In 2016, the Valparaiso men’s basketball team went 16-2 in the Horizon League to win the regular-season title by three games, set a program record for wins at 30-7 and went a program-best 17-1 at home.
But their NCAA tournament plans were derailed with an overtime loss to Green Bay in the league tournament semifinals. The Crusaders made the NIT championship game, but missing the NCAA tourney still stung.
Valparaiso hopes joining the Missouri Valley Conference will help prevent any such scenarios in the future.
The school on Thursday officially accepted an invitation to join the Missouri Valley Conference, effective July 1. The St. Louis-based league announced the offer on May 9.
“The opportunity to be in a conference with the history and tradition of the Missouri Valley was one we needed to pursue,” Valparaiso athletic director Mark LaBarbera said. “Being in a conference with a higher basketball profile will help achieve the goals of our basketball program. We feel like we have a chance to get into the NCAA tournament if we don’t win the conference.
“It’s a tremendous opportunity for our program and student-athletes and it’s good for the university as a whole to elevate our national reputation a bit.”
The Crusaders are scheduled to compete in all 17 sports sponsored by the Missouri Valley. The conference after 2016-17 is dropping men’s tennis, a sport in which Valparaiso made the NCAA tournament the last two seasons, and does not offer men’s swimming.
LaBarbera said Valparaiso has been exploring its options in those two sports and should have a resolution within the next two weeks.
Mid-Continent Conference since 1982.
“We are thrilled to join the Missouri Valley Conference,” Valparaiso president Mark Heckler said in a statement. “This is an important step forward for all of our athletics programs and an opportunity to advance the national standing of Valparaiso.”
With Wichita State departing for the American Athletic Conference, Missouri Valley officials visited Valparaiso on April 25. After also considering an expansion to 12 members, the conference opted to make Valparaiso its 10th.
“We are truly excited to welcome Valparaiso to our family,” Missouri Valley commissioner Doug Elgin said in a statement. “Valpo brings a combination of strong athletics tradition and academic excellence, and will be a great fit competing in our league.”
LaBarbera was asked about feedback Valparaiso received regarding facilities.
“Are there things we need to do? Yes, and we’re working on it,” LaBarbera said. “But there were never any stipulations about needing to do this or that.
“The (conference) understands the environment at the ARC is first-rate and it’s a tough venue for visiting teams. They want teams that have excitement and community support and a tough place to play. The Valley has tough places and great fan bases and they wanted to add a venue like the ARC and a fan base like ours.”
Valparaiso also received a visit in 2013 when Creighton left for the Big East. The Missouri Valley chose Loyola.
“All we’ve concentrated on is making our program as good as it can be regardless of what one conference or another might think,” LaBarbera said. “We’ve worked to get better and we’ve worked to be good members of the Horizon League. We feel fortunate another opportunity came along and we took advantage.
“Four years ago, the Missouri Valley had different parameters and it was a good decision for them with Loyola to get into the Chicago market. This time they had slightly different parameters, and we were fortunate they felt we best met them — sponsoring all the sports, being in the geographic footprint and, last but not least, men’s basketball.”
Valparaiso won five Horizon League regular-season titles in six seasons, including a share under first-year coach Matt Lottich, as part of a basketball tradition that includes the Drew family-led 1998 Sweet 16 run.
The Crusaders have made seven straight postseason appearances, including twice to the NCAA tournament. They have played in nine NCAA tournaments and made the 2016 NIT final.
“We like to think we have a national brand,” LaBarbera said. “The Missouri Valley has been the best mid-major conference in the country and we can help continue to achieve that.”
Lottich was looking forward to the move.
“We’re super excited,” he said. “We understand it’s a great conference, but so is the Horizon League.
“We’re going to continue to take the same approach — togetherness and humility and playing hard, seeing if the outcomes come out in our favor. We understand it’s a challenge, but we always like challenges.”