MVC Hoops Power Rankings: Two Weeks Left
With two weeks remaining in the regular season, the league is clearly split into two halves. The top half, of course, features Loyola, Mo State, UNI, Drake and Bradley. On the bottom we have SIU, Valpo, Illinois State, Indiana State and Evansville. The gap between current 5th place Drake and current 6th place SIU shrunk by a game over the weekend, but there is still a 2.5 game difference. The “haves” are battling for a league title, and the “have-nots” are battling for the 6-seed and Thursday avoidance. With a couple of huge wins, Loyola inched a bit closer to claiming the title. However, UNI and Mo State are just a half game behind, and Drake and Bradley are just a step behind them. On the bottom half, the 6-seed is SIU’s to lose.
My newest power rankings are below. This edition features another anti-Horizon League rant right from the start! Turns out they can add “hypocrites” to the list of reason why they are lame. Read on to find out more.
-UIC Flames (6-9 Horizon, 10-14 Overall, NET: 291): The Flames have continued to be mediocre since my last rankings, going 3-3 in that time. The biggest news in the UIC camp is that the toddlers that run the Horizon League have banned all Flames teams from competing in league championships for the remainder of the year. This follows the lead of other clown show leagues like the America East and CAA who have banned departing members Stony Brook and James Madison respectively. Yes, I know that UIC technically broke a Horizon League bylaw by not giving the league a year’s notice before making their move, but I do not care. This is still nonsense, and everyone knows it. UIC was not on the MVC radar until Loyola left for the A-10 last fall. They did not have the opportunity to give a year’s notice. You’d think grown adults could use common sense here and not deprive student-athletes, some of which are seniors and do not have an opportunity to change their situation, of the chance to compete for championships. When I first Tweeted about this, I got a Tweet from a senior UIC swimmer who basically had the rug pulled from under her and her career cut short a week before they were supposed to compete at the Horizon Championships. Give me a break. Student-athlete experience my butt. It is a childish, immature move and the folks at the Horizon League should truly be ashamed of themselves. I don’t even really understand what they have to gain from this anyway. It is real rich coming from the Horizon League, a conference that screwed over the Summit League by adding IUPUI in June 2017 to begin play less than two months later. That forced the Summit, who had already made schedules for all sports for the year (and schools had made travel plans, set up noncon schedules, etc) to completely regroup and reschedule. But yeah, a year’s notice is required for UIC. Anyway, the Flames are 10-14 now and barely beat a 2-22 team with no DI wins that is only playing with six players at home yesterday. They’ll play at Youngstown and Robert Morris this week.
(Editors Note: The Horizon League backed off today, making this entire rant a moot point. Kudos to league for making the right decision.)
-Belmont Bruins (12-2 OVC, 22-5 Overall, NET: 47): It has been a good few weeks for the Bruins since the last round of power rankings. Belmont has gone 6-0 since then and has forced their way into the bubble conversation. The run hasn’t been without drama, as the Bruins had a few close calls. They needed a monster rally, including a contested game-tying three pointer in the final seconds that forced OT, to overcome Tennessee Tech. Then, they downright stole a win at home over Morehead State after trailing for most of the game. It remains to be seen whether Belmont has enough on the resume to truly force itself onto the bubble. It would probably require an undefeated finish, including a win at Murray State on February 24th. Although they have a handful of wins over fellow bubble teams Dayton, Chattanooga, and Iona (not to mention Drake), none of those victories will blow anyone’s socks off. The OVC’s best bet at two bids is probably still Murray winning out until they lose to Belmont in the title game. But they are right there. Can’t wait to have them on our side next year. Belmont will host Eastern Illinois and SIUE this week.
-#21 Murray State Racers (14-0 OVC, 24-2 Overall, NET: 26): The Racers are absolutely killing at. Having won 14 in a row (five since the last power rankings) with their last loss coming in 2021 to Auburn, Murray has attained a top 25 ranking and a very solid NET. They also escaped with a sweep over pesky Morehead, having to come from behind to beat the Eagles this weekend. It seems not much stands in the way of Murray and an OVC title now. Even a loss at home to Belmont wouldn’t be enough to push them from an outright title if they don’t flub up any of their other three remaining OVC games. There doesn’t seem to be much between Murray and the security of an at-large bid either. ESPN’s Bracketology currently has them as a ten-seed, which puts them about 8-10 teams above the cut line. A 4-0 finish to the year would have Murray more-than-likely in the field even if they don’t win the OVC Tournament. Even a 3-1 finish with a loss to Belmont would have them in OK position. Regardless, Murray has had an outstanding year and I hope they can keep their team intact for next year. If they do, they’ll be coming in hot for year one of the MVC. They’ll host Austin Peay and play at UT-Martin this week.
