When he strolledinto the Applebee's in Cedar Falls, Iowa, on a recent blustery Februaryevening, Northern Iowa coach Greg McDermott was greeted by hearty applause fromthe 40 or so patrons at the bar. A little more than an hour earlier,McDermott's Panthers had pulled away in the final minutes to beat Wichita State68-56 at the nearby UNI-Dome and remain in a tie for first place atop theMissouri Valley Conference. The room fell silent a short time later ashighlights from the game appeared on TV, with a fresh burst of applause comingat the report's conclusion. McDermott, 41, a former Panthers player whoreturned to coach his alma mater in 2001, got up and walked from table to tablechatting up friends before settling down with his assistant coaches for apostgame meal. "We've been doing this after every home game for the lastthree years," he says. Can you imagine Mike Krzyzewski working the dinnercrowd at his local Applebee's? ¬∂ Welcome to the Missouri Valley, a conferencewhose down-home charm belies the strength of its teams. In college hoops'modern landscape, in which the six BCS football conferences (the ACC, Big East,Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-10 and SEC) monopolize the basketball airwaves as well,the Valley is classified as a "mid-major" league, but mounting evidencesuggests the conference is outgrowing Cinderella's slipper. The 99-year-oldleague--the former stomping ground of Larry Bird (Indiana State), Walt Frazier(Southern Illinois) and Oscar Robertson (Cincinnati, a member from 1957 to'70)--was ranked sixth in the NCAA's Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) throughSunday, ahead of the Pac-10. The only conference with more teams in the RPI'stop 30 than the Missouri Valley's five--Northern Iowa (No. 17), Creighton (30),Wichita State (22), Southern Illinois (24) and Missouri State (26)--was the BigEast, and hopes are high in the Valley that the league could send an MVC-recordfour teams to the NCAA tournament. "There's nothing mid-major about theValley," says Northern Iowa athletic director Rick Hartzell. "The topteams in this league could play anywhere in the country."
Several MissouriValley teams did just that in December. Indiana State knocked off Indiana,Northern Iowa topped Iowa and LSU, and Creighton beat Nebraska by 26. "Theonly difference between our league and those others," says Wichita Statecoach Mark Turgeon, "is the height of the players [chart, page 50]. Interms of basketball skill, we're on par with any of them." The Valley'simpressive nonconference run was a prelude to one of the tightest league-titleraces in the country: Northern Iowa, Creighton, Wichita State and SouthernIllinois were tied with 11-4 league records at week's end. "We don't have aTexas that's mowing people down," says Creighton coach Dana Altman. "Wejust have five really good teams."
Fans across thecountry will be able to judge for themselves this Saturday, when five MVC teamswill play Bracket Buster games on ESPN or ESPN2. On March 5, CBS will air theleague's tournament championship game, the Valley's first non-NCAA-tournamentnetwork appearance since 1989. "We're finally being recognized as aconference at the highest level," says Doug Elgin, the league'scommissioner of 18 years. "It's been validation."
It's also beenquite a transformation for the league. As recently as three years ago, it wasranked 14th in the RPI. Until this season the Missouri Valley was largely atwo-team show: Creighton, which has been to the NCAA tournament six of the pastseven years, and Southern Illinois, which got to the Sweet 16 in 2002 and haswon four straight conference titles.
Creighton is theleague's crown jewel. It boasts an NBA-caliber arena, the Qwest Center Omaha,where the Bluejays average 14,387 fans. Southern Illinois, meanwhile, hasn'tmissed a beat under new coach Chris Lowery, a 33-year-old former Saluki who hasmaintained the program's tradition of stifling defense. (SIU ranks among thenation's best in scoring defense, allowing just 56.7 points a game.)
The team that hasraised the league's profile most dramatically this season, however, is itsunlikeliest powerhouse. The season before McDermott was hired away fromDivision II North Dakota State, the Panthers went 7-24 and averaged just 2,537fans at the cavernous UNI-Dome. "It was like a graveyard," saidHartzell.
