COLUMBUS - It is the Valley of Giants as far as mid-major college basketball goes.
The Missouri Valley Conference is better than the Colonial Athletic Association, with apologies to George Mason and its electrifying dash to last season's Final Four. The Big Mo is light years better than the Mid-American Conference, which dabbles in being both a football and basketball league and, in reality, is recognized as neither.
The Valley doesn't mess around with Division I-A football. Why get your head beat in playing big-money road games while hoping to win enough to play in small-money bowl games that are college football's equivalent of the NIT?
Senior guard Jamaal Tatum of Southern Illinois is the player of the year in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Terry Gilliam / AP Enlarge
No, MVC schools pour their resources into hoops and it pays off with a magical year like 2005-06, when four teams got in the NCAA tournament, or this season, with two in the Big Dance (the commissioner was disappointed bordering on ticked off) and two in the consolation bracket, also known as the aforementioned NIT.
Can you imagine a Missouri Valley team with 26 wins being overlooked for both? (For further information, see Akron, Mid-American Conference.)
If the Valley is the Valley of Giants, then Southern Illinois is the King of the Mid-Majors.
Just don't suggest that to the Salukis, ranked No. 13 in the AP poll.
"I don't even like the words," senior guard Tony Young, one of the slickest defensive players in the country, said yesterday at Nationwide Arena. "I think we can compete with anyone. We're in a conference with teams that consistently win against big-time opponents. People can keep calling us mid-major, but it's a term we don't even use."
For good reason. Southern Illinois is in the NCAA field for the sixth straight year. The Salukis are 27-6 overall and have the No. 7 RPI in the country. They were ranked as high as 11th in the AP poll before having a 13-game winning streak snapped by Creighton in the MVC tournament title game.
Everybody's buzzing over the potential for a second-round game between SIU and Illinois, coached by former Saluki boss Bruce Weber. But the fact is the Salukis, seeded fourth, have no guarantee the Illini, which limped in with a No. 12 seed, will get there.
"We don't even pay attention to that," said senior guard Jamaal Tatum, the MVC's player of the year. "People can say that before the game, but they're not usually saying it after. We get the respect we deserve after the game."
This pseudo mid-major will face a true mid-major in the nightcap of today's NCAA first-round games here. The Salukis face Holy Cross at 9:40 p.m., following match-ups between Virginia and Albany, Tennessee and Long Beach State, and Virginia Tech-Illinois.
Southern Illinois beat both Texas Tech and Georgia and made it to the NCAA's Sweet 16 round, where it lost to Connecticut, in 2001-02. Two years ago, the Salukis advanced to the second round before losing to Oklahoma State.
"When we lost to Oklahoma State my sophomore year, their coach didn't say afterwards that we were a good mid-major team," Tatum said. "He said they'd beaten a good team."
SIU's Chris Lowery, who at age 34 will be the youngest coach in the NCAA tournament for the third straight year, is another who doesn't consider his team to be a mid-major anymore. He used an overtime loss to Arkansas on a neutral floor earlier this season to make his point.
"On one of the [NCAA] selection shows the other day, the analysts were discussing Arkansas getting in the tournament and said that one of the good wins to their credit was against Southern Illinois," Lowery said. "When they start to talk about you as a good win for somebody, that says a lot."
The selection committee must agree. After all, SIU's No. 4 seed is one of the highest ever given a, um, mid-major. Just one of the highest? Well, don't forget the Missouri Valley once had a guy named Larry Bird playing for Indiana State, a No. 1 seed in 1979.
The MVC has four teams this season with 21 or more wins and the lowest RPI among them is No. 38. As a whole, the league's RPI is No. 6, one spot ahead of, gulp, the Big 12.
Last year, when four teams came to the dance, Bradley and Wichita State both advanced to the Sweet 16. The significance there was Bradley beating both Kansas and Pitt in the NCAA after finishing in fifth place in the Valley standings.
So you get the picture. When is a mid-major not a mid-major? When it plays in the Valley.