Picked to win Missouri Valley in preseason poll, Greg McDermott and Creighton enter "Arch Madness" as No. 2 seed. (Photo courtesy of USA Today)
Championship week may have started tonight with the Big South quarterfinals; but what could arguably be the best tournament of the thirty that will be contested begins Thursday, when the Missouri Valley Conference championship tips off in St. Louis for the 2012 edition of what has come to be known as "Arch Madness."
If you've read any of my work in the past, you know how much I appreciate the Valley; and after a regular season featuring a five-way tie for third place, (which is unheard of in most conferences) Arch Madness will be just a little more unpredictable than it usually is. Reigning champion Indiana State will have to come from one of the first-round play-in games this time around, as the Sycamores finished one game behind the tie for third. Greg Lansing's team will open play in the Gateway City Thursday night as the No. 8 seed, and will play Southern Illinois for the right to face regular season champion Wichita State in the quarterfinals the following afternoon. Who stands out among the ten teams this year? You'll find out with detailed analysis of the play-ins and quarterfinals, as well as picks the rest of the way.
Thursday, March 1st (all times Central)
#8 Indiana State (17-13, 8-10) vs. #9 Southern Illinois, (8-22, 5-13) 6pm: With the exception of their BracketBuster game against Butler nine days ago, the Sycamores have kept every game they have played close since a 26-point loss to Creighton on January 21st. Although he has only started half the Sycamores' games, Dwayne Lathan has been the perfect scoring complement to point guard Jake Odum and swingman Carl Richard, who has now blended in more after helping lead Indiana State to a Valley championship last season. In his first season as a starter, all Jordan Printy has done is lead the team with a 38 percent clip from three-point range while also becoming a deceptive scoring threat on every possession. On the other side of the court, Chris Lowery may be on the hot seat in Carbondale; but despite just five conference wins, the Salukis have also remained competitive down the stretch. The key for Southern Illinois will be the ability for Mamadou Seck and Dantiel Daniels to score as well as rebound inside, and supporting cast members T.J. Lindsay, Kendal Brown-Surles and Justin Bocot will need to step up in order to give the Salukis a shot at regular season champion Wichita State. The Pick: Indiana State
#7 Drake (16-14, 9-9) vs. #10 Bradley, (7-24, 2-16) 8:30 pm: Hardly anyone could have expected Mark Phelps and the Bulldogs to finish .500 in the Valley this season, but their triple-overtime win against Wichita State in what could be the game of the year in the Valley this season proved that the boys from Des Moines were legit this season. After losing big man Seth VanDeest at the start of the season, Rayvonte Rice and Ben Simons each stepped up to average over sixteen points per game to anchor Drake's offense while Kurt Alexander and Jeremy Jeffers established themselves as sharpshooters in the background. Back in Illinois, Geno Ford's first season at the helm of the Braves wasn't as promising as the coaching staff may have hoped, but Bradley got a boost before the season when Taylor Brown was medically cleared to return. Brown; who averaged nearly fifteen points per game to lead the Braves in scoring, also averaged just over six rebounds to finish second behind Jordan Prosser for the team lead in that category. Dyricus Simms-Edwards also became one of the Valley's more versatile combo guards this season, averaging over two assists per night to go along with shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc. This could be one of the more evenly matched games in St. Louis, and one in which it's not inconceivable to think Bradley has a realistic chance of winning. However, the Braves will ultimately come up just a few points short. The Pick: Drake
Friday, March 2nd
#1 Wichita State (26-4, 16-2) vs. Indiana State/Southern Illinois winner, 12pm: The winner of the play-in is at somewhat of a disadvantage in having to play two games in an 18-hour span, and even more of one when you look at the job that Gregg Marshall; regarded by this writer as the most underrated coach in the country, has done with the team picked in this space to win the Valley back in September. The Shockers' biggest and most surprising contributor has been none other than leading scorer and rebounder Garrett Stutz, who has completed the near-impossible task of making fans forget J.T. Durley. Point guard Joe Ragland continues to stake his claim as the best at his position in the Valley, with ball control and scoring ability that is unrivaled by most in the nation. In addition to Toure' Murry, Marshall has received contributions from David Kyles, Ben Smith and junior college transfer Carl Hall on any given night for an offense that averages 78 points per game. Indiana State matches up better with the regular season champions; but the Shockers will go through whoever they face in their first step on the road to the NCAA Tournament, where they will likely end up no matter what happens this weekend. The Pick: Wichita State
