If you're a regular reader to this portal for college hoops information, you're probably aware of my feelings toward the Missouri Valley Conference. Now that the Valley's regular season has concluded, it's time to preview the ten-team extravaganza in St. Louis formally known as the Missouri Valley Conference championship tournament; but more commonly (and better) known as "Arch Madness." Arch Madness has been one of the most compelling and enjoyable conference tournaments in recent years, and this year is no exception. Top-seeded Missouri State comes in as the favorite, with Wichita State and reigning tournament champion Northern Iowa looking to knock the Bears off the throne as they pursue the reward of an automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament.
#1 Seed - Missouri State - Former Purdue guard Cuonzo Martin has turned the Bears around after just four years in Springfield, and could potentially face his former school in the NCAA Tournament with the right seeding for both teams. Kyle Weems is the player that grabs most of the attention after being named Player of the Year in the Valley, but Missouri State is arguably the most complete team of any mid-major in the country after their star forward. Will Creekmore gives the Bears some added punch on the frontline, while Nafis Ricks and Adam Leonard provide a scoring and shooting tandem in the backcourt. Watch this man, however: Jermaine Mallett. The 6-3 senior guard is the unsung hero in the Bears' rotation, shooting 43 percent from beyond the arc. If Mallett gets open like he did last Saturday in Missouri State's regular season finale against Wichita State, watch out.
#2 Seed - Wichita State - The Shockers could make the Valley a two-bid league even without a championship win, but it won't be as easy as it looked about a month ago. J.T. Durley and David Kyles are the only Shockers averaging double figures in points per game, yet it's point guard Joe Ragland that is on a hot streak. If you really know me well, you'll know that I consider Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall to be one of, if not the, most underrated coaches in the country. It's highly doubtful he leaves Kansas, (this is just his fourth year there) but a run into the Big Dance could propel Marshall to a marquee job he could solidify his already impressive resume with.
#3 Seed - Indiana State - The Sycamores are still known as Larry Bird's alma mater that miraculously played for a national title in 1979, and that probably won't change much even if they make it into the championship. The impressive part of this team is the cast of role players that has blended together to vault Indiana State into a third-place finish in the regular season. Look for junior swingman Carl Richard to carry the Sycamores this week.
#4 Seed - Northern Iowa - The Panthers don't have last year's NCAA Tournament darling Ali Farokhmanesh anymore, but Anthony James has the same marksman tendencies Farokhmanesh put on full display in the Panthers' improbable run to the Sweet 16 last season. Kwadzo Ahelegbe is a first-team All-Valley player, and Jake Koch gives coach Ben Jacobson an extra body inside while providing a valuable scoring presence in the paint.
#5 Seed - Creighton - Former Northern Iowa coach Greg McDermott has resurfaced in Omaha, and he will lead the Blue Jays into Arch Madness against his former team in Friday's quarterfinal matchup. McDermott's son Doug is just a freshman; but he looks like the next star in the Valley, averaging over 14 points and seven rebounds a night in a frontcourt that he shares with Rutgers transfer Greg Echenique. If there's a name on the Creighton bench that jumps out at the casual fan, it's senior guard Kaleb Korver, whose older brother Kyle electrified the Blue Jays and the Valley before embarking on a successful career as an NBA utility player.
#6 Seed - Evansville - The Purple Aces are largely one-dimensional. As sophomore guard Colt Ryan goes, so too does the team. Junior forward Kenny Harris does provide a solid rebounding force inside, but Evansville is still at least one or two pieces away from being a serious contender.
#7 Seed - Drake - Three years ago, the Bulldogs were a 5 seed in the Big Dance when current Providence coach Keno Davis led the boys from Des Moines through the Valley with a 28-win season. I got a chance to see the Bulldogs in their blowout loss against St. John's in the Great Alaska Shootout; and believe it or not, the 43-point margin of victory didn't expose the team's shortcomings as much as I expected it would. Rayvonte Rice is the man who makes Drake's motor run, but the Bulldogs' 36 percent clip from beyond the arc is highlighted by Ryan Wedel and Ben Simons, who are also high-percentage shot-takers and free throw shooters in addition to outstanding long-range threats.
#8 Seed - Southern Illinois - My, how things change. It seemed like yesterday when the Salukis were consistently on top of the world in the Valley. However, SIU alum Chris Lowery's squad has been amazingly mediocre in the four years following their last Valley championship back in 2007. Mamadou Seck is a double-double threat on any given night, and senior leading scorer Carlton Fay is playing like he has something to prove. It will be a tough road for the Salukis if they are intent on returning to glory; as Missouri State will await them in the quarterfinals should they get past their first-round opponent, who gets profiled next.
#9 Seed - Illinois State - As good as the Redbirds have shown they could be, it just hasn't translated to success on paper this season after their 4-14 record in the Valley. Even if Illinois State gets the better of in-state rival Southern Illinois in the first round, Missouri State will ultimately prove to be too much for them in the quarters.
#10 Seed - Bradley - Patrick O'Bryant has come and gone, but senior guard Andrew Warren has filled the scoring void left by the Braves' former big man. Aside from Warren, however, it's anybody's game when it comes to putting points on the board. One positive for Bradley is their ball control, averaging just 12 turnovers a night.
The Way I See It: Predictions
1st Round: Drake defeats Bradley, Southern Illinois defeats Illinois State
Quarterfinals: Missouri State defeats Southern Illinois, Wichita State defeats Drake, Indiana State defeats Evansville, Creighton defeats Northern Iowa
Semifinals: Missouri State defeats Creighton, Wichita State defeats Indiana State
Championship: Wichita State gets here more so because Northern Iowa and Creighton (who I feel are both stronger tournament teams than the Shockers) are on the other half of the bracket. However, their attempt for retribution won't be successful. It only took me about eight minutes Sunday (I was at the St. John's-Villanova game the day before, forcing me to DVR the aforementioned Missouri State-Wichita State game) to be convinced that the Bears were not only for real, but also a legitimate threat to wear Cinderella's glass slippers on the dance floor this year. One of the most complete mid-majors in the country is clearly the better unit of the two, and it will show in St. Louis as the clock will strike midnight for Gregg Marshall and company.