ST. LOUIS (AP) -Here's the Missouri Valley's dream scenario for squeezing two teams into the NCAA tournament: No 2 seed Creighton advances to the final of this week's conference tournament, just misses out on the automatic bid and then gets an at-large berth based on its strong finish.
The Valley was a one-bid conference last year, ending nine straight years of two or more bids and a major slide from the heady four-bid days of 2006. That will likely again be the case if the Bluejays (25-6, 14-4) don't follow this path. Creighton has an RPI of 39, by far the best in a league ranked ninth in the country, and momentum from a 10-game winning streak heading into the four-day event that begins Thursday night.
``Creighton is white hot,'' conference commissioner Doug Elgin said. ``They've beaten some good teams and won on the road. Schedule strength, all the data, it's pretty strong.''
Booker Woodfox, who leads the Valley with 83 3-pointers on 50.9 percent accuracy and a 15.9 scoring average that is second best in the league. A 20-win team for the 11th straight season, they also have enough depth to substitute in waves.
``They're running as hot as anybody could be,'' Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said. ``Over a three-game period, I love what they have. Most of us don't play that many people that many minutes, but they do.''
Of course, there are no guarantees even if Creighton follows the script. Just like any other year, upsets in mid-major conference tournaments are liable to cut into the at-large berths.
``We're going to be like everybody else, and that's rooting for the favorites,'' Elgin said. ``If Butler loses in the Horizon League, that's one of the at-large bids gone.''
The rest of the Valley appears to be NIT material at best.
Northern Iowa (20-10, 14-4) has the top seed after sharing the title with Creighton, but with a so-so RPI of 72 that makes it a must-win proposition this week. Third seed Illinois State (22-8, 11-7) has the second-best RPI of 61, and is the only other 20-game winner in a young conference.
he Salukis have been dogged by injuries, especially to guard Bryan Mullins.
``We've had a lot of things happen in one year and that's part of athletics - people leave and you have injuries,'' coach Chris Lowery said. ``I wasn't going to change the way we did things to just deal with this season, and I think that's why we've started to play better.''
Northern Iowa opens on Friday against the winner of the 8-9 lead-in game matching Drake (17-14, 7-11) and Indiana State (10-20, 7-11) on Thursday night. The other lead-in game matches No. 7 Wichita State (15-15, 8-10) and No. 10 Missouri State (11-19, 3-15), with Creighton awaiting that winner.
Northern Iowa is the fourth different No. 1 seed in four years, and the Bulldogs are on top for the first time in school history after being picked to finish sixth in the preseason poll. It's the type of showing that typifies the wide-open conference, especially at this time of year.
Creighton coach Dana Altman said upsets are always a concern in early March, and pointed out Northern Iowa lost to Indiana State and Drake, while the Bluejays lost to Wichita State. Three of the four teams playing on Thursday have combined for eight victories over the top three seeds.
ames, the higher seeded teams are going to have to have their game face on and bring their A game.''
Conference officials are under the gun, too, to entice fans in a depressed economy. Sales are down about 35 percent from last year's total of 64,551, prompting numerous ticket discounts available through Taco Bell, Pepsi and others at
``The economy has had a negative impact,'' Elgin said. ``You're going to see all kinds of deals in the market place.''

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