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Evansville Courier & Press (Indiana)
With plans of expansion, officials from the Missouri Valley Conference visited the campuses of Nebraska Omaha, Milwaukee, Murray State and Valparaiso this week. The visits were first reported by Dave Reynolds of the Peoria Journal Star.
The MVC is looking to add one to three members to replace Wichita State, which is headed to the American Athletic Conference. The nine remaining MVC teams are Bradley, Drake, Evansville, Indiana State, Illinois State, Missouri State, Loyola, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois.
Here's a closer look at the possible expansion candidates and how they would fit into the existing men's basketball structure:
Basketball history: The Crusaders have qualified for nine NCAA tournaments, including seven from 1996-2004. They made it back to the Big Dance in 2013 and 2015, and have played in the NIT each of the last two postseasons. Valpo's only two wins in the NCAA Tournament came in 1998, when it advanced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 13 seed before losing to Rhode Island.
2016-17 season: 24-9 overall, 14-4 Horizon League, lost 82-57 to Illinois in the first round of the NIT. Final RPI: 78.
Pros: With two Indiana schools and nearby Loyola (Chicago) already in the league, Valparaiso is a good geographic fit, which cuts down on inconvenience and travel costs. Based on recent history, the Crusaders are the best bet to elevate the profile of the league in men's basketball. For those seeking a true public-private balance, this addition would give the MVC five public schools and five private schools.
Con: The Crusaders had plenty of stability with the Drew family in charge; Homer Drew led them to five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances from 1996-2000, and his son, Bryce, won four Horizon League regular-season titles from 2012-16. Bryce Drew's former assistant, Matt Lottich, had a solid first season at the helm but is still largely unproven. And now Lottich must maintain the Crusaders' standard without Alec Peters, the 2017 Horizon League Player of the Year and a two-time honorable mention AP All-American.
2. Murray State
Basketball history: The Racers have made 15 NCAA Tournament appearances dating to 1964. They've made nine appearances since 1995 and advanced to the Round of 32 in each of their last two trips (2010, 2012).
2016-17 season: 16-17 overall, 8-8 Ohio Valley Conference. Final RPI: 231.
Pros: Murray State has proven over the years it can sustain a solid men's basketball program, which is among the most important qualities the MVC is seeking in replacing league powerhouse Wichita State. MSU is a couple hours from current members Evansville and Southern Illinois and is close to the league's existing geographic footprint, although it is a long trip from Drake and Northern Iowa.
Con: The Racers have a football program (Wichita State didn't). And while MSU could presumably join the Missouri Valley Football Conference, Murray State might dilute the quality of that league. The Racers have been a middling football team in the OVC, and the MVFC is arguably the strongest FCS conference in the country.
3. Nebraska Omaha
Basketball history: Previously a Division II program, UNO played its first season in D-I as an independent in 2011-12. The Mavericks then joined the Summit League, where they have finished a combined 19-13 over the past two seasons. UNO has never been to the NIT or NCAA Tournament since joining Division I.
2016-17 season: 18-14 overall, 9-7 Summit League. Final RPI: 141.
Pros: UNO's inclusion west of the conference's existing footprint could appease the MVC's Iowa schools, especially if Murray State is also added. The MVC has history with the Omaha market, as Creighton was a member from 1976 to 2013.
Con: Even though the Mavericks have made an impressive rise to respectability in the Summit League over just a few years, the MVC is another step up in terms of competition. Initially, at least, UNO would add little to the Missouri Valley's basketball brand.
Basketball history: Milwaukee has been a member of the Horizon League since 1994-95, when it was known as the Midwestern Collegiate Conference. The Panthers have won four Horizon League tournament championships (2003, 2005, 2006, 2014), resulting in NCAA tournament appearances each of those years. They advanced to the Sweet 16 as a No. 12 seed in 2005 before losing to national runner-up Illinois.
2016-17 season: 11-24 overall, 4-14 Horizon League. Final RPI: 260.
Pros: The history of basketball success is encouraging. Plus, grabbing possibly two schools from the Horizon League would extend the gap between the two conferences and position the MVC even more dominantly among mid-major leagues in the Midwest. Milwaukee is also the largest market among the schools being considered.
Con: Similar geographic fit and from the same conference as Valparaiso - but with less recent success in men's basketball. If the MVC elects to add only one of these schools, it would appear Valpo has the upper hand.