by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

Following is the first in a series of conference updates that will be appearing in upcoming weeks on the pages of THE GOLD SHEET Basketball as well as www.goldsheet.com. First, a look at the mid-major ranks and the always-intriguing Missouri Valley Conference...

It might surprise some present-day fans that there was a time when, hands down, the best basketball in the country was played in the Missouri Valley Conference. Of course, unearthing those specifics requires something of a hoops archaeological dig from the pre-ESPN era. But, in our spare time, we’ve been working on just such projects, researching college hoops from the late ‘50s and early ‘60s for a pair of book projects, one of them to be entitled “When The Valley Was King.”

And, indeed, the Valley was King for several years.

Even today, it’s hard to comprehend how the Valley became such a hoops hotbed in the late ‘50s and early ‘60s, especially with the mighty Big Ten Conference and high-profile Big Eight conducting their business in basically the same neighborhoods. Moreover, the Valley’s glory days featured a league much different in size and scope from the present-day, 10-school MVC. Only seven schools (Cincinnati, Wichita State, Bradley, Drake, Saint Louis, Tulsa, and North Texas State) comprised the conference in its heyday. The Valley had made its mark even earlier when Henry Iba’s Oklahoma A&M (later Oklahoma State) teams dominated hoop action from the 30s until the mid ‘50s, winning 14 Valley titles and two national crowns in 1945 and 1946, before moving to the Big Seven (which thus became the Big Eight) in 1956.

But like society, the college sports landscape was a much different place in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, with Jim Crow laws still present in some regions. Segregation was still a fact of life in many parts of the country, especially in the South. Indeed, the “color line” would not be broken in several major conferences until the late ‘60s; it wasn’t until 1967 that Vanderbilt hoopster Perry Wallace broke the color barrier in the SEC, but even then, change was slow to develop. Many SEC, ACC, and Southwest Conference schools took several more years before they would break the color barrier.

The byproduct was that young black athletes from the South had two choices in those days; either stay nearer home and attend one of the historical black colleges, or head elsewhere, likely to the midwest or northeast, where the color barriers had mostly (although in some cases not completely) been broken down in previous decades.

And for young black basketball stars, the Missouri Valley Conference often provided the opportunity closest to home to play major college basketball.

A quick glimpse at the rosters of many Valley teams from the era indicates those signs of the times. Ralph Miller’s Wichita State powerhouse squad in the early ‘60s featured a pair of black athletes from what would soon be known as the Metroplex; star F Dave Stallworth hailed from Dallas, while C Nate Bowman came from Fort Worth. Less than a decade later, both of these future New York Knicks would have likely stayed in the state, but in those times, schools such as Texas, Texas A&M, SMU, and TCU were off limits to athletes such as Stallworth and Bowman.

The Lone Star State also produced another of the Valley’s star players of the era, as Houston-bred McCoy McLemore, a slithery forward who would go on to a solid 8-year career in the NBA, decided to go north to Des Moines and Drake University. A few years later, a player of McLemore’s caliber would likely have stayed closer to home, perhaps at the University of Houston. Which itself didn’t begin to recruit black athletes until 1964, when the likes of Elvin Hayes and Don Chaney enlisted with Cougar HC Guy Lewis, who realized it was time for his program to break the color barrier in early 1963, when Loyola-Chicago’s fully-integrated team played a game at Houston on the way to the national title.

(George Ireland’s Ramblers were the real racial trailblazers of that era, even before Don Haskins’ more-romanticized Texas Western Miners a few years later; Loyola became one of the first major college teams to put an all-black lineup on the floor earlier in that 1962-63 title season, and regularly started four black athletes, including two from the South, Vic Rouse and Les Hunter, both from Nashville’s Pearl High.)

Bradley University would also feature a star black performer who came from far away, G Levern Tart, who arrived from South Carolina. And of course, there were the great Cincinnati teams of the era that along with Loyola really re-set the color line in college hoops. Among the African-American Bearcat stars of the era were thick, 6’9 C “Tall” Paul Hogue, a bespectacled behemoth who hailed from Knoxville, Tennessee; do you think future Tennessee Volunteer teams would let an eventual Final Four MVP (as Hogue was in 1962) ever slip away to Cincinnati? Star swingman Tom Thacker was a product of Covington, Kentucky, just on the other side of the Ohio River from Cincy. Thacker, however, wasn’t even recruited by Kentucky HC Adolph Rupp, who steadfastly maintained his color line until late in the decade when finally relenting and signing C Tom Payne (more on him in moment). As for the gifted Thacker, his choices came down to nearby Cincinnati and New York University, which was a hoops powerhouse in the day. Of course, the “Big O” himself, Oscar Robertson, had matriculated at Cincy by way of Indianapolis, becoming a sort of Pied Piper for a generation of hoops stars who wanted to “be like Oscar” and enlist with the Bearcats. The “Big O” influence helped Cincy land the likes of young black stars such as Hogue, Thacker, plus Chicago’s 6’8 George Wilson and a local Cincy product, 6’2 G Tony Yates, both of whom opted for the Bearcats rather than other higher-profile, integrated schools in the region.

