- Matt Cox
3MW’s All Conference Team:
Player of the Year: Marques Townes, Sr., Loyola Chicago
Coach of the Year: Darian DeVries, Drake
Newcomer of the Year: Tulio Da Silva, Jr., Missouri St.
Freshman of the Year: AJ Green, Northern Iowa
1. Parity Party!
If there’s one thing we learned about the Valley this year, it’s that anyone can beat anybody, anywhere, at any time. As cited in one of our SI Gambling breakdowns last week, the MVC was overrun with parity this season: in the 111 year history of the conference, never before had the regular season champion suffered more than four losses in conference play – both Valley co-champions, Drake and Loyola Chicago, snapped that streak with six losses and finished just five games ahead of the 8th and 9th place teams, Indiana State and Valparaiso, who checked in with a 7-11 league record. Even Evansville, the Valley’s outcast at 5-13 who enters Arch Madness as the 10th seed, knocked off both Drake and Loyola Chicago earlier this season, further proof that nobody is a safe bet to advance in any round when the tournament kicks off in St. Louis later today.
2. Ramblers Repeat
Last year’s Cinderella run to the Final Four put a bulls-eye on Loyola’s back this season, especially with the return of Cam Krutwig, Clayton Custer, Marques Townes and Lucas Williamson, four of the Ramblers top-7 players from a year ago. Even in the face of lofty expectations, as well as an untimely injury to Williamson that sidelined him for most of the conference season, the Ramblers rose to the challenge and outlasted a deep Valley field to retain their MVC title belt.
3. New Kids on the Block
In a league littered with highly-respected and well-established coaches – Porter Moser, Barry Hinson, Ben Jacobsen, Dan Muller and Greg Lansing, to name a few – it was the new blood that shook things up in the Valley this year.
After overachieving last season under the direction of turnaround whiz kid Niko Medved, Darian DeVries made Drake fans forget all about Medved’s offseason departure to Colorado State with a brilliant coaching performance of his own in just his first season at the helm. DeVries overcame the departure of four senior starters off last year’s roster, as well as a cataclysmic season-ending injury to veteran point guard Nick Norton, to claim the program’s first regular season championship since 2008.
Another burgeoning coaching star is making a name for himself in Springfield, as Dana Ford led Missouri State to a 3rd place finish behind a couple instant impact transfers imported from Texas Tech (Josh Webster) and South Florida (Tulio Da Silva). Ford is well ahead of his rebuilding schedule, as he awaits the eligibility of a few more talented pieces procured via the transfer wire for next season, which should make Missouri State a force to be reckoned with in 2020.
Devout ‘Arch Madness’ diehards need no explanation here: 10 teams… 1 location… 1 goal… to cut down the nets at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. The Valley remains one of the few mid-major leagues that plays every game at a neutral site, precisely what makes ‘Arch Madness’ so unpredictable year-in and year-out.
Though, that’s not to say the format does not punish those who finished in the gutter of the regular season standings - in the history of the MVC tournament, no team from the 7-10 seed pool has won four games in four days to claim the championship, a damning omen for Illinois State, Indiana State, Valpo and Evansville.
Best Team and Projected NCAA Tournament Seed
While Drake finished neck-and-neck with Loyola in the regular season standings, the Ramblers are the most complete team in the field and are now trending upward with Lucas Williamson back in the mix. A super-sub on last year’s Final Four team, Williamson was pegged to assume the Ben Richardson role on a full-time basis this season - that is, a defensive stopper and complementary scorer / playmaker. Two extended stints on the injury report derailed that destiny for Williamson, but he proved what a difference maker he can be on both sides of the ball in his recent return to the lineup. The Ramblers took town a white-hot Northern Iowa team in Cedar Falls early last week before returning home and thrashing Bradley to clinch a share of the regular season title. Williamson tallied 29 minutes in both contests, scoring an efficient 11 points a game and stuffing the box score with 5 rebounds and 4 steals per game. For a young roster that severely lacks depth, Williamson’s presence cannot be understated and his reinsertion to the lineup could propel the Ramblers to a second straight trip to the dance.
If Loyola is able to take care of business this weekend, it will be uphill sledding to replicate last year’s NCAA tournament magic. Some missed opportunities in the non-conference leaves the Ramblers with a rather bleak resume, which caps their ceiling around the 14 or 15-seed line, depending upon how the committee factors in the Williamson injury during the evaluation process.
Dark Horse Team
Until Illinois State fell into the poisonous well of the bottom-4 seed pool, the Redbirds would’ve been a prime sleeper candidate to make a run in the MVC tournament. Yet, history is not kind to those who have to play on Thursday, which narrows the list of dark horse options to a just a few squads.
Of this bunch, Southern Illinois is the one to keep an eye on as a viable threat to de-throne the Ramblers. Much like the Loyola, SIUC was also bitten by the injury bug this season, but it was the extended suspension to Armon Fletcher that really threw a wrench in the Salukis’ momentum. Ironically, Southern Illinois won its first two league games without Fletcher and then proceeded to drop four in a row upon his return against Drake back on January 8th.
But, as the season played out, it was clear that those first four games were simply a tune-up period for Fletcher - over the last three weeks, he’s been arguably the most dominant player in the conference, averaging 23 points a game and hauling in 8 boards a game as the nominal 4 in Barry Hinson’s 4-guard lineup. With Fletcher in prime form, the Salukis backcourt is as deep as any team in the tournament, which surrounds two elite rim protectors in the middle in Kavion Pippen and Thik Bol.
(8) Indiana State over (9) Valparaiso
(7) Illinois State over (10) Evansville
(1) Loyola Chicago over (9) Indiana State
(7) Illinois State over (2) Drake
(4) Missouri State over (5) Bradley
(3) Southern Illinois over (6) Northern Iowa
(1) Loyola Chicago over (4) Missouri State
(3) Southern Illinois over (7) Illinois State
(1) Loyola Chicago over (3) Southern Illinois