The "midmajor" conference could have as many as five teams at the Big Dance.
ST. LOUIS -- Perhaps the Missouri Valley Conference isn't such a "midmajor" after all.
The Missouri Valley, ranked sixth among all college basketball conferences, is poised to send an unprecedented four teams to the NCAA tournament this year, perhaps more, conference officials and coaches believe.
The MVC tournament -- Arch Madness -- starts Thursday in St. Louis with No. 8 seed Drake facing No. 9 Indiana St. and No. 7 Evansville against No. 10 Illinois St. The championship game is Sunday.
"Our league is deserving of this whether you want to call it a freak or a phenomenon," Missouri State coach Barry Hinson said Tuesday. "The league is good. It's a tough league."
Northern Iowa, Wichita State, Missouri State and Creighton were all in the top 30 of the NCAA's Rating Percentage Index (RPI) last week, a key indicator the tournament selection committee uses when picking at-large teams and seeding the tournament.
Wichita State (23-7, 14-4) won its first conference title in 23 years, beating Illinois State Saturday. The Shockers have the No. 1 seed in the tournament and play the winner of Indiana State and Drake on Friday, when all four quarterfinal games are played.
"It's something the people here have wanted for a long time," Wichita State coach Mark Turgeon said.
That excitement has been contagious. Hinson said coaches in the league are pulling for each other.
The MVC has sat as high as fifth this season in the conference rankings, and is currently behind only powerhouse conferences -- the Big 10, Big 12, Big East, ACC and SEC.
Last year, the Valley sent three teams to the NCAA tournament for only the third time in conference history. Some believe as many as five teams could make the cut, considering Southern Illinois (19-10, 12-6) and Bradley (18-9, 11-7) have also had strong showings this season.
Southern Illinois coach Chris Lowery said he's watched the league earn the respect of other coaches from around the country. The second-seeded Salukis have been the first seed in the last four MVC tournaments, but never won. They play the winner of the Evansville-Illinois State game.
"This league has changed drastically," Lowery said. "We were always in the high teens (in RPI ranking). It's a national league now."
It wasn't long ago that only the winner of the conference tourney made it to the NCAA tournament. But in recent years, coaches have used the RPI as a guide to schedule non-conference games.
"Coaches have an understanding how good this league is and it makes it tough to schedule up," Bradley coach Jim Les said. "The strength of our league has been our parity."
Northern Iowa beat once-ranked Bucknell, No. 21 Louisiana State and No. 23 Iowa this season -- but has lost its last four conference games. The sixth-seeded Panthers open the conference tourney against No. 3 Missouri State.
"If the [NCAA] selection committee will judge us on the body of our work, I don't think there's any question we have a place there," Northern Iowa coach Greg McDermott said.