By: Sammy Stava
The Missouri Valley Men’s Basketball Tournament officially gets started a week from today in St. Louis, Missouri at the Scottrade Center, leading up to a much anticipated two weeks of college basketball conference tournament action as St. Louis will also host the SEC Men’s Basketball Tournament the following week. For the radio home of the MVC Tournament and the Missouri Tigers in St. Louis, 550 KTRS is the place to be and will have everybody covered.
Leading up to the final week in the regular season in the Missouri Valley, not only the Loyola-Chicago Ramblers have clinched the MVC regular-season title and a No. 1 seed in the MVC Tournament, but they also have a legitimate case for at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament. For a league that has seen national power Wichita State leave for the American Athletic Conference, the MVC would make quite a strong statement to have a two-bid league this season. Head Coach Porter Moser currently has Loyola 14-3 in conference play, 24-5 overall (with a win on the road at Florida), and a No. 33 RPI. That is a resume worthy of an NCAA Tournament conversation by the selection committee come Selection Sunday. Clayton Custer, a transfer from Iowa State, is making a case for the Missouri Valley Player of the Year. He’s averaging 14.7 points, 4.1 assists, and 2.3 rebounds per game. He will certainly be a player to watch at Arch Madness.
Speaking of players to watch, Missouri State’s Alize Johnson comes to mind. He’s averaging 15.5 points, 2.5 assists, and 11.7 rebounds per game. The Bears (17-13, 7-10) who are currently tied for sixth in the MVC, are in the midst of a disappointing season expectations-wise as they were the preseason favorite in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll. However, if this Bears team can put it together like everyone believed they could in the preseason, they could be a dark-horse pick to win Arch Madness, and it starts with having a NBA prospect in Alize Johnson. The senior forward wouldn’t want his college career to end, and with a talent like his, that should be a scary thought for opposing teams.
Another scary thought for opposing teams would be playing a team like Illinois State, who will definitely be motivated to get to the NCAA Tournament this time around playing with a chip on their shoulders. The Redbirds questionably missed the NCAA Tournament last season after going 27-7, 17-1 in the MVC with a Top 40 RPI, eventually losing to Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Championship Game. This season, after losing impact player MiKyle McIntosh to the Oregon Ducks, head coach Dan Muller still has his Redbirds at (16-13, 10-7) with some notable wins in non-conference play against South Carolina and Ole Miss. The players to watch out for are junior guard Keyshawn Evans and St. Louis transfer, forward Milik Yarbrough. The bottom line is that Illinois State has something to prove after what happened last season in not making the NCAA Tournament, and I’m sure Redbird fans will come to Scottrade Center in bunches ready to cheer them on making an NCAA Tournament berth a guaranteed deal if they win Arch Madness.
Southern Illinois is another proud program that always has a dedicated fan base when it comes to the Missouri Valley Tournament, and I bet their fans will be at Scottrade Center in full force, and the Salukis might be just playing like it’s another home game. Just like Loyola and Illinois State, Southern Illinois is in prime position for a top-four seed. Head coach Barry Hinson has his team at (19-11, 11-6). The Salukis are peaking at the right time as they have won nine out of their last 12 games and those only three losses have comes to Loyola (twice) and Illinois State. Expect Southern Illinois to be a trendy pick to win Arch Madness because if they happen to play the Ramblers or the Redbirds again, they’ll be looking for some revenge.
Drake is also a team that is looking for some revenge. The Bulldogs were picked last in the Missouri Valley preseason poll, and they are in position to end up as a top-four seed. In his first season as Drake head coach, Niko Medved has done an incredible job with this team. After finishing (7-24, 5-13) this re-vitalized Drake team is currently (16-14, 10-7). With the confident Bulldogs led by explosive senior guard Reed Timmer, who’s averaging 19.3 points, 2.4 assists, and 3.6 rebounds per game, this has all the ingredients of a dangerous Drake team that can make a run.
Northern Iowa isn’t the same Northern Iowa team we’re used to seeing, but they’re also a dangerous team that can make a run as long as Ben Jacobson is their head coach in a tournament scenario. While the Panthers (14-15, 6-11) may be having a disappointing season, they have also played a tough-non conference schedule. UNI has played North Carolina, Xavier, and Iowa State. Not to go unnoticed, they also played in the Battle 4 Atlantis in November, beating SMU and N.C. State and taking Villanova down to the wire in that championship game. It will be important for senior leader Bennett Koch (averaging 12.7 and 6.0 rebounds per game) to step up because these Panthers lacking a difference maker like they did in the past with Jeremy Morgan and Wes Washpun. Since 2011, the MVC Tournament has been won by Northern Iowa, Creighton, or Wichita State. Well, we know that two of those teams can’t win it this year.
One team that would love to win it this year is the newcomer of the league, Valparaiso. The Crusaders (5-12, 14-16) are in last place in the Missouri Valley. However, at one point of the season they were one of 10 undefeated teams left in the country as they were off to an 8-0 start. Valpo would love to make a statement and win the MVC Tournament in their first year as members. The Crusaders have beaten top-tier teams in this league like Illinois State and Southern Illinois, so they have the potential to make some noise. For that to happen, senior guard Tevonn Walker (averaging 14.5 points and 4.7 rebounds per game) will have to come up big.
Indiana State senior guard Brenton Scott is used to coming up big. In the 2014-2015 season, he won Missouri Valley Freshman of the Year, and it’s hard to believe this season is his last go-around. Scott is averaging 15.0 points, 2.3 assists, and 5.7 rebounds per game. The Sycamores (12-17, 7-10) have a player that can take over and win them a tournament, and this will be Scott’s last chance to do so.
Indiana State’s rival, Evansville, is right behind the Sycamores in the Missouri Valley Conference standings at (16-14, 6-11). For one last time, head coach Marty Simmons will be coaching his son, senior Blake Simmons. Simmons is averaging 10.6 points, 2.2 assists, and 4.7 rebounds per game. Winning Arch Madness would be a heck of a way to end The Valley era for the father and son.
In his third season as Bradley head coach, Brian Wardle has seen improvement every year. At (19-11, 9-8), the Braves are looking for their first 20-win season since 2008-2009. That was also the last season that they won 10 conference games. The positive momentum Wardle has built around this program is huge heading into the MVC Tournament. Bradley has a five-game winning streak and a four-game winning streak during this season, so the Braves are certainly capable of putting it together come tournament. Their key will be sophomore guard Darrell Brown Jr., who leads the team with 13.5 points and 4.5 assists per game.
Here are Saturday’s final regular season games: Southern Illinois at Evansville (1:00, ESPN3), Illinois State at Loyola-Chicago (1:00, ESPN2), Missouri State at Northern Iowa (1:00, ESPN3), Valparaiso at Drake (2:00, ESPN3), and Indiana State at Bradley (3:00, CBS Sports Network).
By the end of the weekend, we will know all of the seeds for 2018 MVC Basketball Tournament. The madness is almost here, and Arch Madness is on the Big 550 KTRS.