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State of The Valley: Arch Madness Preview

The field is set, and it is finally time for the best weekend of the year.  Arch Madness is here! 

 

Since the season is now 100% complete except for the madness this will be less “where are we at” and more, “here is how we finished”, plus “Arch Madness preview”.  As usual, I will start at the bottom and work my way up.  Go Valley!

 

12.) Valparaiso Beacons (3-17, 7-24, NET: 298): If nothing else, Valpo is not going to finish the season on a long losing streak.  The Beacons put an 11-game streak to bed and completed the season sweep of Illinois State with a 75-72 home win on Sunday.  It will be a solid, confidence-boosting memory that this squad can build on going into next season.  The one thing you can say about Valpo is that while they may have been overmatched, they played hard all year.  And they put a scare into several teams.  The Beacons will open (and probably close) Arch Madness at 2:30pm on Thursday against Belmont.  The Bruins aren’t a good matchup for Valpo.  You could probably say the same about every team in the Valley (except Illinois State apparently), but Belmont seems like a particularly tough draw.  With a team like SIU or UNI, you could hope that maybe you could slow them down and bring them to your level.  Turn the game into a rock fight.  Belmont simply has too many weapons and has been on a roll since the return of Ja’Kobi Gillespie.  They’ve won seven of eight, and six of those by at least 14 points.  I hope the Beacons can keep it entertaining for as long as possible, but this one is looking like a blowout may be in the making.      

 

11.) Illinois-Chicago Flames (4-16, 11-20, NET: 182):  Unlike Valpo, the Flames are at risk of ending the season on a losing streak as they lost at Missouri State for their their third consecutive loss on Sunday.  The game was close until the Bears pulled away in the final five minutes.  In the end, it wasn’t terribly important for UIC who was already locked into the 11-seed and was probably still recovering from the 3OT thriller with Drake last Wednesday.   I still think the Flames are a potentially dangerous team, good for at least one scare at Arch Madness.  Their tourney opener will be at 8:30pm on Thursday when they play Southern Illinois.  The Salukis beat UIC twice during the season, but the games were close both times.  SIU certainly has the edge here, but if UIC can contain Xavier Johnson they’ll have a puncher’s chance to keep it exciting.  This is certainly not a game SIU can take lightly.  With their style of play they don’t typically blow out teams, and the Flames have been competitive in many games against good teams lately.  Can they finally get over the hump and get that big W?          

 

10.) Evansville Purple Aces (6-14, 15-16, NET: 205): Evansville is not coming in hot.  A 17-point loss at Belmont sees the Aces losers of seven straight after winning four straight.  After looking competitive in the first part of that losing streak, they’ve lost by double-digits in each of their last three games.  Evansville’s first round Arch Madness opponent will be Illinois State in a game that will tip-off at 6pm on Thursday.  That is manageable opponent for the Aces, but the teams have gone in different directions since the calendar turned to February, and UE is not on the good side of that equation.  To win this one, UE is going to have to play better defense and get Ben Humrichous (who missed their game against Belmont) going.  A win for either of these rebuilding programs would be a great steppingstone into next season.

 

9.) Missouri State Bears (8-12, 16-15, NET: 157): Missouri State finished on a high with a 69-59 senior day win over UIC.  However, overall, they’re still struggling.  Losers of six of their last eight, the only two Mo State wins in that time were home wins over the bottom two teams in the league.  That stretch followed a four-game win streak that saw them beat the likes of Drake, Belmont and SIU (the latter on the road).  As the 9-seed, Missouri State will play the Arch Madness opener at noon on Thursday against Murray State.  I still think, at their best, the Bears are the better team here.  At their best, they beat Drake and Saint Mary’s.  But they haven’t been at their best since January.  I also think of the two MSUs, the Bears are more likely to give Indiana State a run in the second round, but they’d have to play well.  And they just haven’t been able to do that consistently.  I have no idea what to expect from Mo State at this tournament.  But best of luck to them!

 

8.) Murray State Racers (9-11, 12-19. NET: 159): The Racers gave Indiana State a bit of a battle, but the Trees were never going to lose their coronation, and so MSU ended the season with a loss.  Murray sort of petered to end the regular season, losing four out of five contests.  To be fair to the Racers, those four losses came to Drake, SIU, Belmont and Indiana State (all but Belmont was on the road), so it isn’t as bad as it seems at first glance.  Murray has mostly lived where they were supposed to all season.  They finished 7-0 against teams that finished below them in the standings and 2-11 against teams that finished above them.  They’ll play in the tournament opener at noon on Thursday against Missouri State.  And the good news is they technically finished ahead of MSU in the standings!  So, if the trend holds, the Racers are going to win a game at Arch Madness.  For what it is worth, Murray won both meetings during the regular season by double-digits.     

