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Musings from the Madness: A year in the Missouri Valley Conference

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I didn’t want anything to do with the Missouri Valley Conference.

When the rumors started up about Valparaiso switching conferences again last year, I was vehemently opposed to the move. It didn’t make any sense to me. Valparaiso was well positioned in the Horizon League, both geographically and athletically. Winning the men’s basketball conference title in five out of the last six years was good living and being able to do it while beating programs from major Midwest cities was a boost.

Sure, those championships only produced two NCAA tournament appearances, but Valparaiso took its training wheels off in regards to the Horizon League in 2010 and never looked back. Even the rest of Valparaiso’s programs had broken through in recent years with women’s soccer, baseball and softball making trips to the NCAA tournament. Men’s soccer won a conference title and volleyball has always been a threat to reach the league title game.

Then you throw in the travel. The distance was similar to the Horizon League with an average of 30 miles more of travel on each trip, but nothing significant. The problem for me wasn’t the distance, but the locations. The Horizon League got Valparaiso into the biggest cities of the Midwest. Milwaukee, Detroit, Cleveland and for a time, Indianapolis. This new conference had such destinations as Carbondale, Bloomington and Cedar Falls; places I’d never be able to find on a map. (Not that Valparaiso jumps off the globe)

I’d heard plenty about how good the Valley was, how good Arch Madness was, how passionate the fan bases were. I was skeptical. I’m from Milwaukee, I hated the idea of Valparaiso moving to a conference that wouldn’t send me home a couple times a year. I hated the idea of traveling west instead of east. I hated the idea of traveling south instead of north. I hated everything about the move.

Until I didn’t anymore.

I made a decision last fall that I was going to embrace Valparaiso’s first year in the Valley. In situations where I’d normally take a phone call from Bryce Drew or Matt Lottich after the game in past seasons (I’ve never been to Wright State, Youngstown State or Northern Kentucky), I was going to make every effort to hit the road. I wanted to see the sights and sounds that apparently made the Valley so special; and see them I did.  

I took a Greyhound to St. Louis for MVC Media Day in October and I took an Amtrak train back from Arch Madness in March. The things I saw in between made for a memorable season off the court while the Crusaders were going through a forgettable year on the court.

I carpooled with Valparaiso’s longtime official scorer Dot Nuechterlein and two of her children to Indiana State in late December. It was far too cold to walk around Terre Haute, but the stories were priceless and set the tone for an exciting adventure to come.

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I took a Valparaiso fan bus to Peoria with a friend of mine and we were the youngest people on the bus by at least three Presidents. It was a joy to listen to Valparaiso’s faithful fans and what they thought of the move to the Valley and the Crusaders. It provided a different perspective that often gets lost when I find myself living in a Twitter echo chamber. I ate Italian food at Avanti’s and I nearly ended up at a sports bar called Big Al’s before I realized it was a strip club named Big Al’s.

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My girlfriend and I turned a road game in Cedar Falls into a weekend trip to Iowa. We went to the World’s Largest Truck Stop, walked the bases at the Field of Dreams movie site, stayed in a hotel that was a converted John Deere factory, ate a Coach Jake burger at Whiskey Road and went to a Waterloo Blackhawks hockey game before surviving a blizzard on the way home.

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We hit the road two weeks later for a 9 p.m. start at Illinois State. I met a lot of fans over the year, but the most passionate reside in BloNo. The Redbird faithful are really into their team and it showed when they took over the Scottrade Center for Arch Madness. Twitter told me that DP Dough was the place to grab food in Bloomington and then a couple of Illinois State fans found me there and came to say hello. Ryan and RedbirdRecon are diehard fans and just awesome guys. To celebrate their semifinal win in St. Louis, they ordered delivery from DP Dough in Bloomington and then invited me to come eat with them at 1 in the morning. At some point this season they adopted me as an honorary Redbird.

