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MVC Hoops Power Rankings: ONE WEEK LEFT!

We are in for a crazy couple of weeks (and beyond) in the Valley because we have a situation that we’ve never had before. Not only are the top five teams in the league separated by only two games, but at the time of this writing none of that group is tied. UNI is a half game up on Loyola, who is a half game up on Missouri State, who is a half game up on Drake, who is a half game up on Bradley. While tonight’s makeup games will clear up the “half game” situations, what we have now is a really cool and unique sports oddity. It should make for a heck of a couple weeks. There’s a lot to say about what happened last week, so let’s get to it. Here are my MVC power rankings with just 13 conference games to go.

-UIC Flames (7-10 Horizon, 11-15 Overall, NET: 290): The Flames got three wins last week. They beat a six-man IUPUI on Monday, lost at Youngstown on Thursday, and won a thriller at Robert Morris on Saturday. Their third win? The Horizon League capitulated and allowed UIC teams to participate in postseason championships. That probably isn’t crucially important for their men’s basketball team who currently sits well into the bottom half of the standings. Heck, it may have been a relief to skip the championships for their women’s basketball team that currently sits at 2-22. However, it is a big deal for the seniors on the swim team that got to compete this week (both teams finished fourth). It will also be a big deal for the UIC baseball team who is a powerhouse in the Horizon and finished second in the league a year ago, and the softball team which won the Horizon and went to the NCAAs last year. It will also matter for all the athletes in the other spring sports like tennis, golf and track and field. The two actual men’s basketball wins were also important this week for the Flames’ as it pushed them into 8th place. If they can hold that position, they’ll host their first-round conference tournament game (although they’ve been slightly better on the road this year). UIC will finish up the regular season against Green Bay on Thursday and Milwaukee on Saturday.

-Belmont Bruins (14-2 OVC, 24-5 Overall, NET: 55): Belmont went 2-0 this week which keeps them alive on the soft side of the bubble. However, they played with fire a bit on Saturday against SIUE (which I pronounce like the pig call “SOOOOOOOEY” cheer every time I say it). The Bruins went without a basket for a nearly five-minute stretch starting midway through the second half, and SIUE cut the Belmont lead to just one. Ultimately the Bruins pulled away late for a 73-62 win to go along with their blowout W over Eastern Illinois earlier in the week. They came out of the week unscathed in the loss column, but still lost a handful of spots in the NET rankings. A showdown at Murray State looms on Thursday before they end the season at home against Tennessee State. If Belmont wants any legit shot at an at-large bid, they need to win at Murray on Thursday. Bracketology hasn’t been updated since Friday, but Lundari’s latest Tweets don’t even have Belmont among the first 11 teams out right now.

-Murray State Racers (16-0 OVC, 26-2 Overall, NET: 26): The Racers narrowly avoided disaster at UT-Martin on Saturday. They went on a five-minute scoring drought late in the second half to allow the Skyhawks to go on a 12-0 run to take a five-point lead with three minutes to go. As they have done all year, though, Murray found a way to make plays down the stretch and pull out the win. Racer fans likely had a lump in their throats as UTM put up a possible game winning three at the buzzer, but it missed, and they hung on for a 62-60 win over the 8-20 Skyhawks. I think Murray will be one of the best teams in the Valley on day one, but I think they’ll find that they can’t have off days like the one they had today and get many Ws in the MVC. The win clinches Murray at least a share of the OVC title, and they can make it outright with a win at home against Belmont on Thursday. Even if they slip up against the Bruins, a win at SEMO would still get it done. A 2-0 finish to the regular season would likely sew up a tournament spot for the Racers, as they are currently listed as a 9-seed on bracketology (although that hasn’t been updated in three days). The last four in are on the 11 and 12 line currently, so there is some space between them and the cut line.

Now for the squads that are currently in the MVC.

