Andrew Skwara Rivals.com College Basketball Staff Writer
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The Missouri Valley Conference isn't just getting better, it's getting more popular. The mid-major league is on the verge of drawing more fans to its games than one of the major conferences.
The MVC averaged a record 7,716 fans per game last season. That's just 193 fewer than the Pac-10, according to recent attendance figures released by the NCAA.
One of league's 10 schools deserves the most credit, and ironically it isn't one of the four teams that went to the 2006 NCAA Tournament. Creighton finished 20th among all Division I schools with an average of 13,900 fans per game - a jump of more than 2,692 from the previous season. That's better than reigning national champion Florida (10,851) and a host of other major programs, including Texas (13,024), Oklahoma (11,805), Oklahoma State (11,591), Michigan (10,690), Pittsburgh (10,624) and Villanova (9,949).
Wichita State came in at 37th with 10,435. That's more than LSU (9,468) and UCLA (8,894), two programs coming off runs to the Final Four.
The Bluejays have the advantage of playing in the spacious Qwest Center (capacity of 17,000) and the Shockers have long been known for their rabid fan support.
But, it's clear the interest in the MVC is spreading deeper.
Bradley brought in 9,220 per game to rank 54th. The only Pac-10 schools with more were Arizona (14,586) and California (9,324).
Northern Iowa enjoyed the sixth-biggest increase of all D-I schools, going from 4,692 to 6,898 per game.
The 2 Million Club
The biggest impact of the Big East expanding to 16 teams last season may be in ticket sales.
The league that sent a record eight teams to the 2006 NCAA Tournament combined for a total attendance of 2,964,418, last season - more than 700,000 than the next-highest total.
The Big Ten, ACC and SEC all surpassed the 2 million barrier. The Big 12 totaled 1.9 million, but also averaged a league-record 10,121 fans per game.
Conference USA, which lost four of its schools to the Big East (Cincinnati, DePaul, Louisville and Marquette), has reverted back to competing with most of the mid-major leagues when it comes to attendance figures. C-USA averaged 2,354 fewer fans per game than the previous season, a decline more than twice as large as any other league.
What Major League Baseball all-star turned down basketball scholarships from Georgia and Oklahoma State? Hint: He plays in the National League and is an infielder. Answer at the end of the column.
Three Questions with new Ole Miss coach Andy Kennedy
Andy Kennedy was named Cincinnati's interim coach two months before the season, replacing longtime Bearcats coach Bob Huggins. The Bearcats pulled off some big wins and narrowly missed out on an NCAA Tournament bid. After a loss in the NIT, Kennedy took the head coaching job at Ole Miss a day later.
Very few coaches have experienced a season like you did last year, what did you learn from that?
"How to deal with adversity mainly. I found out you never know what could happen next, so you have to be careful. We got beat in our last game and 12 hours later I'm back in my home state being introduced as an SEC coach. I felt very privileged to lead the Cincinnati program back. We started with 10 scholarship players and ended with six in a very rugged Big East. I certainly learned you can overcome what seems like insurmountable odds in sports if you focus and use all your energy."
How does the SEC compare today to the one you grew up watching?
"It's still a football power, but it's not exclusively a football league. There's nothing that says you can't be good in both. What Billy Donovan did at Florida by taking them to the national championship and what John Brady did by leading LSU to the Final Four and Dave Odom winning back-to-back NIT titles made the strongest statement about this league. They are doing it on the floor."
What will be the biggest difference about Ole Miss basketball next season?
"Simply a change in leadership. I would hope we represent the university in a proper fashion. I've said this many times, but I feel very fortunate to have worked under Coach Huggins for four years and I want to use a lot of his philosophies from being aggressive to taking a very resilient approach."
• Texas freshman center Dexter Pittman dominated a Texas high school all-star game last week. Pittman scored 30 points, grabbed 12 rebounds and blocked three shots to lead the South to a 122-116 win over the North. Arizona's freshman point guard Nic Wise poured in 19 points for the South.
• The first class of the National College Basketball Hall of Fame will include John Wooden, Dean Smith, Oscar Robertson and Bill Russell. The legends will be inducted Nov. 19 at the Crown Center Exhibit Hall in Kansas City. The new hall of fame plans to open in the Kansas City's Sprint Center next year.
• Brian Johnson has left Louisville and will likely transfer to either George Washington or Florida State. The power forward averaged 3.2 points and 3.2 rebounds a game for the Cardinals last season. He has two years of eligibility remaining.
• The San Juan Shootout field includes Appalachian State, Central Florida, Northwestern, Tennessee Tech, Utah, Vanderbilt and Virginia.
• McNeese State fired coach Tic Price last week. Price went 74-68 in his five seasons and took the Cowboys to the NCAA Tournament in his first season in 2001.
• Tennessee guard Damion Harris is transferring to Newberry College. His departure gives the Volunteers three scholarships to offer for the class of 2007.
Answer to trivia question: Scott Rolen, third baseman for the St. Louis Cardinals.
Note: Information and reports from the NCAA, the Tennessean, other media outlets and various editors within the Rivals.com network contributed to this report.