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2021 Arch Madness Preview

Arch Madness is this weekend, and I won’t be there for just the second time in eighteen years. That makes this weekend bittersweet for me as I am excited for the tournament but also suffering from some serious FOMO. Recent developments at my place of work means my plans for taking Thursday night and all-day Friday off are now gone and I probably wont even be able to watch the games live until Saturday. That means this will be my lamest Arch Madness experience of my life. However, I am still excited for the weekend and have decided to write up a quick preview. I’ll provide some quick analysis and a prediction for each game, starting with the play-in games.

Game 1- #8 Bradley (6-12, 12-15) vs. #9 Southern Illinois (5-13, 11-13): Few would have predicted this to be a play-in matchup in Arch Madness this season. Both teams have been beset with defections, injuries and suspensions and have underperformed. When the two squads split their early February matchup in Peoria, Bradley’s roster looked quite different. As most MVC fans know by now the Braves have been playing without a trio of key players who were suspended after an incident in Missouri. They were already playing without starting center Ari Boya due to injury and were down two further players in their season ending win over Drake. There is no word yet on whether either player will be available on Thursday. It wasn’t as if Bradley was cruising before the suspensions either, and it is entirely possible they would be in this position either way. SIU has suffered only one huge loss this year…..although it was a very big one……in reigning MVC Freshman of the year Marcus Domask whose lingering injury has caused him to miss most of the MVC season. They have adjusted to their new reality and nearly finished their season with a win over Loyola. As a result of all this roster craziness, you are going to see a lot of young players on the floor on Thursday. Bradley used four freshmen and two sophomores among their seven players in their final game against Drake, while SIU featured five sophomores and two freshmen out of their eight players in their last game against Loyola. It is likely the only senior to play in the game will be SIU’s Anthony D’Avanzo, who is playing in his first DI season after grad transferring from a D2 school. This will be the only Arch Madness matchup in day one or day two that features two teams that split during the year.

o PREDICTION: SIU has been playing without Domask for a while, while Bradley’s young players are still figuring out their new roles. It is hard to predict what will happen when one team is in such a state of flux, but I like SIU’s roster consistency over Bradley’s question marks. I am going to go with the Salukis here.

Game 2- #7 Northern Iowa (7-11, 9-15) vs. #10 Illinois State (7-17, 4-14): At the beginning of the season the two biggest questions for MVC prognosticators were whether UNI or Loyola would win the league and whether Bradley could challenge either team for the title. At the end of the day, two of the three league favorites ended up playing on Thursday. Obviously the Panthers have suffered from the loss of last year’s Larry Bird Trophy winner AJ Green, as well as his backup at point guard Antwan Kimmons. UNI has been starting two true freshmen most of the season, and Austin Phyfe and Trae Berhow’s performance suffered without the security blanked Green provided. It is hard to believe UNI would have been title contenders even with Green this year, as the supporting cast has been so inconsistent, but we will never know for sure. All that said, Northern Iowa has been playing its best ball of the year over the last couple weeks as Ben Jacobson coached teams tend to do. They come in having won three of four games and have been competitive in most of their recent contests since taking their worst loss as a member of the MVC to Loyola on January 19th. In that time, Northern Iowa has built a nucleus of six guys that are taking the bulk of the workload. Similar things can be said about Illinois State despite the fact they finished alone in the MVC cellar. They had a six-game losing streak, but took Drake to the brink on the road, lost two close ones to Valpo and battled with Missouri State twice in that stretch. They finally got over the hump with a blowout win at SIU and a completed a sweep over their rivals Bradley, ending the season with a double-OT loss to UNI. They are playing their best ball of the year right now with DJ Horne, Josiah Strong, Dusan Mahorcic and Austin Reeves leading the way. This contest will be the third matchup between the two teams in a one-week period. According to the MVC, it has been over 100 years since two MVC teams have played each other three straight times.

o PREDICTION: I think UNI is the better team, if only slightly, but I don’t know if they can pull off a third win over the same team in a week. UNI controlled game one on Friday in Normal, but the second game went to double OT and could have gone either way. I am going with the Redbirds to get over the hump and beat the Panthers on their third try. That is a tough draw for UNI due to the circumstances.

