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Mississippi Valley State Brings Strength of Schedule to a Whole New Level

by Kevin Trahan (@k_trahan)

Mississippi Valley State won't be competing for an at-large berth in the NCAA Tournament, but regardless, the Delta Devils have put together arguably the toughest non-conference schedule in the country. Of their 10 non-conference games, nine are on the road and eight are against major-conference opponents. MVSU has two games at Ole Miss and visits Cincinnati, Northwestern, LSU, Virginia, Virginia Tech and TCU. The first two games have gone about how you might expect a SWAC team to play against teams from the SEC and Big East — the Delta Devils lost 93-57 to Ole Miss and 102-60 to Cincinnati in their first and second games, respectively. Thursday's game against Northwestern probably will go about the same way.

Shockingly, last year's schedule was even tougher. The Delta Devils visited Notre Dame, DePaul, North Carolina, South Carolina, Arkansas, Northwestern, Ole Miss, Florida, Wisconsin and Iowa State. That's 10 major-conference teams and five NCAA Tournament teams, including a No. 1 seed. MVSU had just two non-conference home games, and its lone non-conference win — a 90-89 OT win over Tennessee State — came at home.

However, there is a method to all this madness. After going 1-11 in non-conference season last year, with all but one of the losses by double digits, MVSU lost just one game in the SWAC and won the conference tournament, earning the Delta Devils an NCAA Tournament bid. Was that a direct result of the schedule? It's tough to say. However, there are significant benefits to scheduling such difficult opponents in a row.

Typically, the opportunity to get beaten senseless for half the season wouldn't be attractive to recruits, but MVSU can sell to kids that they will be playing against some of the top players and teams in the country, and that they will be playing in historic arenas. That gives players a chance to prove themselves on a big stage. On the off chance that they upset someone, they'll make headlines on ESPN, which can't happen with big games against MEAC or Great West teams. From a non-recruiting standpoint, MVSU players are much more battle-tested than their SWAC brethren by the time conference season arrives. It's certainly a risk to play so many top opponents — particularly, it could dishearten some players to be blown out game after game — but if morale stays high, it can be an advantage, as the Delta Devils have proven.

MVSU is banned from the postseason this year, so even if the Delta Devils run the table in he SWAC, it won't be for anything other than pride. However, it will be interesting to see if the tough schedules continue in recent years, and if the SWAC titles keep coming. If so, tough non-conference scheduling could become a blueprint for success in weaker conferences.