And now for the current MVC teams.
10.) Evansville Purple Aces (2-11 MVC, 6-18 Overall, NET: 308): Well, the good news is that in the time since my last power rankings Evansville won a game. In fact, they nearly won two games and had a real shot at a third. For two days they were actually in ninth place. The bad news is that, ultimately, Evansville went 1-4 over the last two and a half weeks and they are still in last place. And it is very likely that is where they will stay. After Indiana State beat Illinois State, the Aces found themselves two games removed from cellar avoidance. Throw in the fact that they still have games against Drake, Loyola, and Missouri State (two of which are on the road), and you can just about write Evansville’s name into the ten-spot at Arch Madness with permanent marker. But don’t think they’ll be a pushover once they get there. UE has shown signs of life that bely their record. After beating Illinois State for their first league win, they took UNI to the brink, were tied at Mo State with nine minutes to go, won at Indiana State then lost to the Trees at home in a double-OT thriller, and kept it close with SIU into the final minutes in Carbondale. Their only full-on blowout loss was against red-hot Bradley. UE will likely play one of Valpo, Illinois State or Indiana State in the play-in game. Whoever they wind up playing better be prepared. They’ll play at Drake and at home against Valpo this week.
9.) Illinois State Redbirds (4-9 MVC, 11-14 Overall, NET: 200): The next three teams on this list are nearly impossible to separate. All three candidates have the same league record, nearly the same overall record, have NET rankings within 30 of each other, and have good wins and bad losses that are all over the map. Illinois State lost one of their star players, Sy Chatman, just before the last rankings and have gone 1-6 since he went down. They also lost their coach Dan Muller, who officially bounced last night, leaving Brian Jones as the interim head coach. The Redbirds have played an aggressively difficult schedule of late. Their last six games, of which they have lost five, have included contests at Northern Iowa and Loyola and at home against Drake and SIU. They lost all those games but did win a barnburner against Valpo at home before losing a late lead at Indiana State this weekend. They haven’t been world beaters, but they haven’t been completely uncompetitive. The loss at home to Drake was one of the best games of the MVC season. They also probably should have won in Terre Haute. Chatman’s replacement, Liam McChesney, has been a pleasant surprise. He has averaged 12.7 PPG since Chatman went down, while adding 6.7 rebounds per game. They’ll host UNI and hit the road to play Bradley this week.
8.) Indiana State Sycamores (4-9 MVC, 11-14 Overall, NET: 224): If the season would have ended after last Tuesday’s games, Indiana State would have been the ten-seed in Arch Madness. ISU hit rock bottom after losing their fourth game in a row and eighth in nine tries at home to Evansville. The Aces pulled into a tie with the Trees for ninth and had the tiebreaker after the game. On Thursday the Sycamores found themselves in REAL trouble, trailing late in another contest with the Aces. To their credit, the Trees rallied in what turned out to be a doozy of a double-OT game at the Ford Center. Then they knuckled up and scored the final 11 points in a comeback three-point victory over Illinois State at home. That little burst of success has ISU two games clear of the cellar, and in realistic contention to finish as high as seventh. This is a squad that has beaten Missouri State and took Northern Iowa to the absolute brink in Cedar Falls with a shorthanded roster. They are mostly D2 transfers, but they are talented. The Sycamores are another team that has a lot of weapons and can beat you on any given night. Their next four games are against Missouri State, SIU, Drake and Northern Iowa, so if they do finish in seventh, they will have earned it. Indiana State plays at Mo State and against SIU this week.
7.) Valparaiso Beacons (4-9 MVC, 11-14 Overall, NET: 221): Valpo has lost four out of five since the last power rankings including an L at Illinois State and butt whoopings by the likes of Missouri State, SIU and Bradley. However, the Beacons still retain a 3-1 record against the squads with which they are tied, and their loss at ISU was very competitive. I still think Valpo has the most weapons of the teams in the bottom four, but they have suffered significant absences for large portions of the season and have just not been able to gel together. Their four wins have come against Illinois State, Indiana State twice and at home against an AJ-Green-less UNI in overtime. They look just about locked into Thursday, as they got swept by SIU, and their final five games include visits from Loyola and Drake and a trip to Bradley. They also have a pair against Evansville, which if they can sweep, they’ll have a good shot at the 7-seed (and a probable rematch with Evansville). Conversely, if they get swept by the Aces, they could still get last. Valpo still has the weapons to be very dangerous in St. Louis, but they are running out of time to put it together. They will host Loyola and visit Evansville this week.