#4 Illinois State (18-12, 9-9) vs. #5 Northern Iowa, (19-12, 9-9) 2:30 pm: If not for Gregg Marshall's dominance at Wichita State, Tim Jankovich would be a deserving Coach of the Year candidate for guiding the Redbirds from the back of the pack to the top half of the Valley standings. Of course, a lot of this success has to do with the scoring and rebounding prowess of Jackie Carmichael, who averaged close to a double-double this season. Tyler Brown and Jon Ekey have solidified themselves behind Carmichael as outside threats while the Redbirds' leader does his damage inside, giving Illinois State a multifaceted offensive attack. The only problem is their draw. Ben Jacobson has always had the Panthers prime to get up for big games, and this year should be no exception. Northern Iowa may have just one double-figure scorer in Anthony James; but the Panthers have always been a defensive-oriented unit, with Jake Koch and Johnny Moran leading the charge on that side of the ball with averages of more than one steal per game. Up front, Seth Tuttle is a high-percentage shot taker (66 percent) and not too bad a rebounder either. This is a bigger game for Illinois State considering they are relatively new to this kind of pressure, which gives the Panthers the edge since they are no stranger to the big stage. The Pick: Northern Iowa
#2 Creighton (25-5, 14-4) vs. Drake/Bradley winner, 6pm: A three-game losing streak late in the season took a lot of supporters off the Blue Jay bandwagon, but Greg McDermott's team has righted the ship going into St. Louis. McDermott's son Doug, the likely Larry Bird Player of the Year, is a huge reason why. A potential first-team All-American and maybe even Wooden Award winner, the sophomore swingman has put together one of the greatest seasons of any player in the nation by averaging 23 points and eight rebounds per night, not to mention shooting 61 percent from the field and 48 from three-point range. The Blue Jays also have an edge that neither Drake nor Bradley will be able to stop in their two point-guard attack of Grant Gibbs and Antoine Young, both of whom average more than four assists per game. Former Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique has shined away from the bright lights of the Big East and has given Creighton a strong presence inside that also has the experience of playing at a high level. The Pick: Creighton
#3 Evansville (15-14, 9-9) vs. #6 Missouri State, (16-14, 9-9) 8:30 pm: With all the talk about the other three-headed monsters in the Valley, the Purple Aces have perhaps one of the best in the trio of Colt Ryan, Kenny Harris and Denver Holmes. Ryan is an all-around threat, (20.5 points, 3.3 assists and 2.0 steals per game) Harris does a lot of things that don't show up in the box score, and Holmes makes the motor run as evidenced by his average of 3.6 assists per game for coach Marty Simmons. On the other side of the bench, Paul Lusk has done a solid job in his first season replacing the departed Cuonzo Martin at the helm of last season's regular season champion. Reigning Player of the Year Kyle Weems has had just as good a senior season as his award-winning junior campaign, and is one of four Bears players averaging more than ten points per game. Rookie Jarmar Gulley has vaulted himself into Newcomer of the Year consideration with a 50 percent clip from the field, and DePaul transfer Michael Bizoukas has been one of the better ball handlers in the conference with an average of 5.5 assists per game. Missouri State only averages eleven turnovers per night, which forces Evansville's defense to step it up just a little more. In what will be the closest and best of the quarterfinal games, Evansville's big three just gets the Aces over the hump. The Pick: Evansville
Saturday, March 3rd
Wichita State/Indiana State-Southern Illinois winner vs. Illinois State/Northern Iowa winner, 1:30 pm: The Pick: Wichita State over Northern Iowa
Creighton/Drake-Bradley winner vs. Evansville-Missouri State winner, 4pm: The Pick: Creighton over Evansville
Sunday, March 4th
Missouri Valley Conference Championship, 1pm on CBS: The Pick: Wichita State over Creighton