Missouri Valley Conference Bucks Larger Mid-Major Trends
For most of the 21st century, the number of NCAA Tournament at-large bids going to schools outside of what is known in football as Power Five conferences was fairly static. In most good years, they could expect 13 or 14 bids, and in lean years, they could still almost always expect 10 or so bids.
That has changed in recent years, however. In 2017, just one year after 13 bids had gone to non-power conference teams, just seven such bids were awarded. The number slightly improved to nine bids in 2018, but in 2019, it was a record low of five.
The numbers simply don’t lie. If you aren’t playing baseball in one of the five major conferences, it has become harder to get into the NCAA Tournament. Unless you’re the Missouri Valley Conference, apparently, which has somehow managed to buck that trend and achieve a historical level of success in recent years.
Twice in the last five seasons, the MVC has tied a conference record by getting three teams into regionals. And, in fact, one of those seasons was 2019, when the league got two of the five non-Power Five at-large bids awarded.
Missouri State and Dallas Baptist have also hosted regionals in the recent past, which are the only instances of MVC teams other than Wichita State (now a member of the American Athletic Conference) hosting during the 64-team era of the NCAA Tournament.
So how has it overachieved compared to other conferences?
In a word, it’s RPI.
Take 2015, when Missouri State, Dallas Baptist and Bradley all made regionals, and MSU and DBU hosted. All three of those teams finished inside the top 25 in RPI, but otherwise had resumes that were relatively light. The Braves even secured a No. 2 seed that year despite finishing 10-11 in the MVC.
The 2019 season was similar. Dallas Baptist, Illinois State and Indiana State got into the field of 64, all with RPIs inside the top 30 despite the Redbirds (7-16) and Sycamores (7-11) both sporting records well under .500 against the RPI top 50. But those RPI top 50 records are actually a feature of those teams’ postseason resumes, not a bug, at least in terms of RPI. The benefits of the wins against top competition far outweigh the negative fallout of those losses, and oftentimes, the RPI will actually go up after losses to high-RPI teams. The goal is to win high-RPI games, but just playing them is often good enough.
Some of the good fortune in RPI happens naturally. The formula rewards road wins, and because the weather is bad in much of the MVC footprint in February and March, teams play a ton of road games early on.
But the MVC doing well in RPI is also no accident, and in fact, building quality schedules is an unofficial conference-wide directive. Boyd Nation, a longtime college baseball RPI guru who runs BoydsWorld.com, has spoken at MVC baseball meetings in the past, and the current league administration pushes schedule building as well.
“I think it starts with Gregory Walter, who runs baseball for the Missouri Valley,” said Illinois State coach Steve Holm. “He does a really good job in helping you understand the RPI and what it takes to be good. He calls it tier one and tier two teams in our league. He never tells you you’re a tier one or a tier two, but you should be smart enough to figure it out, and tier ones need to schedule a certain way and tier two need to schedule a certain way to in order to help the tier one, so there is a little bit of that. There’s definitely some education going on with that.”
Scheduling diversity also helps, as it prevents the conference from being overly reliant on riding the coattails of one conference or a small cluster of geographically convenient opponents for an RPI boost. If the league’s membership was limited to playing mostly Big Ten teams in midweek games, for example, the Big Ten having a good year from a metrics standpoint would have outsized importance on the postseason fortunes of the MVC.
Missouri Valley teams do play Big Ten teams regularly, and lately, that’s been helpful from an RPI standpoint, but thanks to the location of schools like Dallas Baptist and Missouri State, and aggressive scheduling from others like Illinois State and Evansville, wins annually come against SEC and Big 12 foes as well, and that all gets baked into the RPI.
“The other thing I think people don’t realize is our league tends to be a little bit more north and south than most the other leagues,” Holm said. “So with that, you have Dallas Baptist picking up a lot of the Big 12 RPI points. They’re playing them, they’re beating them, so is Missouri State. We’re up picking up a little bit more Big Ten, so is Indiana State, and then when we go on our (trips), like we went to Vanderbilt last year, we were at Oklahoma and Arkansas, those were wins this year, so we’re taking a stab at those SEC ones, Evansvile is taking stabs at SEC stuff, so the league RPI, there’s a lot of variety to it, and the variety that is there is strong.”
What Dallas Baptist has brought to the league goes beyond its ability to pick off Big 12 and SEC teams in nonconference play, however.
A little bit like Wichita State when the Shockers were the clear class of the MVC (although not quite at the level of Wichita State when it was competing for national titles), DBU gives the conference a team it can count on to be at-large worthy each year. The Patriots have been to a regional in each of the last six seasons, and although they did make some of those appearances via automatic bid, they’ve been at-large quality just about every time.
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That in and of itself makes it tough for the MVC to not get at least two teams into regionals each year, as all it would take is someone other than DBU winning the conference tournament, and it makes it much easier for everyone else to begin to build a postseason resume if you can guarantee at least one RPI-boosting series in league play.
Missouri State hasn’t been as consistent as DBU in recent years, with a couple of postseason misses mixed in, but in the years the Bears have been good, they’ve been so good that they’ve also served as an RPI buoy for the rest of the conference.
In 2015, that played a big role in the league getting three teams into regionals, and in 2017, it played a big role in the MVC being a two-bid league despite that being a down year for the conference in general.
Of course, DBU and Missouri State being able to serve as tentpoles in the Missouri Valley is also contingent upon the rest of the conference not making it impossible for the Patriots and Bears to do so, and that’s something else the league has going for it.
It’s a competitive league. As with all conferences, there will always be one or two teams at the bottom of the standings that are in a down cycle for a period of time, but the rest of the league can typically be counted on to be solid.
“The league has just evolved in so many areas since I played in the late ‘90s,” said Evansville coach Wes Carroll, who played for the Purple Aces from 1998-2001. “It has become really balanced in competitiveness top to bottom and you’ll see a merry-go-round of teams at the top.”
That’s not just a feeling, though, because the data backs it up. In five of the last six full seasons, the MVC has produced at least three top-100 RPI teams and no more than one team worse than 200 in RPI. During that time, the MVC has also only finished outside the top 10 in conference RPI once, when it came in 16th in that outlier 2017 season.
That suggests that quality in the conference isn’t just coming from Dallas Baptist joining the league or one or two teams being on an up cycle in a given year. It’s from the entirety of the conference showing improvement over time.
Not shockingly, that improvement has coincided with administrations investing in baseball facilities or programs moving into better stadium situations.
“You can also see that facility upgrades have been a big part of that as well,” Carroll said. “Bradley shifting into a minor league park, obviously, Missouri State shifting into a minor league park, Dallas Baptist really just building a beautiful SEC-caliber type of facility down there. Southern Illinois getting a makeover with turf a couple of years ago, and then us finally kind of taking that step (and installing turf), Indiana State did the same thing. So you kind of saw the stagnant, mid-major Missouri Valley Conference bottom half of the conference year-in, year-out from the early 2000s, late 90s finally get a facelift and it’s paying dividends from top to bottom competitiveness.”
The best part about that from the Missouri Valley’s perspective is that facility renovations beget more success, which justifies further investment, which leads to even more success, and the cycle continues into the future.
And if current trends in college baseball continue apace, that might be what it takes for the Missouri Valley Conference to continue to stand out as a mid-major success story.