One ofMcDermott's first recruiting targets was a lanky guard from Sioux City, Iowa.Despite having averaged nearly 22 points for a team that won a statechampionship, Ben Jacobson wasn't highly sought by recruiters. "He was ascrawny kid," says McDermott of his then 6'3", 175-pound recruit,"but he had a knack for making big shots." Jacobson, who has sincegained 30 pounds, now leads a balanced attack of four double-figure scorers,with 14.0 points a game. He and fellow seniors Erik Crawford and John Little,plus juniors Brooks McKowen and Grant Stout, give McDermott the veterans whoare so critical in his intricate half-court offense. (His playbook containsmore than 130 sets, "and it's always growing," laments Jacobson.) Butit has been the addition of another undersized gem, 6'6" sophomore centerEric Coleman, that has given the team an inside presence to match its outsidegame.
The Panthers'success has ignited interest in Cedar Falls. Average attendance at the UNI-Domethis season is 6,690, and next year the team will move into a new 7,000-seatarena. A similar fever has broken out at long-suffering Wichita State, wherethe Shockers' 10,400-seat Charles Koch Arena has been sold out for all but twogames this season. A powerhouse in the '80s, Wichita State had just two winningseasons between 1990 and 2001. Under Turgeon, a former player and assistantcoach at Kansas who's now in his sixth season, the Shockers have upped theirwin total every year since his first in Wichita, reaching 22 a year ago. Thisseason four starters are scoring in double digits, led by 6'10" senior PaulMiller (13.4 points a game), who is one of the league's few true postplayers.
SouthernIllinois, despite losing four starters from last season, is in contention againthanks in large part to guard Jamaal Tatum, who admits he probably wouldn't bein the Valley had his outside shot not deserted him during the summer AAUcircuit in 2002. "[Former Iowa State coach] Larry Eustachy walked out ofone of my games at halftime," he recalls. Tatum had no such problems lastSaturday, racking up 19 points as the Salukis handed Creighton its first homeloss of the season 74-67. But defense remains Southern Illinois's calling card."The faces change, but the style doesn't," McDermott says of theSalukis.
Despite losingtop scorer Nate Funk to season-ending shoulder surgery on Jan. 5, Creighton hascontinued to win thanks to the improved play of 6'9" junior center AnthonyTolliver. One of the conference's top big men, Tolliver is testament toAltman's ability to develop players. "I hadn't been criticized much before,and at first I didn't like it," says Tolliver. "But a big part of mydevelopment was the coaches' staying on me." In Altman's high-post offenseTolliver often comes out to the perimeter to create opportunities for seniorguard Johnny Mathies, a Louisville native whose first exposure to the schoolcame through a fortuitously placed newspaper story. "Someone cut out anarticle about me from the state tournament," says Mathies, "and on theback was a picture of Creighton beating Florida in the  NCAAtournament."
A year ago theValley sent three teams to the NCAA tournament. Seventh seed Southern Illinoiswon its first-round game against St. Mary's before falling to Oklahoma State,while 10th-seeded Creighton and No. 11 seed Northern Iowa each went out in thefirst round, losing close games to eventual Elite Eight teams West Virginia andWisconsin, respectively. This season, expectations are higher. "If we wantto take the next step as a league," says McDermott, "we need to get ateam into the Sweet 16."
McDermott's teammay be the one best equipped to do that. The Panthers' 54-50 win at LSU on Dec.19 demonstrated the Valley's creed that discipline, balance and experience cango a long way toward overcoming physical disadvantages. "We're not going towin any races or jumping contests," says McDermott. "We win byexecution, and our players understand that." Soon, the entire country mayunderstand as well.
In the Valleythey say the only difference between their players and those from the sixmajors is size, and Wichita State's P.J. Couisnard (left), who plays someforward at 6'4", is a case in point. The power conferences' starting fivesare, on average, about 1 1/2 inches taller than their MVC counterparts.
Read more about the Missouri Valley in StewartMandel's Insider column at SI.com/collegebasketball.