KANSAS CITY, Mo – Once Doug Elgin’s iPhone started working again — sometime between the 103rd email and 98th text message, the battery up and died — the missives in the inbox read something like this: Go Shockers!
I can’t believe I wrote those words.
Athletic director after athletic director, coach after coach, suit after suit, same story. For one week at least, the Missouri Valley Conference — founded in 1907, a family with rivalries a century old — is a completely united front. Salukis? Sycamores? Redbirds? They’re all Shockers now.
“There are mixed feelings because this is a rival to a lot of those teams,” Elgin, the MVC’s longtime commissioner, offers with a chortle. “I think everybody understand the unique — maybe not unique, but incredible position that Wichita State is in. It can (be (gone) very quickly, but it still doesn’t take away from the magnitude of what they’ve accomplished. God, it’s just incredible.”
It is, isn’t it? The Shockers (30-8), the Valley’s regular-season runners-up, are playing top-seeded Louisville (33-5) Saturday evening in the first of two NCAA Tournament national semifinals in Atlanta. The MVC hasn’t advanced this far in the Big Dance since 1979, when some cat named Larry Bird carried Indiana State all the way to a championship showdown with Magic Johnson and Michigan State.
That March, Elgin was a sports information director at Lafayette. Wichita coach Gregg Marshall was a teenager in Roanoke, Va., a low-flying guard at Cave Spring High who once took an elbow to the face with such force that they had to stop the game to find his teeth again.
And yet, three decades later, there are his Shockers, dancing with bluebloods such as the Cardinal, Syracuse and Michigan, all the while taking names. Beneath all that gold and black, this weekend is a celebration of the Valley, too, a bus league that’s always punched above its weight, rubbing shoulders with the beasts of the Big East and the Big Ten. A celebration of a moment Elgin wondered if he’d ever see during his tenure.
“It really does seem like an impossible journey, that these guys have arrived in Atlanta,” says Elgin, the MVC’s commissioner since 1988. “But I do think that when you boil it down, if you look at the way in which Wichita got here — it was funny to hear Gregg Marshall say, ‘Hey, we’re not Cinderella.’ It never seemed to me, sitting at courtside, that in any of these games, that they were overmatched, that it was unbelievable upset. It really felt like they were the aggressor, they were the more determined team, it seemed like they were the team that would win.”
And, in terms of basketball karma, it’s only fitting that the Valley has turned out to be one of this postseason’s big winners as well. Especially considering where things were in Elgin’s world three weeks ago.
First, the 2013 MVC tourney was peppered by loud and persistent rumors that it would be Creighton’s last, which made the fact that they won the darned thing again all the more awkward for everyone involved. Then CBS pulled a “Heidi Bowl” on the Arch Madness title game, cutting the broadcast short in several of the league’s major television markets, including Chicago, in order to show Michigan-vs.-Indiana. A short while after that, as expected, the Bluejays received — and accepted — an invite to join the new, hoops-first Big East, and, just like that, the Valley lost its top basketball draw.
So suffice to say that the Shockers have bandaged at least some of the MVC’s recent run of flesh wounds. Elgin’s gone from seeing red to rolling in green: For every game a Valley member plays in the Big Dance, the league rakes in roughly $1.6 million, spread out over six years. With at least five games under its belt, that means Wichita has added about $8 million to the league’s coffers over the past month alone. When you toss the two contests Creighton played in the tourney, the payout bumps up to $11.2 million.
Money can’t solve everything, but it can certainly help you sleep better at night.
“It was a tough winter for a lot of people, with all the speculation,” Elgin says. “We’ve moved on, and (Creighton has) moved on. From that standpoint, it’s rewarding. And maybe even more rewarding than if we hadn’t had a change in membership.
“It came at the right time … the right situation. It’s a reminder of how good we can be, I guess.”
How good? The MVC may be a league in flux, but it’s a salty league in flux. Valley teams are 94-49 in non-conference tilts this season, with the 94 victories representing a new all-time, single-season loop record for combined non-league pelts.
How good? The MVC notched 11 of those 94 wins against Bowl Championship Series-level competition. And it wasn’t just the Shockers that swung a big stick: Creighton took out Wisconsin, while Indiana State knocked off both Miami (Fla.) and Mississippi.
How good? Since 1994, MVC schools are 27-37 in the Big Dance, and 21 of those wins were over BCS big boys.
How good? Roughly one out of every four NCAA tourney bids over the past 19 years has amounted to a Sweet 16 berth for an MVC school; the corresponding upsets propelled players such as Bradley’s Marcellus Sommerville (2006) and Northern Iowa’s Ali Farokhmanesh (2010) onto magazine covers and into the cult pantheon of March Madness history.
“The Valley is just a bloodbath,” Marshall told reporters. “It’s physical. It’s a war of attrition.
“We beat the No. 1 team in the country (Gonzaga) and we got swept by (coach) Marty Simmons and Evansville. So don’t tell me Evansville is not a good basketball team, and Marty Simmons is not a good coach.”
To wit: On February 5, Marshall’s 19-4 Shockers team visited an 8-14 Southern Illinois bunch — and lost, 64-62, thanks to a controversial goaltending call that negated a Wichita block with 1.2 seconds left on the clock. It was the Shox’s third loss in a row, and if you’d have told Elgin, who was in attendance, that this same Wichita team would be one of four squads left vying for a national championship, he might’ve laughed your backside straight out of Carbondale.
“I would’ve said, ‘Hey, they’re capable of turning it around, but they better start now,’” Elgin says. “’And they better get back to basics.’ But they did. I’m not a basketball expert, I’m not a basketball strategist, I’m not someone that understands all the aspects of the game. But they have.”
Eight weeks later, the Shox are angry, swaggering, and alive, and The Little League That Could is the toast of the ATL. When George Mason and Virginia Commonwealth crashed the Final Four party earlier this decade, Elgin made a point to congratulate the folks at the Colonial Athletic Association. When Butler, then of the tiny Horizon League, danced all the way to the national title game in 2010, Elgin and his wife dropped by the Bulldogs’ historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, then sashayed over to the campus bookstore, purchased a Butler hat, and wore it during the game.
“I adopted each one of those teams as our own,” Elgin says. “That was my team, too.”
Now he’s hoping his peers will return the favor in kind. Elgin’s not exactly sure how the struts will hold up, what with this many folks piling on to the bandwagon all at once. But after 34 years, the man can’t wait to find out.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org