MVC Tournament Preview: Will anyone keep Wichita State and Northern Iowa from meeting in finals?

Photo: Peter Aiken/Getty Images
Photo: Peter Aiken/Getty Images
Photo: Peter Aiken/Getty Images

The Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, otherwise known as Arch Madness, is one of the nation’s premier mid-major tournaments every season. This year is no exception.

The Valley has two teams ranked in the top-15 nationally as the favorite’s to meet in Sunday’s title game. But this is also a deep mid-major league with a few teams capable of picking off one of the favorites.

Here are The Catch and Shoot’s picks for what should be an awesome weekend of hoops.

 

First Round

No. 8 Missouri State vs. No. 9 Southern Illinois

Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson has a history of success in the MVC Tournament. This is his 12th season in the conference between time at SIU and Missouri State.

Hinson is 12-11 all-time at Arch Madness, and only twice has he lost in his first game of the tournament. (The most recent time was actually a Thursday night loss to Missouri State during his first year at Southern Illinois.)

Missouri State was already struggling, but things got even worse when leading scorer Marcus Marshall left the team in January. The Bears have started to find some better offense late in the season, though.

Meanwhile, Southern Illinois’ defense really struggled the final month of the regular season. Even if the Salukis lock down Missouri State’s mediocre offense, they may not have enough firepower on their own end to outscore their opponent. That’s what happened in both regular season matchups, and I’m betting on it happening again this time around.

Missouri State 51, Southern Illinois 48

 

No. 7 Drake vs. No. 10 Bradley

Bradley is a dangerous team. The Braves went 1-8 in the final month of the season, but five of the losses came by two possessions or less. Two others were two-possession games in the final five minutes.

The only team that beat Bradley handily late in the season was Northern Iowa. Even Wichita State won by just three points when it visited Peoria.

Drake and Bradley recently met Feb. 11, and the Bulldogs won 60-54 in Des Moines.

Bradley was without leading scorer Warren Jones and forward Xzavier Taylor in that loss. With those two back in the lineup, the Braves have the pieces to advance to Friday.

Bradley 62, Drake 58

 

Quarterfinals

No. 1 Wichita State vs. No. 8 Missouri State

Missouri State came nowhere close against Wichita State in both regular season meetings. The Shockers upended the Bears by 23 points at home and then by 43 in Springfield.

In the second meeting, Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet had a triple-double in 24 minutes of playing time. That remains utterly mind-boggling more than three weeks later.

Missouri State was trending slightly upward in the final two weeks of the season, but that’s not going to make a difference against the regular season champions and defending tournament champs.

Wichita State 72, Missouri State 49

 

No. 4 Illinois State vs. No. 5 Evansville

Some people have been saying Illinois State is just as talented as Northern Iowa and Wichita State, and thus it’s just a matter of the Redbirds putting the pieces together. I’m not buying that, although I do think the Redbirds are far and away the third-best team in this conference.

Illinois State ranks No. 67 in Kenpom, 67 spots ahead of the next-best Valley team. Of course, that team is Evansville at No. 134, so this matchup could still be interesting.

The Redbirds swept the season series, blowing out the Aces on the road but needing overtime to survive this past Saturday at Redbird Arena.

Evansville also has its share of talent and has simply struggled to put the pieces together. Egidijus Mockevicius is the conference’s second-best big man after Player of the Year Seth Tuttle. D.J. Balentine has had a slightly disappointing season, but he is still an electric scorer that can take over a game when he gets hot.

If those two are at their best this week, Evansville could be a good sleeper pick to maybe upset Wichita State and make it to the championship game. But that’s a bit of a long shot considering how much the Aces struggled during the final four weeks of the regular season.

Illinois State 66, Evansville 58

 

No. 2 Northern Iowa vs. No. 10 Bradley

Bradley has one of the worst offenses in the nation. Northern Iowa has one of the best defenses in the nation.

The Braves are also terrible in 3-point defense. The Panthers shoot the lights out from beyond the arc.

That’s all you need to know.

Northern Iowa 69, Bradley 50

 

No. 3 Indiana State vs. No. 6 Loyola

Loyola is a completely different team now that Milton Doyle is healthy and playing again. As good as Doyle is on the offensive end with his ability to score and facilitate, he is possibly even more important to the Ramblers on defense. He’s Loyola leader in steal and block percentage.

Doyle completely changes the way Loyola defends on the perimeter thanks to his length, quickness and basketball IQ. That shows up with the Ramblers holding teams to 26.2 percent 3-point shooting in conference games where Doyle played significant minutes compared to 38.7 percent in games he missed.

In two regular season meetings which Indiana State won, the Sycamores shot 22-of-42 (52.4 percent) from deep against the Ramblers. Doyle missed both meetings.

That does not mean the difference of Doyle will suddenly take away Indiana State’s entire perimeter game. And even if it did, the Trees have other options with Devonte Brown’s dribble-drive game and big men Justin Gant and Jake Kitchell.

But having Doyle certainly is a sign Loyola should be a lot closer in this meeting than it was in the previous two

Loyola 65, Indiana State 61

 

Semifinals

No. 1 Wichita State vs. No. 4 Illinois State

Dan Muller is 0-7 as a head coach against Wichita State. But that’s not the fairest stat to talk about because the Shockers have just seven total losses in Muller’s three seasons.

But the point is the Shockers are really good, and the Redbirds have trouble beating them.

However, Illinois State came close twice this year, losing 70-62 in Wichita and 68-62 at home. As mentioned before, the Redbirds have plenty of talent.

Illinois State finished the regular season on a four-game winning streak, but the only win of any note there was against Evansville. In fact, the Redbirds went 0-6 against the league’s top three seeds this season, and that makes me skeptical of this team putting together a Cinderella run.

Wichita State 74, Illinois State 65

 

No. 2 Northern Iowa vs. No. 6 Loyola

Loyola played Northern Iowa tough earlier in the season but then got rocketed in Chicago sans-Doyle.

The Ramblers’ performance in that closer loss in January as admirable. They held the Panthers, 39.9 percent 3-point shooting team, to 5-of-17 shooting from deep (29.4 percent). They also held Seth Tuttle to nine points on five shot attempts in addition to turning him over three times.

Even when doing so many things right, Loyola lost 67-58.

Northern Iowa 64, Loyola 53

 

Finals

No. 1 Wichita State vs. No. 2 Northern Iowa

Here’s the matchup everyone around the nation is hoping to see Sunday afternoon. Northern Iowa beat up on Wichita State in the first meeting, and then Wichita State beat up on Northern Iowa, albeit to a slightly lesser extent, in the rematch.

It’s hard to argue that the three best players in the Valley are on these two teams: Seth Tuttle on the Panthers, and Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker on the Shockers.

In the end, this will be the third game in three days for both teams, and Northern Iowa is the much deeper group.

Northern Iowa plays nine guys at least 12 minutes per game to the Wichita State’s seven. The Panthers are No. 64 in the nation in bench minutes, well above average, while the Shockers are No. 193, a bit below average.

That will become a factor as tired legs come into play.

Northern Iowa 70, Wichita State 67

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