(As for Kentucky’s Tom Payne, it is said that Rupp, an overt racist and stubbornly resistant to breaking the color barrier, agreed to relent only as long as Payne would be his first black recruit. Rupp, correctly, had pegged Payne as a bad seed who, in The Baron’s mind, would eventually prove his bias correct. Indeed, Payne became more trouble than he was worth as a Wildcat, becoming entangled in eligibility issues after his lone season on the varsity in 1970-71, and opting for the NBA’s first-ever supplemental draft after one season on the varsity at Lexington. His career with the Atlanta Hawks lasted just one year before he was charged and convicted on the first of several sexual assault charges that have kept him incarcerated for most of his adult life.)

The mention of the “Big O” certainly recalls the glory years in the Valley, even if almost all of those seasons were dominated by the Bearcats. Although it was rarely easy, Cincinnati would annually survive the Valley wars and make its mark in the NCAA Tournaments of the day; the Bearcats reached a then-unprecedented five Final Fours in a row between 1959-63. To this day, even some sharp hoop aficionados are fooled when learning that the Bearcats never won one of their national titles with the Big O on the floor; Robertson’s junior and senior teams reached the Final Four in 1959 & ‘60, only to be eliminated by Pete Newell’s Cal Bears on both occasions. But they can take heart, because even the fans of the day were surprised how the Bearcats re-calibrated after the graduation of Robertson and resignation of HC George Smith, becoming a slow-paced, defense-oriented team under new HC Ed Jucker. The Bearcats would win national titles with upset wins over Ohio State in both 1961 & ‘62, and were within a whisker of doing an unprecedented three-peat when nipped by aforementioned Loyola-Chicago, 60-58, in overtime of the 1963 championship game at Louisville’s Freedom Hall.

Still, the road through the Valley was never easy, especially trips to Wichita State’s “Roundhouse,” which gave the Bearcats fits every year. The ‘63 team saw its 37-game win streak spanning two seasons end at Wichita, on a night in which the aforementioned Stallworth produced one of the great games in college history, scoring 46 of the Shockers’ 65 points in a 1-point win. Indeed, the Roundhouse bookended that win streak by the Bearcats, whose ‘62 title team also lost at Wichita, 53-51. The ‘62 Cincy championship side almost didn’t make it out of the Valley after two early losses to Wichita and Bradley, which also featured F Chet Walker and had won the NIT in 1960. A Shockers’ win over the Braves on the season’s final day created a tie atop the league, and Cincy survived a 1-game playoff vs. Bradley to advance to the Big Dance to defend its NCAA crown.

As for Bradley, it made its mark in the NIT during that era, winning the tourney three times (1957 & ‘64, in addition to ‘60). The previously-mentioned Levern Tart, who would eventually make a name for himself in the early days of the ABA, was NIT MVP in ‘64. Walker, a future star in the NBA, was also featured on the early ‘60s teams along with prolific scoring F Mack Herndon, who averaged a rare double-double in the 1962-63 campaign.

Some believe the Valley reached its peak in that 1962-63 season, a year in which more than a few oldtimers think the nation’s best team might not have been Cincy or Loyola, but rather the Stallworth-Bowman Wichita team that beat both the Bearcats and Ramblers. Still, those Shockers couldn’t get through the campaign unscathed at the Roundhouse, as Valley bottom-feeder North Texas State, featuring leaping C John Savage, scored arguably the biggest upset of the year when winning at Wichita. Finishing the regular season as the fifth-ranked team in the country by AP, Ralph Miller’s Shockers were a heavy favorite to win the NIT, but coming out flat against Villanova in the quarterfinals at Madison Square Garden, Wichita lost 54-53. Another Valley rep, John Bennington’s Saint Louis Billikens, also made the 12-team NIT field that year, losing in the quarterfinals vs. Marquette. The Valley was also ahead of its time in that era by allowing its non-champions into the NIT, which in those years featured Valley squads and independent entries of the day. The Big Ten, ACC, SEC, and other conferences would only send one team to the postseason, that being their conference champ to the NCAAs, in those days.