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I took a 28-hour trip to Carbondale with a group of people, including Valparaiso public address announcer John Bowker. We departed Valparaiso at 7:30 in the morning for the Homewood Amtrak station. Once we got to Carbondale we stopped at Quatro’s for a meal that was so good we went back for dinner after the game. We went bowling at the Southern Illinois student union. We ended the night at PK’s shooting pool and listening to live music before hitting up Insomnia Cookies and playing euchre at the Carbondale Amtrak station until our train left at 4 a.m. We stopped in Homewood for breakfast and made it back to Valparaiso in time for the Super Bowl pregame shows.

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I’d been to Loyola plenty of times before, but this was different. Rambler Nation is a thing now. The Gentile Arena looks amazing and the fanbase was far more engaged than they were when Loyola was a mid-level Horizon League team. Loyola has set the bar for Valparaiso’s entrance into the Valley and this is a rivalry that should grow. Perhaps with high school teammates Lucas Williamson (Loyola) and Javon Freeman (Valparaiso) battling it out for Whitney Young bragging rights, next year will be a good start.

I didn’t make it to Missouri State, Evansville or Drake this year. The first two were mid-week games that weren’t realistic to get to and the latter was the final game of the regular season and the Crusaders were already locked into the No. 10 seed. I hope to make it to these schools next year.

Finally, there was Arch Madness. The bread and butter of the Valley. I figured Valparaiso wasn’t going to last long in the tournament, especially when the Crusaders matched up with Missouri State, but I decided to stay for all four days. What a treat.

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Everything in St. Louis was pure class. From the way the city embraced the tournament to the Coach of the Year tipoff luncheon on Thursday morning to the passionate fan bases that descended upon the city. Arch Madness was a hit in every way imaginable. I stayed about a mile from the Scottrade Center and walked around downtown each day. St. Louis is a beautiful city and I can’t wait to explore more.

My hope is that Valparaiso’s fans truly embraces Arch Madness in a way that they didn’t embrace Motor City Madness. The Crusaders had by far the lowest number of fans in St. Louis this year, which is to be expected given the last place finish. There was a fan bus and I’ve heard no more than a dozen people made the trip. This isn’t anything new, Valparaiso’s fans hardly showed up to Detroit either, and those teams won conference championships. What is it going to take to get a strong showing at a conference tournament? I talked to a lot of fans in St. Louis and they all told me that Arch Madness is their NCAA tournament. As I write this I’m siting on the Amtrak heading back to Chicago and I’ve seen fans wearing Illinois State, Loyola, Southern Illinois, Bradley and Indiana State gear, just in my car alone. One couple told me they stay at the same hotel every year and they haven’t missed an Arch Madness in 19 seasons. Their team got eliminated on Friday night. They stayed the rest of the weekend.

I was hesitant to embrace the Missouri Valley Conference. Selfishly, I liked being one of the few reporters who gave a flip about the Horizon League. It was nice being the big fish in a small pond. Once Butler left, Valparaiso also became a big fish in a small pond. The Valley pond is a lot bigger and the fish have doubled in size. It’s time for Valparaiso to do the same.

I've written, tweeted and spoken on Union Street Hoops about attendance issues and that is something that Valparaiso needs to address. How? Your guess is as good as mine. Facility upgrades? Better halftime entertainment? Better sound system? Better parking? Better music being played over better sound system? Pep band that plays new music? Students that sit in the student section? Students that stand in the student section? Better non-conference opponents? More Saturday night home games? 

I'm not going to pretend that every Valley program has it figured out. These Wednesday night games weren't great in any arena I went to; even first-place Loyola wasn't sold out until Senior Day against Illinois State. That said, Valparaiso can find a model blueprint in a lot of what its new conference counterparts are doing. The first step has to come with the fans. Embrace the Madness and give the Valley a chance. I'm glad I did. 

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Paul Oren has been a correspondent reporter for The Times since 2005. A member of the United States Basketball Writers Association, Paul has spent more than 15 years covering Valparaiso basketball.