Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Arch Madness: An In-Depth Preview

Shown here cutting down net after winning 2011 NIT, Gregg Marshall has strong chance of doing it again with Wichita State in Missouri Valley Conference tournament.  (Photo courtesy of The Sporting News)

Of the thirty conference tournaments held every March, there is always one that makes me sit back and watch as a fan: The Missouri Valley Conference Championship, better known to college basketball aficionados as "Arch Madness" due to its location in St. Louis.

Just as it is every year in the Gateway City, ten teams will be attempting to represent the Valley in the NCAA Tournament.  Although this year's Valley season was not as deep or unpredictable as last year's, when the top seven teams finished .500 or better in conference play, the potential for an upset on one or more of the four days of action this weekend is higher than ever.  Arch Madness has produced an unlikely participant in the championship game in each of the last two years, (Indiana State upset top two seeds Missouri State and Wichita State to steal an NCAA Tournament bid in 2011, while Illinois State upended the Shockers before losing last year's championship game to Creighton) and this year could yield more of the same.  For the third straight March, we'll try to make sense of it all, offering analysis and predictions of what could happen in the home of the Cardinals, Rams and Blues, starting with Thursday night's play-in games.

Preliminary Round: Thursday, March 7th (all times Central)
#8 Bradley (16-15, 7-11) vs. #9 Drake, (14-16, 7-11) 6:05 pm: Geno Ford has already taken the Braves from a 7-24 campaign in his first season at the helm to a nine-win improvement in season two, matching last year's overall win total with seven wins in Valley play.  Each of Bradley's double-figure scorers this season earned all-conference honors, starting with Defensive Player of the Year Dyricus Simms-Edwards, who backed up his 12.5 points per game with nearly three steals per contest as well.  Second team all-Valley point guard Walt Lemon Jr. is the Braves' leading scorer, and he gets help from junior college transfer Tyshon Pickett, who was selected to the All-Newcomer team.  Will Egolf also had a solid regular season coming back from a torn ACL, and could be a significant contributor up front alongside Jordan Prosser.  For Mark Phelps and the Bulldogs, the focal point of the offense will be second team all-Valley honoree Ben Simons, Drake's lone double-figure scorer.  The Bulldogs also have a solid backcourt in point guard Richard Carter and sharpshooter Chris Hines to score and set up the duo of Simons and big man Seth VanDeest in equal parts, which should also be part of Phelps' game plan against a team who will look to keep Drake under 65 points.  The two teams split their regular season series, with the home team taking each matchup, and both programs also met in the 7-versus-10 Valley play-in last season.  Bradley's record and effort against a then-undefeated Michigan seem to suggest the Braves will prevail, but their lack of a proven outside threat against a Drake team that shoots three-pointers at a 39 percent clip will ultimately decide the game.  As the classic Seinfeld episode says, "you gotta love the Drake!"  The Pick: Drake

#7 Missouri State (10-21, 7-11) vs. #10 Southern Illinois, (14-16, 6-12) 8:35 pm: Paul Lusk did not have things easy in his second season in charge of the Bears, losing former Valley Player of the Year Kyle Weems to graduation and then Jarmar Gulley to a torn ACL before the season started.  Nonetheless, Missouri State rebounded from a 3-10 start to the year by picking it up somewhat in Valley play, including a split with Southern Illinois where the home team won each game in much the same way that Drake and Bradley did.  In the absence of Weems and Gulley, guard Marcus Marshall earned himself Freshman of the Year honors by averaging nearly eleven points per game, second on the team behind all-conference honorable mention Anthony Downing, his backcourt partner.  The leading scorer and passer for the Bears, Downing led the team in rebounds as well, but Keith Pickens' higher average of boards per game kept the senior from leading that category as well.  Christian Kirk is one of the more efficient players in the conference, and Nathan Scheer can keep the Bears in any game with his 38 percent shooting from three-point range.  In his first year replacing Chris Lowery, former Missouri State boss Barry Hinson faces his old team once again, and brings a Saluki team paced by all-newcomer selection Desmar Jackson, a junior swingman who averages over fifteen points and five rebounds per game.  Jeff Early was one of the most improved players in the Valley, and is Southern Illinois' leading rebounder to boot with an average of over seven caroms per contest.  While Kendal Brown-Surles is the Salukis' most reputable shooter, remember this name: Anthony Beane.  The All-Freshman honoree is still somewhat raw, but will eventually become one of the better guards to come out of Carbondale in recent memory.  In fact, his tendency to make an immediate impact will keep the Salukis in the game, but the duo of Downing and Marshall will propel Missouri State to the victory in their backyard.  The Pick: Missouri State