Game 3- #1 Loyola (16-2, 21-4) vs. Game 1 Winner: The Ramblers enter the MVC Tournament as the #1 seed and league champion for the third time in four years (and were the 2-seed last year after missing the title by one game). Loyola will also have their third Larry Bird Trophy winner in four seasons as Cameron Krutwig was named the winner earlier today. I don’t think any MVC fans would have predicted that in 2017 after the Ramblers finished league play below .500 in each of their first four MVC seasons. Indeed, Loyola finished a combined 27-45 in their first four MVC seasons but have gone a total of 56-16 in the four seasons since. That is an abrupt and incredible turnaround. When Loyola joined the MVC they had had very little recent basketball success, but the idea was that they would grow into the league and become competitive due to their advantages of being in a major metropolitan area and access to significant revenue. Many MVC fans, myself included, did not have a lot of faith in that outcome. But boy howdy have they met and exceeded that threshold. Despite all this success, Loyola has not been back to the NCAA Tournament since their 2018 Final Four season and that is still their only dance appearance since 1985. There is a good chance they will be back this year no matter what happens at Arch Madness, but they probably need to win this first game at the very least to avoid a lot of trepidation on Selection Sunday. Their opponent will be either Bradley or SIU. If my prediction comes true and they see the Salukis, it will be provocative matchup as the Ramblers closed their season with two close home wins over SIU and would be playing them for the third time in a row. Loyola has struggled offensively in the last couple weeks and SIU’s defense-first mentality presents a tough matchup for them. They would likely be more comfortable with Bradley who will be playing a lot of guys who were role players for most of the season. But the Braves current roster is unpredictable and tough to prepare for, which presents its own challenges.

o PREDICTION: A Loyola-SIU quarterfinals opener looks like a really fun matchup on paper after the way the Ramblers struggled with SIU over the weekend. I have a hard time seeing the shorthanded Braves slowing down Loyola, though. Either way I think Loyola’s experience carries the day and they will not allow themselves to lose to a play-in team for the second year in a row. I am picking Loyola.

Game 4- #4 Indiana State (11-7, 14-9) vs. #5 Evansville (7-11, 9-15): Strange days indeed for Indiana State who just finished off a season in which they beat expectations and were one of the MVC’s better teams, only to find out the administration appears set to fire the MVC’s second longest tenured coach after the season. On one hand this makes sense on some level. If the goal is to make it to the NCAA Tournament, Indiana State hasn’t done that in a decade and if you fail to get your goal for a decade sometimes it is time to move on. On the flip side, though, ISU is probably the toughest coaching job of the MVC. The resources and facilities are not on par with most of their league brethren, and Greg Lansing has had to “do more with less” his entire time in Terre Haute. Unless Larry Bird is knocking down the door for the job, you would be hard pressed to find someone who will be come in at the salary ISU will pay and do a better job with the resources at hand. The lame duck situation recalls this famous movie scene. Indiana State is positioned to make a run and make things real awkward for the ISU admin. Meanwhile over at Evansville, the Purple Aces had an objectively worse season than the Trees but are substantially more excited about it. UE comes into this Arch Madness having lost seven of eight games, and ten of thirteen. But that does not really matter because they accomplished their goal of finishing in the top half of the league and avoiding Thursday. Most teams would not be happy about their form heading into the tournament after losing so many games in a row, and I am certain the Aces aren’t. But for a team that did not win a league game last year and was the consensus pick to finish last again this season you can’t help but be excited about where they are headed, especially after they avoided the ultimate collapse and finally got that last win against Missouri State to clinch top six status. We are only a few weeks removed from Indiana State’s winning twice against UE in two games that were somewhat competitive. Fun fact: Each of the last two times these teams met in the quarterfinals (2011 and 2013), the Trees won in the final seconds. However, Evansville won their two most recent Arch Madness matchups, a 2017 play-in game and a 2016 semifinal, with relative ease.

o PREDICTION: Depending on where their heads are at regarding the possible firing of their head coach, I think Indiana State has it in them to win the whole thing. That said I hate it when prognosticators play it safe and pick chalk, so I am going with this as my upset special. Indiana State is clearly the more talented team but there are a few variables to consider. One, Tyreke Key’s injury (although I fully expect him to suit up for this one). Two, how Indiana State responds to the news of Greg Lansing’s possible dismissal. Three, Evansville’s excitement at being in this game. I can’t pretend to know what is going on in the UE locker room. But given the recent state of their program, for Evansville to win this one and make the semifinals would be remarkable. I hate when people say, “This is their Super Bowl”, so I wont. But… might be true in this case. There is a world where UE comes in psyched and ready to go and ISU is in a strange mental state. I have no idea if that’s the case here but due to the variables I am going with the Aces as my upset pick in this one.

