- Matt Cox
3MW’s All Conference Team:
1. Redbirds Take Flight to Earn Top Seed
When two of the all-time Valley greats - Fred van Vleet and Ron Baker - graduated this offseason, the rest of the conference let out an enormous sigh of relief in hopes that the mighty may have finally fallen. This was a rare opportunity to derail a Shocker team that finally appeared somewhat vulnerable and no one was licking their chops more than Illinois State. Coming into this season, the Redbirds brought back 4 of 5 starters from a team that finished tied for 2nd in the Valley last year, which notched impressive home wins against Northern Iowa and the evil empire themselves, Wichita State - but not even head coach Dan Muller could've seen this coming...
Powered by an elite defense that features an endless supply of length and athleticism, the Redbirds routinely suffocated opposing MVC offenses night in and night out throughout the entirety of conference play. Ask Wichita State about their trip to Redbird Arena, where the Redbirds held the Shock to just 34% shooting from the field, handing the Shockers their 2nd biggest loss of the season. Illinois St.'s defensive efficiency currently ranks 10th best in the country, per kenpom.com, which is somehow inferior to an absurd 3rd ranked effective FG% defense - so while the candy striped shorts can be a bit distracting, try to admire the beauty that is the Redbirds' defense when they take the hardwood as the number #1 overall seed this week at Arch Madness. With this bonafide steel defensive curtain at his disposal, Muller has a chance to take his alma-mater dancing for the first time since Dan Muller the player led the Redbirds to consecutive NCAA tournament appearances almost two decades ago.
2. No Fred. No Ron. No Problem...
When Gregg Marshall lost two cornerstone pieces in Fred van Vleet and Ron Baker, many thought Wichita State's run of 5 straight tournament appearances was in serious jeopardy. The naysayers were loudest during the early portion of non-conference play this year, when the Shockers missed big opportunities to secure marquee wins against Louisville and Michigan St. in the Bahamas, as well as against Oklahoma St. at home. One might argue they were simply unfortunate victims of the standard college basketball season format, which forced Wichita to play their biggest games early on when they were still adjusting to life without two NBA-caliber players in the backcourt. Even through the initial growing pains, the revamped Shockers still tallied sneaky good wins against Colorado St. and Oklahoma, both of which came outside of their own building. But the real lightbulb turned on once the new year rolled around and once MVC play officially kicked off in early January. The Shockers consistently dismantled a watered-down MVC field en route to a 17-1 league record, including a revenge beatdown at home against the formidable Redbirds. Wichita dispatched MVC opponents with ease, winning by an average of almost 20 points a contest, 2nd only to Gonzaga for in conference average margin of victory.
3. MVC Maintains Mediocracy
The Valley may have reached its peak (oxymoron alert) back in 2012-13, when the Shockers' Final Four run and Doug McDermott's offensive repertoire vaulted the league into the national spotlight. A deeper look at the advanced numbers reveal just how deep the conference was that season, which had 6 of its 10 teams inside the top-100 of kenpom.com's overall efficiency rankings. I've been on record saying that the top-to-bottom quality of teams in any conference is often overlooked when engaging in meaningless fodder about which leagues are better than others, which is precisely why I'm convinced the Valley has taken a step back in competitiveness over the past 4 years. While the MVC has been a multi-bid conference in 3 of the past 4 seasons, the consistency of the top dogs - Wichita St. and Northern Iowa - has masked the demise of the rest of the pack. Since that 2012-13 campaign, when only two teams ranked outside the top-175 in kenpom.com, the Valley has produced 4 'below average' (sub 175th ranking) teams in each of the past four seasons. As a long time Valley fan, who attended the almighty Arch Madness tournament for a decade straight before heading off to college, it seems as if the competition throughout the MVC just isn't what is used to be. Top-tier squads could be tripped up on any given night by just about anybody - especially on the road - if they weren't sharp and ready to play. Now, fresh off a season in which Wichita State and Illinois State just steamrolled through the Valley, smacking opponents by an average of 15 points a game and racking up a combined record of 34-2, those days appear to be over... but hopefully not for long...
The Missouri Valley Conference tournament has been held in St. Louis at the same venue since 1991. Avoiding the bottom-4 slots in the final regular season standings is critical, given 7-10 seeds Bradley, Evansville, Indiana St. and Drake will have to win four games in four days if they want to hear their name called on Selection Sunday.
Best Team(s) and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed(s):
Per bracketmatrix.com, the Shockers are more comfortably in the field of 68, currently slotted on the 10-seed line while Illinois St. is holding on for dear life as a 12-seed and one of the last four teams in. A major topic of discussion amongst the national media is how the committee will deal with the two MVC schools from an at-large perspective, particularly if Wichita St. and Illinois St. clash for a 3rd time this season in the championship game. As I alluded to before, the only loss suffered by either in conference play came at the hands of the other (Wichita lost at Illinois State and vice-versa). The belief shared amongst my colleagues Ky and Jim is that assuming both take care of business and get to the title game, a loss would be much more detrimental to Illinois State than it would be Wichita State - but even then, the Redbirds could still sneak in. What's ironic is that Illinois State has the best win of either team, which is actually the win at home against the Shockers. On the other hand, Wichita does have a slightly more impressive non-conference resume, but what should ultimately distinguish the Shock is how much the analytics adore them. You don't have to search that hard to find another precedent in which the committee proved it will value a team with elite statistical metrics over a team with a more deserving resume - please refer to 2015-16 Wichita State.
Dark Horse Team(s):
While there's clear cut top tier in this year's field the advanced metrics view the Chicago-based Loyola Ramblers as an undervalued 5-seed, currently ranked as the 3rd best team in the Valley per kenpom.com. After opening up conference play with a solid 6-4 record, the Ramblers stumbled down the stretch, losing 6 of their last 8 to finish below .500 in the league. However, falling out of the 3rd place spot may have been a blessing in disguise, given that side of the bracket is shared with the big, bad Wichita State Shockers, who no one wants to play this time of year. I've been a big believer in this Loyola team ever since watching them play live two years ago, which is when I discovered a hidden gem in Milton Doyle. Now in his senior year, Doyle has finally transformed his raw talent and unique skillset into a real weapon for the Ramblers' offense, which jumped from 8th best last year to 2nd best in the conference this season on a points per possession basis. And while a fully healthy and more efficient Doyle deserves the lion's share of the credit for the offensive improvement, junior Donte Ingram and JUCO standout Aundre Jackson have delivered some much needed interior scoring production - a major void for this group last year. Two sharpshooters in Ben Richardson and Clayton Cluster provide the floor spacing necessary for Doyle to create off the dribble and for Jackson to operate in the paint. In fact, all 5 players - including Jackson - can shoot it from deep, which is your best bet to scoring against the stingy Illinois State defense.
(8) Evansville defeats (9) Indiana St.
(10) Drake defeats (7) Bradley
(1) Illinois St. defeats (8) Evansville
(5) Loyola defeats (4) Southern Illinois
(2) Wichita St. defeats (10) Drake
(6) Missouri St. defeats (3) Northern Iowa
(5) Loyola defeats (1) Illinois St.
(2) Wichita St. defeats (6) Missouri St.
(2) Wichita St. defeats (5) Loyola
While I went with a couple of bold early round calls (see Missouri St. and Loyola), I think the Shockers ultimately come out on top, which should put them safely on the 8 or 9-seed line when the bracket is revealed.