Quarterfinals: Friday, March 8th
#1 Creighton (24-7, 13-5) vs. Bradley/Drake winner, 12:05 pm: Doug McDermott.  Need we say more?  The junior forward, who might just be the best player in the country, (no disrespect to Trey Burke, that other guy from Indiana and that other guy from Georgetown) is the first repeat Player of the Year winner in the Valley since Darren Brooks of Southern Illinois turned the trick in 2004 and 2005, and the coach's son really does do it all for Creighton.  However, what makes Greg McDermott's Bluejays so dangerous is that his boy does not do it alone.  Former Rutgers big man Gregory Echenique continues to make an impact that does not show up in the box score when not taking smart shots that have aided his 66 percent clip from the field, while the combination of Austin Chatman and Grant Gibbs has accounted for an average of ten assists per game.  Chatman and Gibbs have contributed to the abundance of shooters on this Creighton team, led by Jahenns Manigat and reserves Avery Dingman and Ethan Wragge, the latter of whom was named the Valley's Sixth Man of the Year.  If Drake actually does emerge from the play-in against Bradley, it could be one of the more entertaining conference tournament games in the nation, pitting the Bulldogs' long-range prowess against a Bluejays team that shoots an eye-popping 42 percent from beyond the arc and suggesting a "bombs away" style shootout.  For what it's worth, Creighton swept Bradley, but split with Drake after losing to the Bulldogs by five points on the road in Des Moines.  No matter who comes away with the win on Thursday, the reigning champions should win handily either way.  The Pick: Creighton

#4 Evansville (18-13, 10-8) vs. #5 Indiana State, (17-13, 9-9) 2:35 pm: Marty Simmons and the Purple Aces, who are the latest example of a split with their first opponent where the home team took each game, enter Arch Madness on a mission, as senior swingman Colt Ryan; once again a first team all-Valley selection, needs just 63 points to become the school's all-time leading scorer.  With an 18-13 record, it is not out of the question to suggest that Ryan will have a chance to break the record in perhaps the CBI or CIT if the Aces cannot make a strong enough run in St. Louis to steal the automatic NCAA bid or even an NIT invite.  Nonetheless, Colt's 20-point average is supplemented by sharpshooter Ned Cox, last year's Sixth Man of the Year who; along with All-Freshman selection D.J. Balentine, (8.1 points per game and 36 percent from three-point range) stepped in adequately to replace the offense vacated by Kenny Harris and Denver Holmes.  With an average of seven rebounds per game, Troy Taylor is also equal parts scorer and passer, making him one of the Valley's most versatile and underrated competitors.  Evansville faces a stiff test in the Sycamores, however, as Greg Lansing's team will be looking for their second conference championship in just the coach's third season.  Victories over one-time No. 2 Miami and mid-major darling Iona prove that Indiana State is legitimate, and Jake Odum is arguably the best floor leader despite only being a junior.  Manny Arop was surprisingly left off the All-Newcomer team despite being the Sycamores' second-leading scorer and leading rebounder, and he will have an impact on the game as well, where he will likely be matched up with Troy Taylor at some point.  Expect the long-range proficiency of R.J. Mahurin and Lucas Eitel to come into play as well here, as the Sycamores pull away in the end despite a valiant effort from Ryan and Evansville.  The Pick: Indiana State

