At the finish of the Long Beach State Tournament in California last month the coaches of the four competing teams were bidding each other goodby when Dick Perry of Long Beach said to Maurice John of Drake, "Brother, I sure feel sorry for you. Imagine having to go back and play in that Missouri Valley Conference." Perry was only suggesting what so many coaches feel this year, and rightfully: that Missouri Valley basketball is the best there is.
"The Missouri Valley is the toughest league in the country," concedes Fred Taylor of Ohio State, a man who twice had his top-ranked team beaten in the NCAA final by Cincinnati, the Valley champion. Old Adolph Rupp of Kentucky pretty much agrees. "No question about it," says Rupp. "It's a very strong conference." Rupp found out just how strong when St. Louis overwhelmed Kentucky 87-63 last month. It was one of the worst beatings ever given a Rupp team.
Other coaches also cast their votes for the Valley. "The Big Ten has some real good teams," says Ray Meyer of DePaul, "but not as many as the Valley." Notre Dame's Johnny Jordan seconds that. "As an independent team, we play schools from all conferences," Jordan says. "The Valley is tops."
In spite of its status, the Missouri Valley Conference is hardly a prominent athletic entity. It plays a kind of fourth-rate football that attracts no national attention, and even basketball followers are hard-pressed to name its schools. No wonder, for it is a hodgepodge conference of seven teams from seven different states. It rambles west from Cincinnati to Peoria (Bradley), just south of Chicago, swings into the cornfields of Iowa (Drake), then south through St. Louis, the Kansas plains (Wichita), the oil fields of Oklahoma (Tulsa) and the North Texas cattle country (North Texas State). The name of the conference is a geographical absurdity, for not one of its seven schools is located in the Missouri River Valley, most of which is northwest of St. Louis.
Though the conference may be ineptly named, there is nothing inept about its teams. This year four of them are ranked among the nation's best. Cincinnati, undefeated, untied and practically unscored upon, is a unanimous No. 1. Wichita is in the top 10, and Bradley and St. Louis are not far behind. "We could probably win the title in any other conference," moans John Benington of St. Louis, "but not in the Valley." Charlie Orsborn of Bradley weeps the same tears, as does Ralph Miller of Wichita. "Know one of the main reasons Cincinnati has won two straight championships?" growls Miller. "It's the stiff competition the team gets in this conference." Ed Jucker of Cincinnati would seem to agree. Last year he is said to have remarked, more or less seriously: "After winning in the Valley, the NCAA is a breeze."
The hard life
Joe Swank, the peppery coach of Tulsa, views life as a lowly man on a very tall totem pole. "We can beat nine out of 10 teams in the country," Swank says, "but we don't even belong in the Valley, not yet." Tulsa won its first seven games this season. "All the teams in our conference look good before league play begins," he says. "Then we kill each other. Our Tulsa team isn't strong enough to be a real contender, but we're not weak enough to be overlooked either. So the big boys come in here with their guns out. I'm caught between a rock and a hard place. But I wouldn't want to coach in any other league. When you beat a Valley team, you can be proud." (Proud Coach Swank upset Drake last week.)
Not many out-of-conference teams have beaten the Valley this year. The Valley's record against outsiders is 50-16 for a .758 percentage, easily the best in the country. The Southeastern Conference is a distant second at .694, followed by the Big Six at .643, the Big Ten at .556 and the Atlantic Coast Conference at a flat .500. At home, the Valley stands a remarkable 44-1 against outside competition. More meaningful than the statistics themselves is the quality of competition that the Valley faced. "I see where Wichita played Minnesota, Ohio State, Cincinnati and St. Louis in succession," said Notre Dame's Jordan the other day. "And before that they beat Arizona State, which nobody else has done yet. Why don't they just schedule the top 10 instead?"
Wichita won all three of those tough out-of-conference games—Ohio State was unbeaten and ranked second when it lost 71-54—adding prestige to the Valley along with such victories as lowly Tulsa's over Purdue and St. Louis' massacre of Kentucky.
Almost everyone is ready with an explanation for the Valley's success. Top-notch coaching, say some. Jack Gardner of Utah admires Cincinnati's Ed Jucker. "Nobody wins two national titles unless he's a great coach," says Gardner. Duke's Vic Bubas praises John Benington and his team's careful style. "Why, he helped Pete Newell of California write the book," says Bubas.
Joe Swank thinks the Valley scouts its opponents more thoroughly than other conferences do. "Most Valley games are like an assistant coaches' reunion," he says. "My assistant lives on the road."
Everyone agrees that what has really made the Valley the present king of basketball is its high-voltage job of recruiting. "That's the tip-off," says Fred Taylor. "They go after basketball players like nobody else, believe me." Detroit's Bob Calihan talks like a man who has been done out of a few athletes by Valley coaches—and who hasn't been? "If they want a kid these days," grumbles Calihan, "you might as well forget him."
Recruiting is made easier by the heavy emphasis placed on basketball in the Valley. "Boys planning to play basketball in college like to go to a school where the sport is emphasized," says Charlie Johnson of North Texas State. "Every kid likes the prospect of being the No. 1 campus hero."
Much of the Valley conference is in the heart of the nation's basketball belt, another help to recruiting. "Look out the window," said Jack Gardner the other day while sitting in his office at Salt Lake City. "Here it is January, and half the cars I see are loaded with kids going skiing. The other half are loaded with kids going to play golf. In the Valley area there's no golf this time of year and precious little skiing. The snow is piled against the gym door and inside on a cozy warm floor the kids are playing basketball and more basketball."
Vic Bubas offers another point. "The Valley allows participation in both the NCAA and the NIT tournaments. This focuses a lot of attention on the conference, gives it prestige. Naturally boys want to play there."
A matter of marks
Rival coaches do quietly question whether a few of the boys who play for Valley schools would be academically acceptable in other conferences. Some raise the question indirectly. "I would have no great fear of competing in the Missouri Valley basketball race," ventures Dick Harp of Kansas, "provided the team I coached was subject to the same scholastic requirements as the other teams in the conference."
Tex Winter of Kansas State is more direct. "It's my feeling," says Winter, "that the majority of Missouri Valley schools do not have the scholastic standards of a number of other major conferences. They can admit marginal students and keep them eligible." Then he adds what coaches know is the sport's saddest truism: "There are an awful lot of marginal students who are excellent basketball players."
Finally, some say it bluntly. "It's a real outlaw league," protests one coach. "They get players nobody else can touch."
The protests may or may not be justified, the academic standards of the opposition being a constant subject of complaint in collegiate athletics. The fact remains that at the moment the Valley is the No. 1 basketball conference in the country. Nor does there seem to be a likelihood that it will lose its position very soon.
Joe Swank reports going to a meeting of Valley coaches recently. "I told them I was kind of proud of my freshman team," he says. "Thought it was the best we've ever had at Tulsa. So Jucker spoke up: 'You know, I've got the hottest freshman team," ever had.' Then Drake followed, same thing; Wichita, same; Bradley, St. Louis, North Texas State, all the same wherever you look. We're all loaded. That's the thing about this conference. You have to keep running, and even so you're going to get bit. But if you ever stop running you'll get swallowed alive."