6.) Southern Illinois Salukis (6-8 MVC, 13-13 Overall, NET: 147): The league has a clear gap between the top half and the bottom half. Southern Illinois is a bottom half team. However, they are clearly the best of the bunch. They have demonstrated that on a very consistent basis. They’ve basically made a living off it. SIU is currently 6-0 against the teams in the bottom four, and 0-8 against the teams in the top five. If they can win games against Indiana State and Illinois State but lose to Drake and Bradley to finish the season, they’ll finish with a perfect record against the teams below them and would be winless against the teams above. That leads me to two conclusions. First, this league isn’t really split into a “top 5” and “bottom 5”. Its really more, “top 5”, “SIU”, and “bottom 4”. Secondly, whoever ends up with the 3-seed better watch out. SIU is a talented, motivated team that has gotten close several times but has not been able to get over the hump against the league’s best teams. That is a deadly combination in the postseason. The Salukis must find a way to score more points against good teams. SIU’s recent outputs against the top five MVC teams include final score totals of 44, 54, 39 and 47. They’re playing great defense in those games, but they just haven’t had enough firepower to get a W. Put them in an Arch Madness situation, though, and if Domask and/or Jones get rolling, they could be tough to beat. SIU hosts Bradley and heads to Indiana State this week.
5.) Drake Bulldogs (8-5 MVC, 17-9 Overall, NET: 100): At the time of our last power rankings, Drake was coming up on an extremely rough stretch against some of the league’s best teams. After an outstanding start that saw the Bulldogs defending the Knapp against Loyola, it has not been a great subsequent two weeks for the Drake. Faced with a trio of top five opponents in succession, the suffered an OT loss at home to UNI, a close home loss to Mo State and a loss at Bradley. This has left DU in fifth place for the time being, but I don’t expect that to last long. The Bulldogs have a more forgiving schedule down the stretch that includes home games with Evansville, Indiana State and SIU, and an away game against Valpo. The only game that Drake won’t be a substantial favorite to win will be their trip to Gentile next weekend. If they can get past that one, there is a decent chance a 5-0 finish could be in front of them. Honestly, I don’t think this recent losing streak is a sign of anything going wrong at Drake. To me it is more about the law of averages. Drake has mastered the art of the close win. They have the best record in the entire nation over the last two years in games with a margin of five or less. They were simply due to lose some close ones. It is probably better to get it out of their system now than to do it at Arch Madness. Drake is still within striking distance of each of the squads ahead of them, and with their manageable schedule I think they’ll still likely finish in the top three. Heck, they could still win the league. Buck up Bulldog fans, better times are ahead. Drake hosts Evansville and plays at Loyola this week.
4.) Northern Iowa Panthers (10-4 MVC, 14-10 Overall, NET: 111): You could put any of the next three squads in any order, really. This ranking for UNI probably has a lot of recency bias as I just watched the Panthers get put through the woodchipper at Loyola. That 27-point loss aside, UNI has played some outstanding basketball this calendar year. In fact, the loss to Loyola was UNI’s first loss in regulation in the year 2022, and the first loss that didn’t come down to the final possession of regulation since December 5. The Panthers had been, arguably, the most consistently competitive team in the league in conference play. It is hard to look past the Loyola drubbing, but if you do, you see a handful of good performances since the last power ranking a couple weeks ago. After they escaped with an ugly win at Evansville, UNI got an OT road win at Drake and provided Bradley with its only loss in the span of nearly a month (and did it quite comfortably too). Their season will ultimately be defined by how they handle their dud in Gentile. They have to turn around and play at Illinois State tonight, just two days later. Also, two of their last three games are with teams either in first place (Loyola) or tied with them for second (Missouri State). It is still all out in front of them, but they must go back to playing how they did against Drake and Bradley. The Panthers have arguably the toughest remaining schedule of any top five team. All the remaining games are both winnable and losable, with road games against bottom halfers (ISU and ISU) and home games against the league’s top two teams (Loyola and Missouri State). Can the Panthers shake it off and regroup? We’ll find out soon. UNI is at Illinois State and at home against Missouri State this week.