The Valley was also not beyond controversy in that era, nor was it alone in that regard, with rumors of skullduggery in the outcome of some games an unfortunate byproduct.

Cincinnati’s decline after ‘63 somewhat lowered the profile of the Valley, but not completely. Wichita won the league in 1964 under Ralph Miller, advancing to the NCAA Elite Eight before Miller left to take the job at Iowa, and again in 1965 under Gary Thompson, reaching the Final Four, where the Shockers lost to UCLA in the semifinals. As mentioned, Bradley won the NIT in ‘64. Louisville joined the Valley in the 1963-64 season and produced several notable teams over the next decade, including NCAA qualifiers under Peck Hickman and John Dromo with teams featuring future NBA stars Wes Unseld and Butch Beard, and later Denny Crum’s early Card editions that included the Jim Price-led side that reached the Final Four in 1972. Late in the 60s, Drake, under HC Maury John, emerged, reaching the Final Four in 1969 paced by G Willie McCarter and Fs Willie Wise & Dolph Pulliam. The Bulldogs almost knocked off UCLA in the national semifinals at Louisville, losing only 85-82 to Lew Alcindor’s senior team in one of the closest calls of the Bruins’ decade-long, 38-game NCAA Tourney win streak.

Valley members changed often throughout the years, much of it football-related; Cincinnati, which never considered the Valley a worthy gridiron league, left for the independent ranks in 1969. Saint Louis, which didn’t play football, left in 1974, the same year North Texas State (which was to become simply “North Texas”) departed. Louisville bid adieu in 1974. Memphis State (long before it was simply "Memphis") was briefly a Valley member between 1968-73, as was New Mexico State between 1970-83. West Texas State was in the Valley between 1972-85. Tulsa stayed in the league until 1996, when it left for the expanded WAC. Perhaps the Valley’s most memorable hoop teams of the past 40 years were Larry Bird’s Indiana State Sycamores, who enlisted in the Valley in 1977, just in time for Bird’s junior and senior years, the latter resulting in an unbeaten record and top ranking all of the way to the NCAA title game, where Michigan State finally ended the ISU dream, 75-64.

In recent years, the Valley has often emerged as the nation’s flagship mid-major hoops conference, sometimes sending multiple entries to the Big Dance, although the past few seasons have seen less NCAA representation. Valley teams, however, are rarely a pushover in the postseason; ask UNLV and highly-ranked Kansas, both KO’d by spunky MVC rep Northern Iowa in last March’s sub-regional action. Missouri State, Wichita State, Bradley, and Southern Illinois have also reached the Sweet Sixteen since 1999.

It’s still a bit early to forecast this year’s Big Dance (which we’ll do again next week), so it’s hard to say if the Valley will again become a multi-bid league this season. With 2 ½ months still to go before Selection Sunday, a lot can still happen, including “Bracket Buster” weekend in late February, when Valley teams are always featured. Following is a quick update of this year’s Missouri Valley race, complete with straight-up and pointspread records as of January 5.

Wichita State (12-2 straight-up record, 5-4 vs. spread)...The Shockers are hot, not having lost since an early-December game at San Diego State. That defeat, along with a narrow setback in the opening round of the Maui Classic vs. UConn, are the lone blemishes to date for Wichita, suggesting the Shockers have the best chance of securing an NCAA at-large bid of any Valley rep. Definitely the deepest team in the MVC, as HC Gregg Marshall’s 10-man rotation produced more than 40 points off the bench in each of Wichita’s first three league games (vs. Drake, Bradley, and Evansville). A big backcourt featuring 6’4 Gs David Kyles, Toure’ Murry, and Graham Hatch can cause matchup headaches, and the Shockers have some size in the paint with rugged 6’8, 240-lb. PF J.T. Durley & 7‘0 C Garrett Stutz. Jucos F Ben Smith & G Joe Ragland are also beginning to make meaningful contributions. Plenty of “length” at Marshall’s disposal, too, with five players 6’8 or taller. Wichita has a good blend of newcomers and experience, plus size and quickness. The team to beat in the loop. Upcoming games: Jan. 7 at Illinois State, Jan. 9 vs. Missouri State, Jan. 12 at Creighton.