Game 5- #2 Drake (15-3, 24-3) vs. Game 2 Winner: Drake probably has more to play for in Arch Madness than any other team in the field. The Bulldogs are sitting squarely on the NCAA bubble. ESPN’s version of bracketology has them as the fourth-to-last team in. CBS has them as the second-to-last team in (and has Loyola as 12-seed, which is nonsense if you ask me……but I digress). So they have everything to play for each time they step on the floor in St. Louis. You can tell just by watching them that Drake is a close-knit scrappy team that will never give up. They nearly captured a share of the conference title after losing the services of their two best players for the final weeks of the season. Playing essentially a five-man rotation for their final three games, the Bulldogs scratched and clawed and very nearly pulled out a miracle comeback win against Bradley on the final day of the season. While MVC first-teamer Roman Penn is definitively out for the season, head coach Darian Devries said earlier this week that an Arch Madness return for MVC Newcomer of the Year (and All-MVC second teamer) Tank Hemphill is not out of the question. Whether that is truly a possibility or gamesmanship on the coach’s part remains to be seen. If it is the latter, I don’t blame him. This is looking a lot like 2019 for Drake, a year in which the Bulldogs shared the league title and got the 2-seed but were weakened at Arch Madness by a barrage of late injuries to key players. That team reflected this team’s scrappy, never say die approach which likely stems from the coach. You can bet no matter who suits up for DU, they will not go down without a battle. Their opponents in round one will be either UNI or Illinois State. Both present intriguing situations. Drake has had little trouble with the Panthers this season but knocked off a top-seeded UNI in the quarterfinals last year. A rematch here could give the Panthers the opportunity to return he favor. Illinois State has shown they can compete with Drake. They took the ‘Dogs to OT in Des Moines earlier in the year when Drake was still at full strength.

o PREDICTION: I picked Illinois State to beat UNI, and I think that matchup could give Drake trouble if they continue to be shorthanded. ISU has a few guys who can get hot and carry a team, and in a one-off situation sometimes that is all you need. The karma of facing UNI a year after beating the Panthers in a reverse situation isn’t ideal either (if you’re into that sort of thing). I think the opponent will be ISU and Drake will handle them after the ‘Birds put up a fight for most of the game. UNI would have a shot if their experienced players (Berhow and Phyfe) step up, but I think Drake ultimately wins either way. I am going with the Bulldogs here.

Game 6- #3 Missouri State (12-6, 16-6) vs. #6 Valparaiso (7-11, 10-17): The final quarterfinal matchup of the day is, quite frankly, the least interesting of the bunch in this author’s opinion. Missouri State comes in having lost to Evansville to finish the season, but they had a seven-game winning streak prior to that game. The Bears had already locked into the 3rd seed before the game, and there is some logic to the idea that it may have been a good thing to get the clunker out of their system before the postseason. For MSU it is pretty simple. They will likely go as far as their two All-MVC first teamers can take them. Isiaih Mosley led the league in scoring by a wide margin with 20ppg. He was second in the nation in scoring for some time, but has fallen to 26th since. Gaige Prim leads the league in rebounds by .7 over Elijah Childs and 1.7 over the next best rebounder that will be playing in this tournament, Austin Phyfe. Prim is also 3rd in the league in scoring, and Mosley is 9th in rebounding. These two are the key for the Bears. This is probably MSU’s best chance at an NCAA Tournament bid heading into Arch Madness since they won the regular season title in 2011. To get to the title game they’ll have to beat an average Valpo team, and likely a banged-up Drake team. It seems very doable, but it will be up to Mosley and Prim to make it happen. For Valpo, this six-seed represents the first time VU has avoided the play-in round as an MVC institution. While they finished with a worse league record than they had last year, they continued their slow ascent up the MVC standings. They finished as the 10-seed in their first MVC season in 2018, were the 9-seed in 2019, finished as the 7-seed last season, and are now the 6-seed this year. The trend is not entirely dissimilar to Loyola’s first four years in the league where they finished 10th, 6th, 8th and 5th. To keep pace beyond that, though, VU is going to have to make the Final Four next year. This year, Valpo will look to duplicate their heroics of last season when they went to the finals as the 7-seed. They won three Arch Madness games last year but fell short of the title, the first team in MVC history that can say that. This year three wins would get it done. MSU swept the Crusaders (as they were then known) at the ARC back in mid-January. Valpo was coming off a long COVID pause and Prim and Mosley were outstanding in both contests. A lot has happened since then. Valpo has had several younger players emerge as key contributors. Will the outcome change as well?

o PREDICTION: There is a part of me that just has a nagging suspicion that Valpo is going to pull this out for some reason. They do roll deeper than most teams in the league at this point in the season and that can serve you well in tournament time. When a team relies so heavily on one or two players that can mean trouble as one bad day can end it for you. But I am sticking with my brain over my gut and picking Missouri State. It may be wishful thinking more than anything, as I would love to see Mosley and Prim get an opportunity to take on a tough Bulldog squad in what promises to be an awesome semifinal if we get it. My official pick is the Bears.