3.) Bradley Braves (9-5 MVC, 15-11 Overall, NET: 91): You may not have heard about it because nobody around the league is talking about it, but Bradley is on a bit of a roll. That was sarcasm just in case you couldn’t tell. The Braves have been the talk of the league. Winners of seven out of their last eight games after a 2-4 start, the Braves have gotten wins against the likes of Drake(twice) and Loyola during their hot stretch. In fact, their only loss has come at second-place UNI on a day where they just seemed to have a dud of a performance. That game could be enough to put BU behind UNI on this list, but I think overall Bradley is playing a touch better. They beat both the Bulldogs and Ramblers with relative ease and haven’t been seriously challenged in any of their seven wins in the last month. The emergence of Rienk Mast is a big reason for Bradley’s success. An argument could be made that Mast has become the Valley’s best big. He has put up four double-doubles in MVC play and is regularly scoring between 15 and 20 points per game with rebound totals in the 7-15 range. Pair Mast with dynamic guard Terry Roberts, and Bradley really has something cooking. The Braves have a couple of tricky contests on their remaining schedule including trips to Carbondale and Springfield. Their goal will be to get into the top 3 of the league. BU heads to SIU and hosts archrival Illinois State this week.
2.) Missouri State Bears (10-4 MVC, 19-8 Overall, NET: 62): Missouri State has been one of the most consistently solid teams in the Valley this year, yet they continue to be a bit overlooked. It seems like every time they lose a single game, they get immediately dismissed by MVC fans. This is a squad that is 4-2 against the league’s top five teams and has won at Bradley, at Drake and at Loyola. This is a squad that has two of the league’s best and most dynamic players. This is a squad with easily the second-best computer rankings in the league behind only Loyola. Why don’t more people look at Missouri State as a true contender? It may have something to do with their recent history of underperforming. Everyone just sort of expects them to fold at some point. And every time they lose a game, it feels like, “OK, that is it”. Yeah, they lost a couple of bummers at home, and yes, the loss at Indiana State isn’t good. But they are 3-0 against the league’s top teams on the road. They don’t give up, and they don’t get flapped. Six of their last seven wins have been by double-digits. They just keep playing, and for the most part, winning. Obviously, Mosley and Prim are great, and the supporting cast is deeper than recent memory as well. MSU is just a half game behind Loyola with four to go. They have tricky remaining games at UNI and at home against Bradley. Their other two games are vs. ISU Blue and at Evansville. I think it is time we give in and fully consider Missouri State an MVC contender. They’ll host Indiana State and visit UNI this week.
1.) Loyola Ramblers (10-3 MVC, 19-5 Overall, NET: 28): The Missouri Valley Conference has a tradition of letting teams win the league title on their way out the door. Creighton won both the regular season and league titles in 2013 before bouncing to the Big East. Wichita State won the MVC’s regular season (shared with Illinois State) and tournament titles in 2017 before making the not-at-all-ill-advised-in-retrospect decision to move to the American. Even back in the 90s, Tulsa won Arch Madness in their final year in the league (after winning the regular season championship and losing at Arch Madness the previous two years). So, three consecutive schools have won league titles in their last season, and the last two won both regular season and tournament titles. Loyola looks to be on their way to making it 4/4. The Ramblers did not have a perfect go since we last did rankings. They lost twice in their five games, first at Drake, and then at Bradley. But after briefly falling into second place behind UNI, they orchestrated an absolute thrashing of the Panthers by the score of 85-58 on Sunday. That combined with their win at Missouri State a week earlier has them back atop the standings. Loyola is now a loss ahead of the rest of the field and guaranteed an outright league title with a 5-0 finish. A 4-1 finish would guarantee at least a share of the title. Loyola has a home game with Drake, tricky roadies at Valpo and Illinois State, a home game with UE and a trip to UNI to finish the year. If the chips fall a certain way, that last game could be massive. The Ramblers are also in the mix for an at-large bid should they need it. Bracketology currently has them as a nine-seed, which is in even safer territory than Murray State. They’d be a bubble team but feeling good if they were trying to get an at-large bid right now. Loyola visits Valpo and hosts Drake this week.
And that is all for this week. Just two weeks of the season remain. There are several makeup games scheduled in the next ten days, so there will be lots of MVC basketball to get you prepped for Arch Madness. I’ll look to sneak in another power rankings after next weekend’s games, as we hit the final home stretch of the season. We are just 16 days from Arch Madness. GO VALLEY!