Dick Jerardi | Valley schools are riding high

YOU COULD MAKE a pretty good argument that Billy Packer is out of touch with some significant parts of the sport in which he is one of the most recognizable faces. He sort of proved that when he went on his anti-Missouri Valley Conference rant after the 2006 NCAA Tournament field had been announced.

That Packer knew nothing about the league was obvious. He has been a BCS conference guy forever and was defending the status quo against the "outrage" that the MVC somehow got three at-large berths. He cited all kinds of irrelevant historical data that had nothing to do with the sport in 2006. The 2005-06 season was all that was relevant to the Tournament Selection Committee.

Packer inadvertently did the Valley a favor. College hoops insiders already knew the MVC had a made a move into the top 20 percent of conferences, even if Packer did not. All of a sudden everybody was paying attention.

And when two Valley teams - Wichita State and Bradley - beat Seton Hall, Tennessee, Kansas and Pittsburgh on their way to the Sweet 16, the league was impossible to ignore.

Don't look now, but the league that gave us Oscar Robertson and Larry Bird has squeezed its way into the middle of the BCS leagues in the power rankings. With almost all of the non-conference games played, the Valley is fourth in the RPI behind the Pac-10, Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference, but ahead of the Big Ten, Big 12 and Big East. That's a lot of "Big" behind the Valley.

"The success that we have had, along with George Mason last year, I think it's almost changed the culture of scheduling and the way in which people look at [the midmajors]," MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said.

In 1992, the Valley was 21st in the RPI. Last year, it finished sixth.

"The low point was Duke-Southern Illinois at the Horizon in Chicago [1993]," said Elgin, who has been with the MVC since 1988. "They lasted about 3 minutes before CBS dropped the game."

Duke won, 105-70, then lost its next game to Jason Kidd and California, ending any threepeat chance. The Valley was strictly a one-bid league. And the one team was usually no factor.

"We began to understand the linkage between good, strong non-conference schedules and at-large bids," Elgin said.

The MVC presidents came out with a resolution in 1997 that, according to Elgin, said in essence: "We need to do everything to schedule as strong as we can."

So they did it.

The Valley has gotten 12 at-large teams in the last 7 years. Its regular-season conference champion has made the field for the last 13 years. In the last 10 NCAA Tournaments, Valley teams have produced 11 seed upsets and been upset only twice.

When it looked as if they were backsliding a few years ago, the league created very specific strength-of-schedule thresholds.

Before the 2001-02 season, the MVC decided to take $500,000 of its annual NCAA tourney money and put it in a separate pool. If a team did not meet the criteria, its share ($50,000) was divided equally among the other schools. That lasted only 2 years, but the point was made again. Play as many serious teams as you can non-conference.

"The process worked, because everybody had a greater appreciation for the science of scheduling," Elgin said. "You've got to be careful not to schedule really bad RPI teams."

What the Valley has done is somewhat similar to what the Atlantic 10 did in the 1990s. The difference was that John Chaney created a true national team at Temple, which John Calipari then emulated at Massachusetts.

"I just told [A-10 commissioner] Linda Bruno that 10 years ago, the Atlantic 10's path to great success was our roadmap," Elgin said.

What has happened to the A-10 the last few years is a story for another day. The Valley is now at the head table.

This season, the Valley has even more than its usual road non-conference wins over BCS schools. The Big East is 0-5 against the MVC. Also, the MVC is an amazing 54-1 at home in non-conference games.

Coaches from BCS leagues, especially the ACC, have been whining about the Valley, none more than Maryland's Gary Williams in 2006. He actually suggested Valley teams didn't want to play ACC teams. Anybody who knows anything about this game knows that BCS-league teams rarely want to play dangerous teams without big names. And they will almost never play them on the road. Too much risk.

"I said at the time it was a bunch of crap for a power coach to hide behind the notion that we're afraid to play his team," Elgin said. "It was kind of ridiculous that all our coaches called his office. That was almost making of mockery of getting him to play."

Elgin does not really have to worry about his league getting noticed anymore.

"We don't have to explain any-thing," he said. "People can see with the expanded TV coverage we have how good we are."

There might even come a time when Billy Packer tunes in, now that the MVC championship game is on CBS shortly before the selections are announced.

The Palestra tournament

The proposed Thanksgiving weekend tournament at the Palestra will be a Northeast corridor event with at least one Philly team in it every year. Eight teams will play two games at campus sites, then converge on the Palestra for day-night doubleheaders the Friday and Saturday after Thanksgiving.

The Palestra matchups will be preset and have nothing to do with the results of the first two games. Next season, it looks as if Penn and Drexel will participate, along with Virginia and Seton Hall. The other teams should be announced shortly.

Villanova is all but signed up for 2008, followed by Temple and Saint Joseph's the next two seasons.

The 'Bracket Buster'

ESPN's "Bracket Buster" matchups will be announced next week. A total of 102 teams from 16 conferences kept Feb. 16 and 17 open. Thirteen of the 51 games will be televised, six on ESPN2, five on ESPNU and two on ESPN 360.

Drexel probably will get one of the TV games. The Dragons will be on the road, possibly against a team from the MVC or Butler. Drexel is hoping for the best possible opponent, where even a close loss will look good and a win, like George Mason's at Wichita State last season, will be giant. *

Send e-mail to jerardd@phillynews.com.