10. Evansville Purple Aces (2-13 MVC, 6-20 Overall, NET: 316): It is possible the Purple Aces’ spirit has finally broken. Or it is possible that an already bad team is struggling to overcome the loss of one of their two best players. Either way, it was a very bad week even by the standards of a 6-20 team. A trip to the Knapp Center saw the Aces trailing Drake 51-15 early in the second half. No that is not a typo. They did battle back from there to make the score a less dramatic 73-51 final, but it wasn’t pretty at any point. At home against Valpo on Saturday, UE trailed the Beacons 39-23 at halftime and were never really in the game in the second half en route to a 72-56 loss (in what may be a preview of an Arch Madness game). Without Jawaun Newton, the Aces just don’t seem to have enough firepower to hang. Last place hasn’t been mathematically clinched, but with games at Valpo, at Loyola and vs. Missouri State the final week of the season it is only a matter of time.

9.) Illinois State Redbirds (4-11 MVC, 11-17 Overall, NET: 194): The ISUs have the same league record and nearly the same overall record. They are near each other in the NET rankings as well. Both had competitive 0-2 weeks, so I will leave the rankings as they were before and keep the Redbirds at nine. The ‘Birds performed like a team that should be rated higher this week, though. They had every single chance to beat UNI at home, but just couldn’t execute on their final three possessions. They ultimately lost 72-70. They also had a shot to sweep their rivals, Bradley, with a win in Peoria. The Redbirds had an 11-point lead early and led at halftime, but Bradley pulled away midway through the second half for a 72-64 victory. Illinois State is now likely headed for the 8-9 game. However, they trail Valpo by just one game and have a slim edge in the NET rankings so the 7-seed (and a more favorable matchup with Evansville and better turnaround time after a win) is still possible. They’ll have to navigate a tough schedule to make it happen, though, as they host Loyola today, play at SIU on Wednesday, and host Indiana State on Saturday. An immediate rematch with the Sycamores in the MVC Tournament opener is the most likely Arch Madness scenario for ISU.

8.) Indiana State Sycamores (4-11 MVC, 11-16 Overall, NET: 226): The Sycamores gave a couple of good teams scares this week. The Trees led at Missouri State with less than eight minutes to go before the Bears took control with an 18-1 run en route to a 79-70 MSU win. A similar scenario played out on Saturday when the Trees hosted SIU. The game went back and forth for pretty much the entire day and ISU led with three minutes to go. However, they were outscored 12-6 down the stretch for a 76-72 home loss. A chance to play spoiler is in front of the Trees as they play at Drake tonight and host UNI (a squad they’ve had a lot of success against over the years) on Wednesday before finishing at Illinois State. After they were swept by Valpo, it seems unlikely the Trees can get out of the 8-9 game, but it is possible. The most likely scenario is that they’ll play in the tournament opener in a rematch against Illinois State.

7.) Valparaiso Beacons (5-10 MVC, 12-15 Overall, NET: 208): The Beacons had a good week, and they darn near had a great one. For the second time this season Valpo went absolutely toe-to-toe with the Ramblers of Loyola. The game was back-and-forth pretty much the entire time and the only team with a lead of any significance was Valpo who held a 9-point lead late in the first half. After a Ben Krikke layup made the score 69-68 Loyola with just under five minutes to go, the Beacons held the Ramblers to just two points the rest of the way. Unfortunately for Valpo, they only managed one point themselves and lost 71-69. It was an ugly finish to an otherwise very entertaining game. VU righted the ship on Saturday at Evansville, though, taking a sixteen-point halftime lead and cruising to a 72-56 win. The Beacons are now locked into the play-in round and are one of three teams that can claim the 7-seed and avoid the 8-9 game (and the quick turnaround that would follow a win). Valpo has by far the best chance of snagging the 7-seed. They’re a game ahead of both ISUs and swept ISU Blue during the year. Their NET is somewhat behind ISU Red, so that is the team they need to be wary of. The Beacons host Evansville tonight and Drake on Wednesday before travelling to Bradley for the regular season finale.

