After substantial delays I finally made it back home from St. Louis thanks to one very helpful Southwest employee (and no thanks to several very unhelpful Southwest employes…..one in particular……you know who you are). I had quite a weekend in St. Louis, much of which you can recap via my Twitter handle. Now that I am back home and have had awhile to digest my experience, I have a few post tournament thoughts. I will dispense them below.
It isn’t much of a secret that I was not rooting for Loyola to win Arch Madness. I wanted to see a team that will be in the Valley next year repping the league in the NCAAs. But there is no doubt the Ramblers deserved the title. They were by far the best team in St. Louis last weekend. Loyola completely shut down Bradley and UNI defensively. While Drake had more success than their predecessors, they were held to multiple long droughts that were the difference in the outcome. When they’re playing well offensively, Loyola is a special team. An offensively clicking Rambler squad can beat literally anybody. But that is relatively rare. Even when their offense isn’t producing at a high level, they grind you out defensively and still get Ws because they are very physical and just put the screws on you. The 2010 UNI team was the best defensive team I have ever seen, but they did it by not ceding an inch and making you take a tough shot every time down. Loyola does that to some degree, but more than any other team I’ve seen in a long time they just disruptive. The Ramblers get steals and knock the ball loose, knocking you out of your rhythm and creating transition opportunities. They are the most active defense I’ve seen in years. Their NCAA Tournament contest may be decided in large part by how the referees call the game. In nearly all their losses, Loyola got called for a lot of fouls. If it is called closely, that could be a problem for Loyola. We’ll see. Anyway, while I didn’t want to see the Ramblers holding the trophy there can be no doubt they earned it. Kudos to them, and kudos to Drake too. They also performed very well last weekend.
Loyola may be taking the Arch Madness trophy off into the sunset with them, but next year’s MVC lineup will still be represented at the big dance.
Murray State successfully navigated the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament semifinals and finals to secure an NCAA bid with a 30-2 overall record. The Racers are typically in the 7-9 seed range (currently a 9 in ESPN’s bracketology) in most bracket projections despite a NET ranking of 23. The tournament was not without a little drama for MSU as they were tied at half with Morehead State in the championship game and won by only four points total. In fact, the outcome hung in the balance until a Tevin Brown block with 15 second left gave Murray the ball up three. Murray has a veteran lineup that is mostly eligible to return. Should the Racers keep the band together, they should be among the favorites in the league next year. I’m excited to cheer them on in the NCAAs.
Belmont has a similar lineup of quality veterans, but their tournament run came up lacking. The Bruins lost to Morehead State for the second time this season, 53-51, in the OVC semifinals. I was hoping for a Belmont-Murray final, and perhaps Belmont could win it and send both teams to the dance. That fell short a day early when Morehead won a very ugly semifinal over Belmont. The Eagles controlled most of the contest until late a Belmont rally put them ahead for the first time late in the game. But Morehead, the defending OVC champions, wouldn’t go away and kept BU off the board for the final 2:51 of the game, ultimately winning it on a defensive stop at the buzzer. With a NET rating of 70, Belmont is an NIT bubble team at this point.
The UIC Flames gave it the old college try at second seeded Fort Wayne in Thursday’s Horizon League quarterfinals. On the road for the second time in three days facing a well-rested Mastodon team, the Flames trailed by 13 at halftime. But they rallied in the second half and made a game of it, at one point taking a 61-60 lead with just over five minutes to go. But Fort Wayne pulled away to advance to the semifinals by a score of 78-72. The next time the UIC’s men’s basketball team takes the floor, they’ll do it with MVC patches on their jerseys.
ESPN’s bracketology has Loyola as an 11-seed right now, which seems low for a squad that has a 25 NET rating and won the MVC Tournament in borderline dominant fashion. Right now, Lunardi has the Ramblers playing fellow mids Saint Mary’s. I really don’t think they’ll end up on the 11 line. I would guess a nine or a ten for these Ramblers. But the last time they were an 11-seed, they went to the Final Four so maybe it is a good omen.
