(Compare to our preseason preview here)
- Rumbling Ramblers: Loyola was a dominant force in the MVC this year, winning the league by four games - and two of their three losses came while maestro Clayton Custer was out with injury. With him in the lineup, the Ramblers have been nearly impossible to beat - although the only team to do so (Bradley) could be waiting in the semifinals.
- Valpo Enters Like A Lamb: In its first year in the MVC, Valparaiso finished alone in last place. That's not to say they weren't competitive - all six of their wins came against teams that finished ranked 2 through 6 in the standings - but the overall rigors of the Valley schedule seemed to take a toll. Brighter days are likely ahead for Matt Lottich and company.
- Missouri State Stumbles: The preseason title favorite, MO State seemed poised for a big year behind megastud Alize Johnson. Uneven guard play and poor outside shooting held them back, though, and Paul Lusk may be coaching for his job in St. Louis after losing 9 if the season's final 11 games.
- Drake Defies Expectations: The Bulldogs had gone 7-29 combined in MVC play the previous two seasons, and it became clear a change was needed. Enter Niko Medved, a rising star coach from Furman who was able to right the ship immediately - Drake even knocked off Wake Forest on a neutral court way back in November. Reed Timmer is the clear-cut star (and an alum of the same high school as me!), but the supporting cast stepped up as well, especially Nick McGlynn (who made the Valley's All-Improved Team).
The Valley is essentially played like a major conference tournament - neutral site, Thursday through Sunday, no re-seeding or anything special. Perfect for a high-major league that sends multiple teams, significantly tougher on a one-bid league that should be striving to send its best team...
What to Watch:
- If Loyola loses, they present an extremely interesting case to the committee. With Custer (and he's healthy now), the Ramblers are 23-2 (14-1), with a win at Florida and their only losses at Bradley and at Boise State. That's pretty damn good, but my confidence that the committee parses the data that closely is about on par with my faith in Dick Vitale to give a well-thought-out, rational opinion.
- Will any of the stars carry their teams to a run? Drake's Reed Timmer, Missouri State's Alize Johnson, Illinois State's Milik Yarbrough, Evansville's Ryan Taylor, Indiana State's tandem backcourt, heck even Valpo's Tevonn Walker are all good enough to put their respective teams on their backs for a few days in St. Louis. Loyola is the best team (with Custer as the driving force), but with so many studs dotted throughout the league, the Valley is exceedingly unpredictable.
- Will you see any of the 3MW in the crowd?? All of us will be in St. Louis for a friend's wedding this weekend, and one or more of us may try to attend the Valley final on Sunday. It's always good to have feet on the ground for events like this...
Who Will Win:
- Loyola - The Ramblers simply have more weapons than the other top-heavy teams, and with Custer dictating everything, they have the perfect linchpin to get the ball in the right players' hands. They do play slowly, so if they're cold, the limited number of possessions could limit the impact of that depth (a la Virginia in the NCAAs), but I'm still riding with the local squad.
If Not Them, Then:
- Literally anyone else - I mentioned the star power above, but seriously, anyone could win this tournament. Look at the KenPomeroy simulations - #10 Valpo only has a 6.2% less chance of winning than #2 Southern Illinois! The balanced odds make sense when you consider that seeds 2-10 are all ranked between 115 and 159 overall in Mr. Pomeroy's rankings.