As the Missouri Valley Conference gets ready for its 111th basketball season later this week, the league is approaching an unpredictable future.
Defections by Creighton (2012 to the Big East) and Wichita State (last spring to the American Athletic) have taken two of the Valley's premier programs and most passionate fan bases.
While Loyola and Valparaiso were solid replacements, there is no denying the MVC lost plenty of prestige and luster.
It wasn't that long ago — 2006 to be precise — when the MVC sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament. But six times in the last 10 years, the league has seen only one team advance to the Big Dance.
When Illinois State was left out of the NCAA field last spring on Selection Sunday, despite a 27-6 record, an alarm bell was sounded in the league's St. Louis offices.
"Now is not the time to go to presidents and athletics directors and say it's going to take an investment, but there has to be a focus on priorities and making men's basketball the No. 1 priority because that will benefit every program (at a school)," said longtime MVC commissioner Doug Elgin.
Elgin, who is in his 30th year as the MVC boss, points out in the last two years only two at-large bids to the NCAA tourney went to leagues not ranked among the top nine.
That was Wichita State two years ago, when the Shockers were relegated to the First Four at Dayton, and St. Mary's (Calif.) last season.
It is difficult seeing the Valley getting more than one team, the winner of the league tournament in St. Louis in early March, to the NCAA tourney this season.
The Valley was ranked No. 12 among the 32 conferences last year with Wichita State and ISU leading the way. The Shockers are gone and the Redbirds lost four starters.
"There are challenges now we've never had as a league. You've had student-athletes transferring and recruited away, in a sense, by opportunities," said Elgin. "That complicates the building process for coaches who come in to rebuild a program."
What would help the Valley this season is winning more games against top-level competition in November and December.
The league went 1-10 against top-25 ranked teams in the nonconference last season. The lone victory came when Indiana State upset No. 15 Butler, 72-71.
Against the power-five conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast, Southeastern and Pac-12), the Valley went 5-16.
"Illinois State not being in the (NCAA) tournament was a crime," said Indiana State coach Greg Lansing. "But it's happened before in our league. All we can do is schedule tough in nonconference and win some of those games."
That's getting more difficult to do every year.
Not only are power conference schools fearful of scheduling home-and-home series with schools in leagues such as the MVC, but future opportunities even to be bought (a guaranteed amount of money) for a road game could be greatly reduced.
The Big Ten has announced it will go to a 20-game conference schedule (from the current 18) next season. The ACC is expected to do so the following season. The other three power-five conferences could follow suit.
That means less quality games for Valley schools — and less of a chance to get a win to pad an NCAA tourney resume.
"Every coach in our league is in agreement and we know where this is headed. We have to expand," said Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson. "We have to go to 20 conference games.
"I don't know who that is. I don't know who the best fit is. I'm excited about Valpo in our league. I think they add to our league. It was a great decision by our conference, but I think you need to add two more teams."
When the MVC added Valpo last spring, Elgin said a presidents-led committee would continue to look at expansion this school year.
"It (expansion) would help us schedule because it's difficult to get games." said Missouri State coach Paul Lusk.
The Bears were picked first in the preseason poll of MVC coaches, media and sports information directors. However, Missouri State doesn't have a power-five conference school on its nonconference schedule and its exempt tournament (the Gulf Coast Showcase in Estero, Fla.) doesn't boast a strong field.
That likely means regardless how well Missouri State does in the regular season and through the MVC schedule, the Bears will need to win in St. Louis or else not get in the NCAA tourney.
“In my opinion, Missouri State clearly has the best team going in. That can change. They have a ton of talent if they stay healthy," said ISU coach Dan Muller. "After that it's up for grabs in a lot of ways. I bet there's 10 coaches who think they have a chance to finish in the top whatever, including us."
One veteran league coach who has things figured out in Ben Jacobson, who has taken Northern Iowa to four NCAA tourneys in 11 years.
Jacobson believes it will take a collective effort to get the MVC back in the national spotlight.
"With the 10 we have, four, five or six of us have to figure out how to get in the top 100 in a given year. We have to do it without Creighton and Wichita. That's our job, plain and simple," said Jacobson.
"I would like to be one of the four, five or six in a given year in the top 100, and then hopefully two of them find their way into the top 50."