Perhaps the signature trait of men's college basketball in the late twentieth century was the rush to create "superconferences" such as Conference USA and the Big 12, consolidations of power that either completely shuttered (Southwest) or greatly weakened (Sun Belt) once-great regional leagues.
A similar fate was supposed to have befallen the Missouri Valley Conference, which, at certain points in its 96-year history, has counted such national powerhouses as Missouri, Louisville, Oklahoma, Cincinnati, Houston and Memphis -- not to mention St. Louis University -- among its ranks. However, as ex-SLU and current UNLV head man Charlie Spoonhour presciently noted, the trend toward top-flight players' declaring hardship or forgoing college ball altogether has rendered the Valley -- its teams rife with upperclassmen -- an unexpected kingpin on the mid-major circuit. How else to explain the Creighton Blue Jays' ascension to a ninth-place national ranking earlier this season, marking the first time since Hersey Hawkins' 1986 Bradley squad that an MVC team had polled in the top ten?
The formula of success for the 25-3 Bluejays has been -- what else? -- a luxuriantly deep, balanced squad that's heavy on upperclassmen, not least among them six-foot-seven junior forward Michael Grimes, Florissant native and older brother of Hazelwood Central wunderkind Kalen.
No, the elder Grimes is no superstar. Rather, he's a role-player who averages a hyperefficient eight points and four rebounds in fifteen minutes per game off the bench. Where Grimes has shone brighter than almost any other player in the country this year is the field-goal-percentage department, where he boasts otherworldly 70 percent accuracy. Furthermore, Grimes hasn't attempted a three-point shot all year, emblematic of a collective court discipline that will -- and you heard it here first -- enable Creighton to capture the most shocking national-championship victory this side of Villanova's.
Grimes' Jays and 45,000 MVC fanatics from such humble towns as Normal, Illinois, and Terre Haute, Indiana, will descend on Savvis Center March 7-10 for Arch Madness, the Valley's annual conference tournament. This marks the thirteenth straight year that the MVC, whose national offices are located in St. Louis' Lafayette Park neighborhood, will hold their end-of-the-year bash in the Gateway City -- and it's high time St. Louis' multitude of well-intentioned civic-booster entities took full advantage of the bevy of wide-eyed small-town college kids for whom St. Louis looks like Manhattan.
"There is certainly a lot of civic hand-wringing about our inability to attract young professionals to the region, including those who graduate from local colleges," says Les Sterman of the East-West Gateway Partnership, "so it seems like a great opportunity to show these people a good time while they're here."
The Lou's best shot at swelling its youthful population is to dazzle those who've never known the cosmopolitan splendors of, say, Seattle, Chicago or New York. The kids who will be here to root on their teams at Arch Madness are fresh meat.