what it considers a lack of respect. Scheduling against schools from major conferences has been difficult. Teams with solid credentials have been bypassed for NCAA berths. And just two weeks ago, CBS decided not to show the end of the MVC championship game in several league markets, a move that prompted an angry response from Elgin.

The feeling only worsened with Creighton’s announcement. But then Wichita State, a No. 9 seed, started its run, beating No. 8 Pittsburgh, No. 1 Gonzaga, No. 13 La Salle and No. 2 Ohio State. Marshall is ready for the country to stop thinking of the Shockers and their league as a fluke.

“I don’t think we’re Cinderella at all,” he said. “Cinderellas usually are done by this stage. If you get to this point, you can win the whole thing. I think Cinderella just found one glass slipper. I don’t think she found four.”

Before this season, the MVC had seven teams reach the Sweet 16 since 1999. Wichita State and Southern Illinois-Carbondale did it twice each and Northern Iowa, Bradley and Missouri State once.

Absent from that list is Creighton. But the Bluejays have made regular tournament appearances over the years and led the league in attendance this season with an average of 17,155. Elgin said Wichita State’s success has provided a timely boost in morale, but that only goes so far.

“It doesn’t minimize the loss,” he said. “You have a great program in the top echelon of the country in attendance. We’ll go out and look at the landscape and see what would be the best institutional fit. But I just don’t think you can justifiably say the one institution we attract can replace Creighton.”

Conference officials are visiting Valparaiso, Loyola-Chicago, Illinois-Chicago and Missouri-Kansas City in their search for a 10th member. Seven of the league’s nine presidents must approve a candidate for membership.

Meanwhile, there is a growing danger that the MVC could lose another rising coaching star. Marshall said Wednesday that he had been contacted by UCLA about its opening before Steve Alford was hired and that he refused to speak to the school while in LA. Marshall makes about $1.5 million a year.

“I would be surprised if he were to leave,” Elgin said. “I sat with the (Wichita State) president during the games and he’s committed to keeping Gregg in Wichita.”

Those are the types of pieces that can help the conference continue to ride the positive energy. The financial boon also will be significant.

Whether those things open the door to bigger possibilities on the expansion front remains to be seen.

“I would hope that it would,” Elgin said, “because it shows we are relevant nationally.”