Missouri State (10-3 SU, 8-4 PSR)...Also hot, the Bears have won nine of their last ten entering Friday night’s game vs. Evansville. Cuonzo Martin’s MSU is one of the more experienced teams in the lop with four starters on hand from last year’s team that won the postseason CollegeInsider.com Tourney. Having three senior guards has helped the Bears on the conference trail, where they have already beaten Northern Iowa and Creighton after winning just once all of last season on the Valley road. But it’s 6’6 junior swingman Kyle Weems (16.2 ppg) who remains the team’s main go-to threat, further established when his triple at the buzzer won the December 30 game at UNI. Not as big as Wichita, although reliable 6’9, 260-lb. C Will Creekmore can hold his own on the blocks, and big Will recently had a string of 14 straight double-figure scoring games ended against Arkansas State on Dec. 22. Upcoming games: Jan. 7 vs. Evansville, Jan. 9 at Wichita State, Jan. 12 vs. Southern Illinois.

Creighton (10-5 SU, 5-7 PSR)...After several seasons as the Valley’s flagship team, the Bluejays have missed the Big Dance the past three years. Longtime HC Dana Altman moved to Oregon in the offseason, but replacement Greg McDermott is a familiar face in the MVC, having coached with success at UNI between 2001-06 while reaching three NCAA Tourneys, then working the past four years with modest success at Iowa State before returning to the Valley this season. Regional observers, however, are keeping a close watch on Creighton, thanks largely to a pair of the Valley’s most impactful newcomers, 6’7 frosh F Doug McDermott (coach’s son, scoring 13.5 ppg) and 6’9, 270-lb. recently-eligible Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique, who is now providing a formidable 1-2 punch on the blocks with 6’9 sr. Kenny Lawson and a new complement to leading scorer, PG Antoine Young (14.1 ppg). The Jays now have the size to deal with Wichita, although their defense remains a question mark after allowing Mizzou State to can 68% of its shots in the second half of the Bears’ recent 67-55 win at Qwest Center Omaha. A key development to monitor in Omaha will be the progress of 6’7 soph swingman Ethan Wragge, who hit a school frosh-record 68 triples last season but has been in and out of the lineup with a recurring foot injury the first two months of the campaign. Upcoming games: Jan. 7 at Southern Illinois, Jan. 9 at Evansville, Jan. 12 vs. Wichita State.

Northern Iowa (10-5 SU, 6-5 PSR)...The Panthers might have trouble replicating the “wow” factor from last season, when they became an unlikely March storyline when storming through the NCAA sub-regionals at Oklahoma City and into the Sweet 16 after KO’ing UNLV and heavily-favored Kansas. Gone are a trio of important cogs from that 30-win team, including Valley MVP Adam Koch, C Jordan Eglseder, and March hero G Ali Farokhmanesh. Understandably, UNI has regressed, but not completely fallen off the map, thanks to backcourt returnees Kwadzo Ahelegbe (12.3 ppg) and Anthony James (11.6 ppg), plus Adam Koch’s younger brother Jake, a 6’9 forward who also stepped up as a frosh last March and has been scoring around 10 ppg. UNI, however, is not especially quick, especially on the blocks where Koch and burly 6’6 sr. Lucas O’Rear have not been providing the sort of rebounding that HC Ben Jacobson needs. And the dagger-throwing from 3-point range that marked Farokhmanesh’s game last season has been mostly missed (G Johnny Moran the team’s best beyond the arc, but only 38%). The Panthers remain a tough out but are not likely to cause as much noise as they did a year ago. Upcoming games: Jan. 7 at Indiana State, Jan. 9 vs. Bradley, Jan. 12 at Illinois State.

Southern Illinois (8-6 SU, 4-7 PSR)...The Salukis have slipped in recent campaigns, now failing to crack the .500 barrier for two years running. Although recent efforts have been encouraging, featuring improved shooting in back-to-back wins over UNI and Bradley heading into the Jan. 7 battle vs. Creighton. Keep an eye on the status of mountainous, 6’9, 290-lb. C Gene Teague (11.1 ppg), who has missed the last three games with an ankle injury and who could come in handy vs. Creighton’s bigs in Friday’s showdown vs. the Bluejays. Saluki fans are also keeping a close watch on 6’4 Wisconsin frosh transfer Diamond Taylor, who recently became eligible and has flashed plenty of upside while working his way into HC Chris Lowery’s rotation. Upcoming games: Jan. 7 vs. Creighton, Jan. 9 vs. Illinois State, Jan. 12 at Missouri State.

Evansville (7-6 SUR, 3-7 PSR)...The Aces appear to be more menacing than last year’s team that won only 9 games, evidenced by an early-season victory over Butler, although it remains to be seen if Evansville emerges as a pointspread overachiever as did last year’s team. The Aces have mostly blown hot and cold as they look for a consistent number-two scoring option behind 6’5 soph swingman Colt Ryan (16.9 ppg), last year’s Valley Frosh MVP and arguably the league MVP this season. But HC Marty Simmons’ motion offense is proving a hard study for touted 6’6 juco Kenny Harris, still not as comfy as Simmons would like despite posting some decent numbers (11.2 ppg & team-best 6.9 rpg). The Aces are also missing much of a scoring threat from their point guards. E’ville could be tough on nights when one of the secondary scoring options emerges, or when Ryan proves tough for opponents to handle, but at this stage the team lacks enough frontline presence and complementary dimensions to Ryan to be considered a threat. Upcoming games: Jan. 7 at Missouri State, Jan. 9 vs. Creighton, Jan. 12 vs. Drake.

