The moment I knew I was in for a different kind of day was when I sat down on my Greyhound bus in Chicago at 1:30 in the morning and the guy next to me lifted up his shirt to reveal a tattooed outline of the state of Wisconsin on his chest that included a Brewers logo covering his heart.
All sense of reality escaped me at that moment as I settled in for the five-hour bus ride to St. Louis for my first trip to Missouri Valley Conference Media Day.
Media Day is one of my favorite days of the year. In the Horizon League it represented the opportunity to reconnect with old friends, look for new storylines and then break for the next three months while the non-conference season sorted itself out. Everyone is optimistic on Media Day, no one was contentious (unless Billy Donlon had an appropriate ax to grind) and there was always a good amount of free food.
Something was often missing at Horizon League Media Day however. In short, the media. The blessing and the curse of the Horizon League was that the conference was high on coaching personalities and short on scribes covering the league. Part of that was simply geography. Schools like Milwaukee, Green Bay, Cleveland State, Detroit and UIC struggled for column inches in bigger markets where professional teams ruled the roost. That often meant Media Day would boil down to myself, a handful of bloggers and occasionally another beat reporter or two getting free reign over all the interviews. Not that we weren’t grateful for the access. The people at the Horizon League were gracious to me until the last moments and I hope to return to Motor City Madness this year to check out Little Caesars Arena, provided they still have unlimited (until I ate them all) Rice Krispie treats in the media room.
Today was going to be different. First, I hadn’t attended an event in St. Louis since Valparaiso was knocked out of the 2002 NCAA tournament by Kentucky. I decided to take the Greyhound in and then an Amtrak back to Chicago, in part so I could write this column on the train and not have to spend 10 hours driving with my eyes open. Short of my new bus friend getting a bit too personal in response to my Milwaukee hat I was wearing, my travel plans were a success.
If the Missouri Valley Conference has anything on the Horizon League, or plenty of other conferences in the NCAA, it’s a plethora of dedicated beat reporters that are the definitive experts on their schools. I knew them all by name, or more by Twitter handle, before Tuesday and I knew attending the event would provide me with an opportunity to meet them in person. I came away from the day having had excellent conversations with Kirk Wessler, Dave Reynolds, Todd Golden, Todd Hefferman, Jim Benson and Harry Schroeder, just to name a few. Throw in a few awkward fist bumps with former Valparaiso student, and now Northern Iowa beat reporter Clay Cunningham and the day was a success.
I felt the same way about the coaches. There are few in this industry who don’t have a good Barry Hinson presser story to pass around and I was able to get a one-on-one interview with the Southern Illinois coach that will be part of a Union Street Hoops Media Day podcast episode that will go up on Wednesday afternoon. Ben Jacobson (Northern Iowa), Dan Muller (Illinois State), Greg Lansing (Indiana State), Paul Lusk (Missouri State) and Brian Wardle (Bradley) were all coaches that I was able to meet with on Tuesday and they were incredibly welcoming to a new face in the media room. Sadly, I missed out on Marty Simmons (Evansville) and Niko Medved (Drake), in part because they were so accommodating to the numerous media members that were in attendance.
Finally, I was able to spend some time with Valparaiso coaches Matt Lottich and Tracy Dorow as well as seniors Tevonn Walker and Dani Franklin. It’s nice to watch the coaches and players away from campus and see how they interact with their conference peers.
As for the content of the day itself, the Valparaiso men’s team was picked to finish sixth in the conference. I found that interesting because I don’t think there was one person who told me they picked the Crusaders lower than fifth. I get that Valparaiso is the new kid on the block and that it’s not everyday that you lose a NBA player off the roster, but this is a team that won five conference championships in the last six years. The Drews are gone, Peters is gone, even my press row seating is gone, but that doesn’t mean they stopped remembering how to put the ball in the basket at the Athletics-Recreation Center. In short, I’ll be shocked if this Valparaiso team, unknowns and all, finishes sixth in the conference.
If there was one flaw I had with the day, it’s that the Valley does this pet peeve thing where they choose six players for the All-League First Team and six players for the Second Team. Why? Are we trying to reinvent the game here? Just pick five and five and be done with it. Nonetheless, Walker was named to the Preseason Second Team. All ten teams had at least one representative on the two preseason teams with Loyola getting two players on the First Team and Northern Iowa getting a player on each squad.
Missouri State was picked to win the league in a shock to no one while senior big man Alize Johnson represented the Bears as the preseason Player of the Year. Johnson had 21 points and 11 rebounds in Valparaiso’s 84-81 win at Missouri State last December. Johnson flirted with the NBA Draft last June and was named MVP at the Adidas Nations camp. Playing against prospective NBA players on a consistent basis in league play will be the new normal for Valparaiso going forward.
I’ve got a handful of interviews to go through for Union Street Hoops and hope to have a new episode up on Wednesday afternoon with more thoughts from Media Day. Valparaiso fans should be excited about the new league. The coaches, players and conference staffers were more than accommodating on Tuesday and made the entire day a success. That is if no one shows me any of their tattoos on the rest of my train trip home.