The Missouri Valley Conference appeared destined to be a three-bid league for much of the season. And then all hell broke loose...which is where we still stand heading into this week's conference tournament in St. Louis.
Wichita State, ranked in the top 15 at the time, lost three games in a row. Creighton, then the favorite with a similar national ranking, also took a dive.The biggest benefactor of both of those losing streaks was Indiana State, which then proceeded to tank also and muddy the picture of the MVC even more.
These occurrences combined with Illinois State's losing streak to begin the conference slate, really mixed up the preseason expectations that were hanging out there for the league. This all gives new meaning to "Arch Madness," if only because this is the most wide open tournament, combined with the one that could cause a number of bubble teams a lot of grief.
There is one clear choice for the favorite in Arch Madness, and that is chaos. Honestly, you couldn't pay most of the professional gamblers in Las Vegas to pick a favorite in this tournament at this point.
Name one team that you think might be the favorite, and I can name about 10 reasons why they shouldn't be.
Here's a small sampling:
Creighton: Defense; defense (yes, it counts twice); the chance that no one other than Doug McDermott might show up.
OK, so Creighton and Wichita State should be your favorites. Either of them could legitimately walk away with this title. But here is the thing: Given how nutty everything has been this season, there simply are no guarantees in this tournament.
If you are a fan of one of the teams on the bubble, you need to root hard for one of these two to win. Because if they don't, we are talking BRACKET CHAOS. This is not an exaggeration, despite the liberal use of bold, caps and italics. Despite the love for Indiana State that started during the first half of February, it is unlikely that a third team from the Missouri Valley would earn an at-large bid on merit. There has just been too much cannibalization within the league. The Jays and the Shockers are the only ones with that chance. If they lose...
That is what leads to BRACKET CHAOS. You heard me. Someone is going to lose a bid to this league. If I were in Vegas, I am laying down a bid on the The Field if that includes everyone but Creighton and Wichita State (I would even throw Indiana State in there; this league winner seems like it is coming from outside those three.).
Possible Other Winners
So who could be the party crashers? Let's narrow it down.
First, eliminate Indiana State, because the Sycamores are going to be without Manny Arop. If there is one thing that was constant throughout their strong season showing, it was that Arop led the way. Now, he has been suspended indefinitely. Don't be surprised when it bites them.
Northern Iowa: The Panthers are always dangerous in March, even when the season has been almost an afterthought within the league. People have been focused on the upsets that the Sycamores have pulled, or Evansville's run behind Colt Ryan (more on him later). But Northern Iowa has been consistent, and that is saying something in the Valley. They have a tough opening game against ...
Illinois State: Jackie Carmichael: he can kung-fu kick you. And the Redbirds were supposed to be one of the contenders in the league this season before they started 0-6. If they can just put three games together, they have the talent to win this thing. The only issue being that they lost twice to Northern Iowa during the regular season, and the last streak they had included a bunch of Ls.
Evansville: The Aces have not won against Creighton this season, which might take away some of the luster on them as a winner here, but they have consistently succeeded against the rest of the top of the conference. The most dangerous game for them is therefore the first one, and they drew Indiana State. You need to find a television and watch that.
Players to Watch
It is almost too obvious.
Doug McDermott: We only need to direct you here. McDermott will tease you. You will enjoy.
Malcolm Armstead: Wichita State's success is usually measured by defense and the ability for Cleanthony Early and Carl Hall to stay on the floor. But during the tournament, you are going to be looking for strong point guard play. That is where Armstead will come in. The Oregon transfer has had his moments this year. He needs to continue to have them for three games.
Jeff Early: If there was one player that didn't get enough attention from the postseason awards in the conference it was Jeff Early. Southern Illinois' modest amount of success in the league (6-12, but four of the final five) is mostly due to Early being as good as he was. He averaged 13.1 points and had an effective shooting percentage over 50 percent. That combined with all the other impressive rates stats should have been enough to get him some kind of "hey, we really like you, Jeff" award, outside of the most improved team nod. Southern Illinois is a dangerous team in this tournament. And at least if they lose, you will get a good quote from Barry Hinson.
Colt Ryan: Ryan was the one player that I thought would be snubbed in the All-Conference voting. It wasn't that he didn't turn in great numbers; it was that I thought he would be overshadowed by so many of the other names out there. As it was, Ryan finished second in the player of the year voting to McDermott. Now, we grant you that this is somewhat of a fluke, because the schools can't vote for their own players. That meant someone other than Dougie had to get a first place vote. Creighton gave it to Ryan; they were correct in doing so. Still, finishing second is like being nominate for an Emmy award in the drama category when the Sopranos was still on the air. You weren't going to win, and no one will remember that you were in the contest.
Yes, Ryan deserves a second paragraph. You need to look at his game log to understand. The one thing to keep in mind is that Ryan is not a rebounder. He is a true combo guard and one that will still score in bunches. Look at the beginning of the season, when he was out, or incapacitated and look at what it did to his team's chances to win. Then look at the last four games of the season, and how he basically willed them to victory all on his own. This is a guy who is hot NOW. You don't want to bet against him because he has the ability to destroy everything you love and hold dear, and make you wish you never met him.
Colt Ryan will mess you up.
So that is why we are taking Evansville to mess up everyone's bracket.
All the fun begins Thursday at 7 p.m Eastern, when Bradley and Drake tip this whole thing off. You will want to be watching.