Game 7- Game 3 Winner vs. Game 4 Winner: Smart money says this semifinal will feature Indiana State and Loyola. There is a steep drop off from #4 (11-7) to #5 (7-11) this season, and the fair outcome would be for the four teams that separated themselves during the season to make it to the semifinals and set up a very interesting Saturday. Arch Madness history shows this is where the #1 seed often gets tested and knocked out as happened in 2019, 2016 and 2015. Loyola is both the last #1 seed to win a semifinal game and the last #1 seed to lose one. Especially if Greg Lansing’s lame duck status is a motivating factor for ISU, this could get really interesting. Although they played way back in early January, ISU did gain a split with Loyola during the regular season. If my predictions come true, the Ramblers will see Evansville here instead of the Trees. I have a real difficult time seeing UE beating Loyola if they get to this point. I think we would have a “flew too close to the sun” situation for Evansville and I see Loyola winning easily. The same could be said for ISU if they draw a Bradley or Southern Illinois. If both Loyola and ISU fail to get to this point and we have two teams with below .500 records here, you can pretty much throw any analysis out the door.

o PREDICTION: I’m going to be real bold here and pick Loyola to get to the title game. I have UE winning in the quarterfinals and if that is the matchup, I just have a hard time seeing the Aces hanging with the Ramblers. ISU Blue would provide a much more challenging test. For my purposes I have Loyola in the ship.

Game 8- Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner: The second semifinal is most likely to feature the Drake Bulldogs and Missouri State Bears and to me that is the most interesting possible matchup of the entire tournament. You have the banged up but scrappy Bulldogs on the bubble fighting for their NCAA Tournament lives against a Missouri State team with two of the most talented players in the league. I find that matchup to be just salivating. For that reason we probably won’t get it, because that is how the Valley do. Drake would likely welcome a matchup with Valpo who beat them earlier in the year (nearly twice), and a chance to show who is truly the better team. MSU wouldn’t mind seeing UNI or Illinois State playing their third game in a row instead of Drake either. Finally, we could do it 2020 style with a Valpo/UNI or ISU matchup.

o PREDICTION: I predicted the Drake-MSU matchup we deserve and so that is what I will pick from here. It is honestly a real toss-up and probably comes down to how well MSU’s big two perform. I would love to see either of these two teams get a chance to do some damage in the NCAA Tournament and it is too bad only one (at most) can make it. Ugh, I don’t know. Give me Drake I guess.

Game 9- Championship Game: At this point we are picking guesses on guesses. It is very likely that either Loyola or Indiana State will play Drake or Missouri State in this game. If Loyola is here, I personally think they’re an NCAA Tournament lock (eff you CBS) so I’ll be rooting for their opponents to get the Valley a second bid. If its Indiana State (or someone else from the top half of the bracket for that matter) I’ll be hoping for a fun, exciting game. It would be great to see Drake make the dance because of how well they’ve performed this year and how fun they are to watch. For MSU it would be awesome to see how Mosley and Prim fare on the big stage. Indiana State winning would be great because it throws the whole Lansing thing into a full-on tizzy (and they’re a solid team who can compete as well). If anyone else snags the bid you’re probably looking at a 16-seed and a possible first round blowout, and that isn’t ideal for the Valley. But I’d be cheering them on in the dance regardless! #BeatBaylor

o PREDICTION: The boring answer is Loyola. At this point they are the smart pick. They have talent and depth, which by Sunday is very important. MSU and Drake have talent but lack depth. Valpo has depth but lacks talent. UNI and Illinois State have neither relative to Loyola. Obviously if Loyola isn’t playing in this game that changes everything, but my previous predictions have Drake and Loyola in this game because I am a crazy risk taker so I will pick from that. After everything I said before Loyola is the smart pick, but I am going with Drake because that is more fun, I do what I want, and it isn’t like I have money riding on this or something. For the record if I did have money on it, I would pick Loyola.

Let the games begin!!

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Well done, MVC Beat. I think any one of the top 4 can win this. MSU is my sleeper pick. Loyola should win it but they've proven over the last 5 games that they can almost lose to about anyone and when you almost lose to inferior teams, you will eventually lose one of them.

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