Nov 24, 2017; Paradise Island, BAHAMAS; Northern Iowa Panthers bench reacts during the first half against the Villanova Wildcats in the 2017 Battle 4 Atlantis Championship game in Imperial Arena at the Atlantis Resort. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Ever since Creighton’s departure from the Missouri Valley Conference in 2013, the league had struggled. Wichita State’s move to the American this past summer appeared to signal the end of the MVC’s standing as the premier mid-major conference. But despite losing a top-10 team from a league that hasn’t finished higher than No. 10 in KenPom’s conference rankings since 2012-13, the MVC has actually improved significantly this season.

The MVC currently ranks No. 9 in KenPom’s rankings and could still catch the Mountain West at No. 8. The league ranks No. 8 in RPI and No. 9 in Sagarin, and they’ve climbed the rankings with big wins from all around the league.

Loyola-Chicago shocked then-No. 5 Florida last week. Northern Iowa upset SMU and NC State before scaring Villanova in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game. The Panthers have since knocked off UNLV and Sun Belt favorite UT-Arlington as well. Illinois State defeated South Carolina. Indiana State, possibly the worst team in the league, blew out Indiana at Assembly Hall in November, and Drake, the other leading candidate for last place, edged Wake Forest.

As a whole, the MVC has 10 non-conference wins against the KenPom top 100. That’s the most since 2014-15, and, starting Thursday with Valpo at Northwestern, they have eight more chances before the month concludes.

The Valley still has Northern Iowa, a program loaded with recent history. The Panthers have made the NCAA Tournament four times since 2009, winning at least one game in their last appearances. Valparaiso has made two NCAA Tournaments in the last four years, but as a Horizon League member.

The last current member of the Valley not named Northern Iowa to make the NCAA Tournament as a Valley representative was Indiana State in 2011. But that streak may finally end this March. The MVC has four teams in the KenPom top 100, with Loyola Chicago, Missouri State and Valpo joining Northern Iowa. Not only are any of those four good enough to make a run in March, but Loyola and UNI have resumes that could be worthy of an at-large bid, returning the Valley to multi-bid status.

Loyola’s only loss is to Boise State, which has looked like a NCAA Tournament team, and it has that marquee win over Florida. UNI’s only losses are to Villanova and North Carolina — you know, those teams that have won the last two national titles. And the Panthers have four KenPom top 100 wins with two more opportunities to come in non-conference play.

The top of the Valley has gotten deeper, but, just as importantly, the bottom has improved as well. Drake is the worst team in the league, according to KenPom, and ranks No. 180 overall. Every conference outside the six high-majors has at least two teams ranked below No. 200.

It’s not quite like 2005-06, when the MVC sent four teams dancing, but it’s pretty good for a mid-major league that most people discarded from two-bid status only a few months ago. Ironically, the Valley’s biggest obstacle to getting multiple NCAA Tournament bids might be that there’s too many quality teams with none being dominant. KenPom projects Loyola, Northern Iowa and Missouri State to share the conference title with an 11-7 record, and that many losses in a mid-major league, no matter how good it is, won’t look good on the Selection Committee’s team sheets.

But no matter how the MVC fares on Selection Sunday, one thing is clear. The Valley is not dead. In fact, with seven teams boasting plenty of young talent, the Valley may be as alive as it’s been in over a decade.

About Jesse Kramer

Jesse is a writer and editor for The Comeback. He has also worked for and runs The Catch and Shoot, a college basketball website based in Chicago. He is a graduate of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Follow Jesse on Twitter @Jesse_Kramer.