6.) Southern Illinois Salukis (8-8 MVC, 15-13 Overall, NET: 138): It was an outstanding week for the ‘Dogs. So much so, that I think SIU should now be considered closer to the top five in stature than the bottom four. The 2-0 week started with a 65-57 home win over Bradley in a game that SIU absolutely dominated until the final minutes when Bradley put on a furious rally. It was Southern Illinois’ first win over one of the top five teams on in the conference, finally breaking through after several near misses. It should give the program a shot of confidence as they head into the final week and into Arch Madness. They followed that up with a tough road victory over Indiana State. The Sycamores made SIU play a quick paced, relatively high scoring game that SIU doesn’t typically want to play. But Marcus Domask and Lance Jones came to play, combining for 45 points on 19 made baskets. The game was back-and-forth, but SIU made the plays in the final minutes that were the difference in a 76-72 win. The Salukis are now virtually locked into the 6-seed for Arch Madness, which is a place I personally don’t mind being as a fan. You get to watch all the other games without worrying about yours until the very end. Your day cannot be ruined prematurely. SIU hosts Illinois State and travels to Drake to finish the season. A move away from the 6-seed in either direction is highly unlikely, so these guys are playing to set themselves up for a run in St. Louis.

5.) Bradley Braves (10-6 MVC, 16-12 Overall, NET: 96): Bradley remains a dangerous team that has won eight out of ten games and is a significant threat to win Arch Madness for the third time in four years. However, a loss at Southern Illinois took a bit of the wind out of their sails. The 65-57 loss was not as close as the score makes it seem, as Bradley made a furious rally from down very big to make the final margin respectable. The Braves recovered for a 72-64 revenge win over Illinois State on the weekend. BU trailed the Redbirds by as many as 11 in the first half but went on a second half run to put the game away. Malevy Leons, Terry Robers and Rienk Mast teamed up for 56 points in the game, and are becoming a bit of a three-headed monster. According to seeding expert Matt Hackman, there are still 48 scenarios (out of a possible 8,192) where Bradley finishes with the #1 seed (and two where they finish 6th). But 81% of the scenarios have the Braves finishing somewhere in the 4-5 game. That number becomes 94% when you weight the scenarios based on the most likely outcomes. It is probably worth mentioning that Bradley started in the 4-5 game in both 2019 and 2020 when they won Arch Madness. BU will hit the road to face Missouri State on Wednesday before hosting Valpo on Saturday.

4.) Drake Bulldogs (10-5 MVC, 19-9 Overall, NET: 89): As has been the case pretty much all year for everyone in the top half of the Valley, Drake responded to their recent rough stretch (3 consecutive losses) with aplomb. First, the Bulldogs opened a can of whoopass on the Evansville Purple Aces on Wednesday at the Knapp Center. DU won 73-51 in a game that saw them take a 51-15 lead early in the second half. After working out their frustrations on the Purple Aces, they hit the road to take on Loyola on Saturday and woo-boy did they ever hop back on that horse. Drake led the game wire-to-wire, took a 12-point halftime lead, and never really let Loyola back in it in the second half as they rolled to an 83-76 victory that gave them the season sweep of the Ramblers. Drake now sits just one loss behind Loyola and UNI and with those two squads set to play each other next week, a share of the conference title is still not out of the question. Indeed, 6% of the possible scenarios see Drake as the 1-seed, and they have a 4% chance to snag it weighted. Perhaps more than any other team, each of the top five seeds remain in play for Drake. Drake ends up in the 4-5 game in 64% of scenarios and has a 60% chance weighted, leaving about 2/3rds of the possibilities putting them in 2nd or 3rd. Drake has the most favorable remaining schedule of anyone in the top five as they host Indiana State tonight, visit Valpo on Wednesday and host SIU on Saturday.

