By Micah Wright
After a compelling regular season, the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament tips off in St. Louis on Thursday, March 4. The MVC Tournament, or “Arch Madness” as it is better known, is always one of the most competitive and upset-driven conference tournaments. This season is no different, and there are a lot of teams and players to keep an eye on in St. Louis.
The MVC is top heavy with two teams, the Loyola Chicago Ramblers and Drake Bulldogs, that stand out. Loyola, who won everyone’s heart with their 2018 Final Four run, has a team that is just as good this season. Drake, who hasn’t made the NCAA Tournament since 2008, beat Loyola at home and is their biggest threat. Loyola (21-4) currently sits at 20 in the top 25 AP Poll and Drake (24-3) spent a week at 25 in early February. Both teams rolled through the regular season as Loyola finished 16-2 in conference play and Drake 15-3, overcoming the challenging schedule from Covid-19 that forced teams to play back-to-back days against conference opponents. When they each faced off on Feb. 13 in Des Moines, Loyola dominated by a score of 81-54. Less than 24 hours later, Drake won 51-50. That is just one example of how unpredictable this conference and this tournament will can be.
While it’s close, the favorite in this tournament should be Loyola. What makes them so tough to beat is that they have one of the best defenses in all of college basketball. They lead the nation with 55.7 points allowed per game, and they haven’t given up 60 points in a game since Jan. 10 when they lost 76-71 to Indiana State. Since then, they are 14-1 with their only loss coming to Drake on a back-to-back road trip. The way the Ramblers are playing, they should be the favorite to take home the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament where they would be anywhere from an 8-12 seed.
Drake is not far behind the Ramblers, though. They are the best offensive team in the conference with four scorers averaging double figures, and two others average over 8 points per game. The Bulldogs are inconsistent, however, as they are 6-3 since their 18-0 start with losses to Valparaiso (10-17) and Bradley (12-15). Their best player, forward ShanQuan Hemphill (14.1 points, 6.3 rebounds per game), missed the last seven games and the team went 5-2 without him. Hemphill is recovering quickly from a broken foot and is looking to play in their game on Friday against the winner of Northern Iowa vs. Illinois State. Having him will be a gigantic boost, especially in a potential matchup with Loyola in the championship. Before Drake and Loyola look ahead to what would be their third matchup, they can’t overlook any of the teams in their bracket.
A top-two seed has won Arch Madness in just two of the past five seasons, meaning upsets come at a premium. Behind Loyola and Drake in the standings are third-seeded Missouri State (16-6, 12-6 MVC) and fourth-seeded Indiana State (14-9, 11-7 MVC) who both have what it takes to knock down either of the top dogs.
Dana Ford’s Missouri State team took a tremendous leap this season after finishing 16-17 last year, and they are playing great basketball as winners of seven of their past eight. The Bears are incredibly hard to guard since they have two of the top three scorers in the conference with leader Isaiah Mosley at 20.0 points per game and third highest scorer Gaige Prim at 16.8 points per game. If they take care of Valparaiso on Friday, they’ll have a third chance at Drake who beat them twice by a combined 12 points on Jan. 26 and Jan. 27.
Indiana State is another capable threat to Loyola and Drake thanks to their great group of guards. Two time all-conference player Tyreke Key (17.4 points per game) leads the way for the Sycamores as the second-leading scorer in the conference. He scored 31 points in their upset over Loyola earlier in the season, but he may not be 100 percent due to a recent shoulder injury. Indiana State also finished the season on a great note by winning 11 of 14, and they will look to try to upset Loyola Chicago again if they beat Evansville on Friday.
Every other team in the conference had a record well below .500 in conference play, and no team has played near the level of the top four teams. It would be shocking, even in Arch Madness, to see a team outside of the top four win this tournament.
Players to watch:
One of the main guys to watch in Arch Madness is Cameron Krutwig of Loyola Chicago. The 6-9 senior and 2021 MVC Player of the Year has been dominant inside this season with 15 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 3.0 assists per game. He’s a force inside that garners a lot of attention for opposing defenses as one of the bigger players in the conference.
Missouri State’s Isaiah Mosley is another must-see player as the Columbia, Mo. native is already a star as a sophomore. He leads the league in scoring with 20 points per game while also grabbing six rebounds and dishing out over three assists per game. His efficiency is impressive, shooting over 51 percent from the field and over 38 percent from three. He will put on a show in St. Louis, and he has the much needed star power to take down Drake in the second round. Mosley’s teammate Gaige Prim is elite as well, as the 6-8 forward has scored double figures in 20 out of 22 games and is the leading rebounder in the MVC with nine per game.
Lastly, Tyreke Key of Indiana State is another fun guy to watch as a pure scorer that can take over games by himself, much like Mosley. Key was named to his second straight All-MVC First Team and is looking to end his career with a trip to the NCAA Tournament. He has been absolutely unstoppable as of late, averaging over 26 points per game in February.
Loyola Chicago gets back to the Big Dance with a victory over Missouri State in the championship by a score of 68-61. It would be a bit surprising to not see Drake in this game given how great they’ve been, but Missouri State is a scary team. The Bears have the best duo in the conference and will give headaches to every team in their way, especially Drake in the semifinals. Loyola matched up well with Missouri State in their two dominant wins against the Bears this year, and their defense has been able to shut down both Mosley and Prim. The loss for Drake early would end their NCAA Tournament hopes as the early exit knocks them off the bubble.
Here are the matchups for the first two rounds of the Missouri Valley Tournament:
Thursday, March 4:
No. 8 Bradley vs. No. 9 Southern Illinois
No. 7 Northern Iowa vs. No. 10 Illinois State
Quarterfinals on Friday, March 5:
No. 4 Indiana State vs. No. 5 Evansville
No. 3 Missouri State vs. No. 6 Valparaiso
No. 1 Loyola Chicago vs. winner of Bradley/Southern Illinois
No. 2 Drake vs. winner of Northern Iowa/Illinois State
The Semifinals take place on Saturday, March 6, and the Championship on Sunday, March 7, where the winner gets an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Edited by Emma Moloney