Valley’s NCAA contenders building a profile for success
Depending on how much faith you put into numbers and history, the Missouri Valley Conference may be poised to wreck a few brackets.
The league doesn’t have a clear at-large qualifier for the NCAA Tournament, but Illinois State (21-5) and Wichita State (22-4) have accumulated the sort statistical profile that plays well in March.
Northern Iowa (12-12) is a notch below, but is starting to trend in the right direction and is establishing itself as the conference’s third-best team.
It seems likely one of those three will earn an automatic bid to the NCAAs by winning the Valley tournament in St. Louis.
And the data shows any of the three could make a run.
A short disclaimer: The following is more fun than sure-fire science – based on information compiled by Sports-Reference.com and Kenpom.com – and the results during college basketball’s postseason are notoriously fickle.
Still, a few common themes develop when you start looking back at the eight Valley teams that have advanced to the Sweet 16 since 2000.
The slower the pace, the better. Shooting percentages and scoring are secondary. And, most importantly, defense rules.
Let’s start with Adjusted Defensive Efficiency, as tracked by Ken Pomeroy.
It’s based on how many points a team allows per 100 possessions, and all eight Valley teams that have reached the NCAAs second weekend have ranked among the top 50 nationally. In fact, the last five were ranked among the top 20.
The Redbirds are also in good shape when it comes to the fewest points per game (ranking ninth out of 351 NCAA Division I programs by allowing 61.7). Wichita State is 12th (62.6) and Northern Iowa is 31st (64.3).
Being defensive minded can pay dividends in a neutral-site setting, where it takes time for shooters to find their touch and offenses to get in sync.
This becomes even more difficult when an opponent plays at a deliberate pace.
Illinois State averages just 66.2 possessions per game (placing the Redbirds 292nd nationally). The Panthers have the ball 64.6 times (324th). Wichita State 69.4 (131st).
The last five Valley teams to reach the Sweet 16 were all above 200 nationally.
On the other hand, only one of those teams cracked the top 100 when it came to its own scoring. The Shockers are currently 26th with an average of 81.7.
When Wichita State went on its Final Four run in 2013, it ranked 20th in ADE, 35th in field-goal percentage defense and No. 201 in tempo.
The Northern Iowa squad that knocked off No. 1 Kansas in 2010 was 13th in ADE, 52nd in field-goal defense and 343rd in tempo.
Most of the latest NCAA projections have Illinois State and Wichita State squarely on the bubble.
If both get in, it will double the Valley’s chances of stealing the spotlight. And if these numbers mean anything, multiple teams from the conference could reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2006.
So, when you’re filling out your bracket, it might be worth scanning the latest data.