3.) Missouri State Bears (11-5 MVC, 20-9 Overall, NET: 66): I considered putting Drake above MSU, as the Bulldogs certainly had a better week than the Bears. But while they’re effectively tied in the league standings, the Bears still swept Drake during the year and the computers still like the Bears quite a bit more. The week started off fine for MSU. While Indiana State hung around for awhile in Springfield, leading as late as the eight-minute mark, the Bears went on an 18-1 run over the next six minutes to put the game on ice. That set up a showdown in Cedar Falls against UNI that ended up being for first place in the league (after Loyola lost on Saturday). It was not a good showing for MSU. Isiaih Mosley was held to six points, Gaige Prim fouled out (with six fouls), UNI shot nearly 60% and the Bears left with a 95-75 loss. The loss puts MSU a game back of UNI and Loyola in the loss column, tied with Drake, and one ahead of Bradley. Missouri State just so happens to host the Braves, who they beat by two in Peoria in January, on Wednesday with a chance to put them in their rear-view mirror. They finish at Evansville on Saturday. According to Hackman, Mo State finishes with the 1-seed in 2% of the remaining scenarios and have the same 2% chance when those scenarios are weighted. He has the Bears in either 2nd or 3rd 72% of the time, and in the 4-5 game in the remainder of the scenarios. When the weighted system is used, they get into the 2-3 spot 77% of the time, likely due to their extremely high probability of beating Evansville and the fact that they’d have the tiebreaker over both BU and Drake.

2.) Northern Iowa Panthers (12-4 MVC, 16-10 Overall, NET: 105): For two consecutive weeks, UNI has played a game on Sunday afternoon on ESPNU in which the winner would claim first place in the MVC. Both times the home team had perhaps their best performance of the year, while the away team played a mediocre game, and the home team won in a blowout. Last weekend, UNI was on the losing end of a blowout to Loyola. On Sunday, the Panthers were on the other side of the coin with a 20-point win over Missouri State. UNI will always be dangerous when they are shooting the ball well, and that is what happened in this one. The purple and gold made 13 three-pointers and shot nearly 59% overall in the wire-to-wire win. That win followed an emotional victory at Illinois State on Tuesday where the Panthers played an Illinois State team playing its first game without Dan Muller. UNI hung on by the skin of their teeth in a 72-70 win in Normal. The Panthers will play the trappiest trap game that ever trapped on Wednesday in Terre Haute (a place that UNI has really struggled historically). If they can navigate their way through that one, it would likely set up an absolute throwdown in Cedar Falls on Saturday that would decide the title. Who is broadcasting it? You guessed it, ESPNU. UNI finishes as the 1-seed in 49% of the remaining possible scenarios, and only finishes 4th in 5% of them. The weighted numbers don’t like them as much, giving UNI just a 34% at the 1-seed and a 12% chance at the 4.

1.) Loyola Ramblers (11-4 MVC, 20-6 Overall, NET: 37): It was not a good week for the Loyola Ramblers, and it was nearly a very terrible one. Loyola opened the week with a very near miss against Valpo. It was a back-and-forth game for most of the second half when Loyola held a 69-68 lead with just under five minutes to go. The Ramblers could only muster one basket and two points from then on, but it was enough as they held the Beacons to just one free throw. Valpo had the potential game-winning shot in the air at the buzzer, but it didn’t fall. The sloppiness carried over into their Saturday contest at home against Drake. The Bulldogs led wire-to-wire as everyone on Loyola not named Lucas Williamson struggled offensively. The loss presents a bigger problem for Loyola than just losing sole possession of first place. It also put them right on the cut line for an at-large bid. Joe Lundardi currently has them as one of the last four in according to his Tweets (full bracketology hasn’t been updated since Friday), a fall from the single digit seed they looked to have a couple weeks ago. The Ramblers need to win all three games this week to capture the outright title to have any hope for an at-large at this point. Loyola will take on Illinois State on the road tonight before hosting Evansville, then visiting UNI on Saturday. That last one could be a doozy. Loyola gets the 1-seed in 42% of the remaining scenarios, while falling to the 4-5 game in 22%. When weighted, the odds get better for Loyola. Loyola is the 1-seed 60% of the time and only falls to the 4-5 game 13% of the time.

And that is it for these rankings. I’ll try to sneak in another set after the games on Wednesday before we play the final round on Saturday. Enjoy this crazy final week Valley fans, we might never have another one quite like it. Oh, and thank you to Matt Hackman for the numbers! Talk to you soon, and GO VALLEY!

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