Northern Iowa will have an automatic bid into the NIT and with a NET rating of 102, they’ll likely project as a 7-seed or a 6-seed depending on how many low-major one-seeds lose their league tournaments. Looking at the “next four out” category on bracketology, squads like Virginia, VCU, Florida and Texas A&M are the kind of teams UNI could play. The committee likes to regionalize whenever possible, so if a team from the Midwest pops up UNI could be headed there. The one I would like to avoid is Texas A&M and all the rehashing of UNI’s 2016 NCAA Tournament choke that would come with it. If it happens, please give us trigger warnings during the broadcast ESPN.
With a NET of 68, Missouri State projects as an NIT bubble team. It likely depends on how many automatic bids take up the final spots. I would expect to see the Bears around the 6-seed line if they did make it. I haven’t been able to find any info on whether they would accept an invite to a third-tier tournament if they failed to make the NIT. Saint Louis is a possible NIT opponent for MSU. With a NET of 83, Drake is a longshot to make the NIT, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. According to chatter on the Drake message board their AD indicated they would be looking at all postseason opportunities. So, I expect Drake has not played its last basketball of the season. Allow me to take this opportunity to again advocate for something that no one seems to be advocating for or care about. I think the NIT should adopt the WNIT model and go to 64 teams, with each conference getting an automatic bid every year. Drake is the perfect example of why I think this should happen. A team that finishes 24-10 overall, second in the MVC at 13-5, and loses a battle of a league title game should be playing in the postseason. Drake has earned some sort of postseason recognition. An expanded NIT would allow for all those mid-majors who put up good records but just don’t play in a good enough league to have a shot in a real postseason tournament. I think the women’s NIT does it right. Every league’s top team that didn’t make the dance makes it automatically and 33 at-larges make it. Keep these teams out of silly pay-for-play tournaments and get them into a real event.
Speaking of 3rd-tier tournaments, Bradley and SIU could also both play in one of those if they wanted to. I have no idea if they want to, though.
Hoops in the Heartland
Hoops in the Heartland, the women’s MVC Tournament, starts this weekend with play-in games on Thursday. Congrats to Southern Illinois (20-8, 15-3) who captured the MVC regular season title and the #1 seed in the tournament. The Missouri State Lady Bears will be playing the role that the Loyola men played at Arch Madness. They are the 2-seed at 23-6, 14-4, but are the favorites to win it and are currently a bubble team. The league’s best shot at two bids would be for MSU to lose in the title game. Northern Iowa comes in at #3 with a 20-9, 13-5 record and they will play #6 Valpo (11-18, 9-9) in the final Friday quarterfinal. The second game on Friday will feature #4 Illinois State (16-13, 12-6) and #5 Loyola (18-11, 10-8). The play-in games feature probably one of the best Hoops in the Heartland Thursday teams of all time in #7 Drake (17-12, 9-9) who will play #10 Bradley (4-23, 1-17) in the second game. The tournament will open with #8 Indiana State (10-19, 5-13) vs. #9 Evansville (8-21, 2-16). Missouri State has the league’s top NET ranking at 43, and UNI comes in 2nd at 56. Both are probably locks for the NIT if they fail to make the dance, but according to bracketology the Lady Bears have a good shot at an at-large. SIU (NET 74) would get an automatic WNIT bid as the league’s top team. Despite playing on Thursday, Drake (NET 85) is the league’s fourth best NET team and would also have a good shot at the WNIT. Conversely, despite avoiding Thursday Valpo is the league’s third-worst NET team at #225. Good luck to all the Valley ladies this weekend.
That is all for now. I am debating doing an article about how every MVC team has performed over time between now and selection Sunday. We’ll see. Either way, I’ll be back for a postseason preview on Monday after all the brackets have been announced. GO VALLEY!
PS- I have a message for CBS regarding coverage of Loyola in the NCAA Tournament. And, quite frankly, this goes for ESPN and all the other networks too. Look, we all love Sister Jean. We do. But……like…….c’mon. There are other interesting things about Loyola. Dig a little deeper and give us some new information. Please? Obviously, SJ is gonna get some screen time and some mentions. And rightly so. But also……can you just……..you know……..talk about other things sometimes?
OK that is really all. GO VALLEY!