by Joe Caputo
One of the best kept secrets in college basketball year after year is the Missouri Valley conference tournament. One of the most complete conferences in the nation, the Missouri Valley conference tournament never fails to be one of the most competitive
in the land. Despite the departure of Wichita State this year, the Missouri Valley has managed to remain just as competitive thanks in large part to its addition of Valparaiso, who came over from the Horizon League in the offseason.
This year, the Missouri Valley’s regular season has been defined by parity and home-court advantage. Every team in the MVC has at least 3 conference losses, while Missouri Valley teams have some of the best in-conference home records in the country. However, with the MVC conference tournament, starting on March 1, being played on a neutral court in St. Louis, it could be difficult to predict who will take home the title. That’s where I come in.
Cream of the Crop:
Loyola Chicago – This is without a doubt the best team in the conference. They also have the best out-of-conference win, a 6-point victory at Florida. The Ramblers had won 7 straight games before their loss to Bradley, which was by no means a bad loss. Expect them to be the number 1 seed and likely play for the MVC title in a month.
Bradley – The Braves made their mark Wednesday night leading basically wire-to-wire and beating Loyola Chicago to move to within a game in the standings. This Bradley team is probably the most improved Valley team from a season ago, led by Sophomore point guard Darrell Brown. They’ve struggled a bit away from home, which will be an important challenge to conquer in the next month, but Brian Wardle’s squad seems well-prepared to make a run at this conference title.
Southern Illinois – The hottest team in the MVC at the moment. Winners of 5 of their last 6, Southern Illinois has made a vicious push into a 2nd-place tie in the conference standings. They’ve been impressive away from home, too, winning at Missouri State and Drake in their last 2 matchups. This team led by a slew of juniors is getting very close to the elite tier in this conference, and it would not be surprising to see them playing on the final day of the tournament.
Drake – The Bulldogs started conference play white-hot, winning their first 4 games, 2 of which on the road. Since then, its been a bit of a struggle for Niko Medved’s team, which now sits at 6-5. If the conference as a whole has a weakness, its that most of the teams are careless with the basketball. Drake, however, has been one of the better teams at taking care of the ball. It helps to be led by Reed Timmer and a bunch of other seniors. Kenpom.com has the Bulldogs at number 8 nationally in experience, and that is why they are going to be one of the bigger sleepers in next month’s tournament.
Evansville – This one might surprise some people, but the Aces are finally starting to get healthy. Dru Smith, Ryan Taylor, Duane Gibson, and Marty Hill have all missed significant time this season, keeping Evansville from really getting into a rhythm at any point. However, this Evansville team, when healthy, does a lot of things right. Aside from being the 2nd-best defense in the conference (according to kenpom.com), Evansville also boasts the 4th-highest 3-point percentage in all of the nation (41.4%). They blew out Bradley on their home floor back in early January, and are currently on a mini three-game win streak to date. Watch out for this team.
Work To Do:
Missouri State – In many people’s eyes the preseason favorite to win this conference, the Missouri State Bears have mightily struggled to put things together, especially on the offensive end. Being the 6th-most experienced team in the country might be misleading here, as seniors Alize Johnson and JT Miller are playing in just their first season together. The recent loss of 3rd-leading scorer Reggie Scurry also hurts. All-in-all, Paul Lusk has had a difficult time of getting everything to click up to this point. They cannot be written off, as they are still one of the most talented teams in the conference, but time is running out.
Indiana State – Another careless Missouri Valley team that ultimately is done in by turnovers. The Sycamores play at a blistering pace under head coach Greg Lansing, but at times that is to their own detriment. The team ranks 286th in the country in turnover rate, keeping them from taking control of games down the stretch. Jordan Barnes is an excellent scorer, but Indiana State needs to clean up their act if they want a taste of the Missouri Valley crown in 2018.
Maybe Next Year:
Illinois State – Give Illinois State and coach Dan Muller credit. After a phenomenal 28-7 season, they had a massive turnover of players, but have still managed to compete rather nicely in 2018. Their record currently stands at 6-5 in the conference, but they’ve been plagued by inconsistent play and buoyed by a weak schedule to date. Ultimately, this team struggles in too many key areas like rebounding and scoring to be considered a threat in this year’s tournament, but this young squad likely has a bright future ahead.
Valparaiso – A transition year for the Crusaders in a lot of aspects. New conference. 2nd-year coach. Many new players. That all has summed to an underwhelming 3-8 record to this point, but this Valparaiso team has not exactly been a pushover. Speaking to the depth of the league, Valparaiso does have wins over Southern Illinois, Drake, and Indiana State, but their lack of a win away from home is a key indicator of what may be waiting for them in March.
Northern Iowa – Quite possibly the best coach in this conference, Ben Jacobsen has had his work cut out for him this year. After surviving a brutal non-conference schedule (and even winning games vs. SMU, NC State, and UNLV), things just haven’t worked out in MVC play. This team struggles mightily to put the ball in the hoop, which can be largely attributed to it’s lack of a guard who can break you down off the dribble. For as long as Jacobsen is here, the Panthers will never be a tough out in the conference tournament, but I find it very difficult to see them winning it all this time around.