Kirk Wessler: Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge a win-win deal

Kirk Wessler

The most exciting news to come out of the Missouri Valley Conference since the March Magic of 2006 was leaked Tuesday morning by Bradley basketball coach Jim Les.

“Mountain West Challenge,” Les uttered during a news conference early on MVC Media Day. Eyelids all over the Sheraton Hotel ballroom leaped from snooze mode to red alert. Suddenly, real news had been committed. Good news. Most excellent news.

The Valley and the Mountain West, perennially two of the top 10 men’s basketball conferences in the nation, have reached an agreement in principle to engage in an annual challenge series.

Details remain pending, but the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge would begin with the 2009-10 season and run for four years, with nine games each season.

A news release had been prepared but not distributed at the outset of Media Day. MVC commissioner Doug Elgin had not mentioned the Challenge in his “State of the Valley” address before the coaches took over the dais.

“I apologize,” Les would say to Elgin a short time later, extending his hand in the hallway outside. “I didn’t realize I broke the news.”

Then Les smiled. “Consider it payback for the schedule.”

Elgin laughed, knowing well how unhappy the Bradley camp has been over a Valley schedule that puts the Braves on the road for three consecutive games in January and also sends three prime rivals to Peoria while BU students are on semester break.

So, touche.

Elgin and Les are both on the same happy page about the Challenge. All the Valley coaches are happy. More than happy.

“Terrific,” Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich says.

Nonconference scheduling, Creighton coach Dana Altman says, “has been a problem in our league for as long as I can remember.”

Schools from the six so-called power conferences — the Bigs Ten, XII and East, plus the ACC, SEC and Pac-10 — generally avoid home-and-home contracts outside their own cabal. Contract talks with other schools too often break down over petty issues such as which team will go on the road first. Then there are coaches who fear too many tough games might result in losses that jeopardize their jobs.

“But we have to keep the pedal to the metal,” Elgin said, stressing the importance of building a strong resume for the NCAA tournament committee to consider. “A strong team with a strong schedule is the formula for the NCAA. A strong team with a weak schedule doesn’t necessarily mean (qualification for) the NCAA.”

The challenge series will help fortify those schedules — for the teams in both leagues.

The Mountain West differs from the Valley in that its members play bowl-division football. Otherwise, says Jankovich, who was an associate head coach at MW member Colorado State 20 years ago, “we mirror each other in a lot of ways.”

“The Mountain West has great venues and fan support, and great tradition in basketball,’’ he said. “That also describes the Valley.”

Of the 19 schools in the two leagues, six — Utah and Brigham Young in the Mountain West; Bradley, Missouri State, ISU and Southern Illinois in the Valley — rank among the top 50 Division I basketball programs in total victories. Six — New Mexico, BYU, UNLV and Utah in the Mountain West, and Creighton and Wichita State from the Valley — ranked among the top 50 in total average attendance last season, and Bradley ranked 52nd. Three Mountain West members — Utah, UNLV and Wyoming — have NCAA Final Fours in their histories, compared to four Valley schools — Bradley, Drake, Indiana State and Wichita State.

In the RPI rankings of conferences nationally, the Mountain West has loomed among the top 10 in eight of the past nine seasons. The Valley has ranked among the top eight in each of the past four.

Challenge-series dreams have floated through the Valley for several years. More often than not, talk about possible partners focused on eastern leagues, such as the Colonial and Atlantic-10. But neither generated the kind of enthusiasm Valley members have for joining with the Mountain West. The coaches, Elgin says, were unanimous, and the athletics directors concurred.

The Mountain West had fewer options. The only conference in the region with remotely comparable basketball quality is the West Coast, but the arenas in that league tend to be small, sometimes little better than a large high school gym.

Negotiators in most any walk of life will tell you the best deals are win-win.

This is one of those.

“It’s a matchup of two similar conferences,” Elgin says. “We are the best two (non-BCS), in my opinion. It was an idea that made sense and whose time had come.”

Kirk Wessler is Peoria Journal Star executive sports editor/columnist. He can be reached at