#2 Wichita State (24-7, 12-6) vs. Missouri State/Southern Illinois winner, 6:05 pm: If you're in any way familiar with some of the past Valley-related pieces on this site, you know about the mounds of praise that have been deflected toward Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, who HAS TO BE the choice to win what would be his second consecutive Coach of the Year award when it is announced on Thursday.  What Marshall has done with the Shockers this season is arguably his greatest achievement in a career that includes building Winthrop into a consistent power in the Big South Conference.  Having to replace all of your top five scorers from a team that narrowly lost their lone NCAA Tournament game to VCU is no easy task, but Marshall got it done, and got his revenge against the Rams with a gritty road win in Richmond in the Shockers' second game of the year.  Oregon transfer Malcolm Armstead may be a senior, but he did what many thought would be impossible: Make people forget just how good his predecessor, Joe Ragland, was.  Armstead's average of nearly ten points and four assists per game, coupled with shooting 37 percent from behind the three-point line, earned him an honorable mention for an all-conference nod, as well as a spot on the All-Newcomer team; where he was joined by teammate and all-Valley first teamer Cleanthony Early, Marshall's latest junior college success story.  Second team all-conference honoree Carl Hall is back in top form after missing seven games to a broken thumb, while Demetric Williams and Ron Baker are for the Shockers what Ben Smith and Hall were a year ago: Solid bench scorers that can step up and make big shots when needed.  For the record, Wichita State swept Missouri State and split with Southern Illinois, defeating the Salukis convincingly at Koch Arena before losing a 64-62 heartbreaker in Carbondale.  Just like Creighton before them, the Shockers' opponent should not make a difference, as they will be the more talented unit on the court.  The Pick: Wichita State

#3 Northern Iowa (18-13, 11-7) vs. #6 Illinois State, (17-14, 8-10) 8:35 pm: If Ben Jacobson and the Panthers have taught the world one thing, it is to never count them out of any scenario, even three years after introducing everyone to the legend of Farokhmanesh: (video courtesy of CBS Sports)

Ali departed a long time ago, but his spirit lives on in Marc Sonnen, Northern Iowa's long distance specialist who shoots a blistering 45 percent from the other side of the line.  Second team all-Valley member Anthony James supplies the bulk of the offense for the Panthers, while Jake Koch and Seth Tuttle get it done on both ends of the floor.  Point guard Deon Mitchell's 3.5 assists per game supplement his average of over nine points per contest, but the biggest concern for Northern Iowa is their relative lack of bench production, normally a strong point for Jacobson's teams.  Their opponent on Friday doesn't have the deepest bench in the world, but former Redbird star Dan Muller leads a squad with perhaps the biggest chip on its shoulder going into Arch Madness, as Illinois State is attempting to erase the stigma of losing four of their last five to end a regular season that also saw the Redbirds lose each of their first six conference games.  Jackie Carmichael is a first-team all-conference honoree, while Tyler Brown fulfilled the expectations set for him in this space at the start of the year, averaging 18.1 points per game on the way to becoming the team's leading scorer and a questionable second team all-Valley selection, as Cleanthony Early made the first team cut over Brown.  Illinois State was swept by Northern Iowa this season, but the Redbirds' role players such as Bryant Allen, Johnny Hill, Jon Ekey and John Wilkins will look to propel them to the heights they enjoyed a year ago on the way to the Arch Madness championship game and eventual NIT berth.  In what will be the most physical of the four games on Friday, the third time will be a charm for the Redbirds, who will have just enough in the tank to outlast UNI.  The Pick: Illinois State

Semifinals: Saturday, March 9th
Creighton-Bradley/Drake winner vs. Evansville/Indiana State winner, 1:35 pm: The Pick: Creighton over Indiana State - The two lower seeds picked to make the semis this year have each blown up my Arch Madness bracket, (Indiana State two years ago, Illinois State last year) so fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.  On top of that, I believe the Sycamores actually can beat Creighton after splitting the regular season series.  If Indiana State can limit Doug McDermott, (a distinct possibility) the matchup will be right where the Sycamores want it.  On top of that, there's always one crazy upset every year in St. Louis.  Why can't this be the one? 
Wichita State-Missouri State/Southern Illinois winner vs. Northern Iowa/Illinois State winner, 4:05 pm: The Pick: Wichita State over Illinois State - This is the more likely landing spot for an upset, as the Redbirds will be looking to crash the Shockers' party for the second year in a row.  However, the Shockers have the depth and multiple scoring options that Illinois State lacks on a consistent basis, and if the Redbirds are forced to rely on Carmichael and Brown excessively, they will end up suffering their third defeat at the hands of Gregg Marshall this season.

Championship: Sunday, March 10th (coverage on CBS at 1:05 pm)
The Pick: Wichita State over Indiana State - While the Sycamores will have the momentum on their side from knocking top seed Creighton off the day before, Wichita State is too much of a buzzsaw for the likely underdogs.  After being upended in the semifinals in each of the last two seasons against this Indiana State team in 2011 and Illinois State last year, the third time will be the charm for Gregg Marshall's Shockers, who will claim a 76-62 victory over Larry Bird's alma mater, with Carl Hall earning Most Valuable Player honors.

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