One year after landing four NCAA tournament berths and justifying that record postseason haul and newfound status with a pair of final 16 appearances, the Missouri Valley Conference was squarely back in mid-major land on Sunday night.
The Valley received only two bids, a No. 4 seed for regular-season champion Southern Illinois (27-6) in the West and a No. 10 for conference tournament champion Creighton in the South, while Missouri State was among the teams left out for a second straight season.
Last March, Missouri State's No 21 RPI was the best ever to be left out of the NCAA tournament. During the buildup to Sunday, conference commissioner Doug Elgin had said he would be "shocked" if Missouri State (22-10) did not rate an at-large berth after finishing third in the league and with a resume that includes a victory over Wisconsin and a No. 36 RPI.
"You sometimes have to wonder what it takes," Elgin said. "I'm just sick with disappointment.
"I certainly feel for Barry Hinson's seniors, and the fact they'll never have a chance to play in the NCAA tournament. I think they could have done some damage."
Elgin was careful not to criticize the work of the NCAA selection committee, where he served four years as a member. Still, he was adamant in his belief that the Valley deserved more respect.
The Valley has been ranked as high as fifth in the conference RPI ratings and was sixth on Sunday, right behind the Big East and ahead of the Big 12. The Big East got six bids and the Big 12 four, while the Valley's two-team allotment reflected a lack of postseason opportunity for all mid-majors, totaling six bids after getting eight last March.
"I'm not worried about trends, I'm not thinking about which league got how many bids, and I really believe the NCAA committee gets it right," Elgin said. "There were a lot of teams that had very, very strong profiles that were left out as well."
The Valley is 11-10 against teams in the NCAA field, including three wins by Bradley over Florida A&M, Virginia Commonwealth and Wright State. Conference research showed that in the last 16 years, the top six conferences have rated at least three bids all but two seasons.
Elgin speculated that the bracket buster round of games in February might have hurt the conference, with four of the Valley's six participants losing. Upsets in conference tournaments also reduced available slots.
The Valley's consolation prize was Southern Illinois' high seed, the best in school history and the conference's best since Tulsa also had a No. 4 in 1984. Southern Illinois' previous best was a seventh seed.
The Salukis had won 13 in a row before losing to Creighton in the conference tournament final and will play No. 13 seed Holy Cross (25-8) in the West Regional on Friday.
Creighton will play No. 10 Nevada (28-4), the South Regional on Friday, with the winner facing either second seed Memphis or No. 15 seed North Texas.
Nevada lost to Utah State in the semifinals of the Western Athletic Conference tournament and is making its fourth straight NCAA appearance.
Missouri State also had an overtime loss at a neutral site to Oklahoma State when that school was more highly regarded, although the Bears were hurt by a combined 0-5 record against Creighton and Southern Illinois and lost by 17 to Creighton in the tournament semifinals.
"I think that it is gratifying to have Southern Illinois seeded so high and Creighton in good position," Elgin said. "But I just feel tremendous disappointment. I'm just sick for the Bears."
Bradley (21-12) had been seeking consecutive NCAA appearances for the first time since 1954-55, but it was hurt by a 1-8 record against teams in the RPI's top 50.
The Braves and Wichita State both made it to the final 16 last March.