Illinois State (8-6 SU, 3-9 PSR)...Don’t be fooled by the Redbirds’ 8 wins, courtesy of a downgraded non-conference slate put together by HC Tim Jankovich in what is a reloading year at Normal. Already, ISU has lost its first three Valley games as the offense continues to struggle to replace the production provided by last year’s top trio of threats led by G Osiris Eldridge. The new-look Redbirds are having all sorts of trouble on the attack end as Jankovich looks for scoring options to emerge, and now the defense is showing cracks after it was exposed in early league tilts at Mizzou State and Indiana State, with perimeter defense especially shoddy as the Bears and Sycamores each hit better than 50% beyond the arc. ISU has some length and athleticism around the hoop with agile frontliners Jackie Carmichael and RS frosh Jon Ekey, but scoring has been sporadic. Jankovich hopes that juco transfer G Anthony Cousin (16 for 27 from the floor in his last three games) might ignite the attack, but the Redbirds have exceeded 65 points just once since Thanksgiving, and their poor spread mark reflects those offensive shortcomings. Upcoming games: Jan. 7 vs. Wichita State, Jan. 9 at Southern Illinois, Jan. 12 vs. Northern Iowa.

Indiana State (7-7 SU, 7-5 PSR)...The Sycamores have blown a bit hot and cold for new HC Greg Lansing, promoted after predecessor Kevin McKenna joined Dana Altman’s staff at Oregon. Encouraging recent contributions from a pair of redshirt frosh, G Jake Odum and F R.J. Mahurin, indicate both can be solid contributors, with Odum’s ability to run the offense taking some of that burden off former Iowa transfer Jake Kelly. But the Sycamores are small (only one starter, 6'8 juco Myles Walker, over 6’5) and have been battling nagging injury problems lately, with Kelly missing multiple games with a stress reaction in his right foot and backcourt mate Dwayne Lathan also sidelined recently due to a concussion. Upside is probably limited this season in Terre Haute, although the Sycamores could cause some trouble at the Hulman Center, where they’ve already beaten DePaul, Bradley, and Illinois State. Upcoming games: Jan. 7 vs. Northern Iowa, Jan. 9 at Drake, Jan. 12 at Bradley.

Drake (6-8 SU, 6-6 PSR)...There hasn’t been a lot to cheer about in Des Moines outside of true frosh G Rayvonte Rice (13.6 ppg), the Bulldogs’ most ballyhooed recruit in many years after being named Illinois HS Player of the Year in 2009-10. Rice had signed early with Drake before emerging as a true top-shelf prep last season, and at 6’4 and 235 lbs. is an obvious physical force. But PG play has been very spotty, and the Bulldogs took some lumps in a road-oriented non-conference slate. Moreover, soph C Seth VanDeest, though 6’11, is not an aggressive presence in the paint. The punishing Rice makes Drake hard to summarily dismiss, but we are relatively sure the Bulldogs will be involved somewhere in the first-day, 7-10 and 8-9 matchups of “Arch Madness” in St. Louis on March 3. Upcoming games: Jan. 7 vs. Bradley, Jan. 9 vs. Indiana State, Jan. 12 at Evansville.

Bradley...(6-8 SU, 3-9 PSR)...Things have gone pear-shaped in Peoria since the Braves began their season with four straight wins. And it’s no wonder, with key sr. G Sam Maniscalco (13.1 ppg LY) lost for the season in early December with an ankle injury, and another 13 ppg scorer from a year ago, F Taylor Brown, shelved in November due to a heart condition. That’s forced vet HC Jim Les into mix-and-match mode as he looks for proper combinations without what figured to be his two main offensive cogs. To this point, the results have been spotty, with sr. G Andrew Warren (the only DD scorer at 18.9 ppg) doing yeoman’s work but not getting much help. A Chicago product, frosh G Walt Lemon, is flashing some upside, but soft spots are hard to camouflage, especially in the paint, where 6’9 jr. Will Egolf is not getting much help. Upcoming games: Jan. 7 at Drake, Jan. 9 at Northern Iowa, Jan. 12 vs. Indiana State.

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