 

7.) Illinois State Redbirds (9-11, 15-16, NET: 176): I had a real narrative going about the resurgence of Illinois State and how they were playing great and were going to be a force to be reckoned with in St. Louis.  Then they lost to Valpo.  Again.  The Beacons are now 2-0 against Illinois State and 1-17 against everybody else.  But you know what?  I am going to go ahead and keep with the narrative and assume that was more of a product of looking ahead to Arch Madness than Illinois State taking a step back.  The bummer is that it cost ISU a chance to finish above .500, but at least they did not fall any in the seeding as Murray State also lost preserving their status as the 7-seed.  Thankfully, they lucked out in that they cannot face Valpo until the title game at Arch Madness.  So, they shouldn’t have to worry about that unstoppable juggleknob.  Instead, they’ll face Evansville at 6pm on Thursday, and they’ve got a great shot to win that game. The Aces come in having lost seven straight, and the two squads split their games during the year.  If ISU can keep Ben Humrichous in check and establish themselves inside, they should move on to face Drake on Friday.  Even one win would be a good moment from which to build for coach Pedon, who clearly has ISU pointed in the right direction.         

 

6.) Southern Illinois Salukis (11-9, 19-12, NET: 112): The Salukis have to be kicking themselves a little bit for letting an opportunity slip through their fingers last week.  Indeed, had they got 2-0, SIU would be looking at the 3-seed at Arch Madness right now.  Had they gone 1-1, they’d have a bye.  Instead, they lost at Bradley on Wednesday and at home to UNI on Sunday which saw them fall to the 6-seed in the tournament.  It was still a hell of a year for a squad that was not picked to do much this year after the losses of Marcus Domask and Lance Jones.  And there is still everything to accomplish for SIU.  The Salukis will play UIC at 8:30pm on Thursday at Arch Madness.  They’ll look to lock down the Flames defensively and get enough offense to move onto Friday where they would face Bradley.  It may be tempting for most to look ahead to the Bradley game which has the potential to be a doozy on Friday night.  But I know these Salukis are squarely focused on UIC.

 

5.) Belmont Bruins (12-8, 19-12, NET: 118):  Belmont needed a win over Evansville and some funky math to leapfrog into a bye at Arch Madness.  They got the win in a big way.  Unfortunately for them, they did not get the funky math.  The Bruins ended up tied with UNI for fourth, but finished nine spots behind the Panthers in the NET rankings and will end up playing on Thursday.  Ultimately, playing a month without Ja’Kobi Gillespie was probably what did Belmont in.  But Gillespie is back, and Belmont has been killing it for the last month.  They’ve won seven of eight, with a loss at Drake their only blemish.  Six of those seven wins have been by at least 14 points.  It seems likely that they’ll have little trouble with Valpo when they play them at 2:30pm on Thursday.  If that turns out to be the case, their 2:30pm Friday game with UNI will be must-see Friday afternoon TV for college basketball fans who are doing a poor job focusing at their jobs.  Belmont played in the same game last year against Indiana State and that game was a doozy.  I would expect the same for this season.  Buckle up Bruins fans!   

 

4.) Northern Iowa Panthers (12-8, 18-13, NET: 109): I have bestowed a lot of criticism on UNI this year for underachieving.  But I have to give them props for finding a way out of the Thursday fracas and getting a bye at Arch Madness.  They did it the hard way, but they did it.  And now they have as good a chance as you could hope for to be the champions when it is all said and done.  UNI went on the road to play SIU in a game that would likely give a bye to the winner.  The Panthers won by 12.  It was their fifth win in six games since losing at UIC, a stretch that includes wins against Bradley and Drake and now at SIU.  As is typically the case for a Jake coached team, UNI is playing their best ball when it matters most.  They’re starting to look like the team we anticipated seeing all year when they were picked second in the preseason.  UNI will open their Arch Madness run at 2:30pm on Friday, most likely against Belmont.  It should be a doozy as both squads are playing outstanding right now, and both can be considered dark horses to cut down the nets on Sunday.  If UNI can establish their two post players and Born and Heise can knock down some shots, they’ll be tough beat.

 

3.) Bradley Braves (13-7, 21-10, NET: 60): Bradley dug themselves a hole in the second half that they couldn’t dig themselves out of, and they lost to Drake to put an end to their winning streak as they head into Arch Madness.  The Braves showed fight, though, and made it a game late.  In the end, it didn’t impact their situation much.  They’re still the 3-seed at Arch Madness and will be the last team to take the floor in the tournament when they tip at 8:30pm Friday.  Three squads will have already played twice before Bradley plays once.  Their opponent will be either SIU or UIC.  BU knocked off Southern Illinois twice this year, including a blowout win at home last week.  They also beat UIC twice.  So, they must feel pretty good about their chances to make it to the semifinal where a rematch with Drake would likely await.  If we do get a Drake-Bradley semifinal, there is a good chance it could be the game of the tournament.  Both their regular season meetings were relatively easy Drake wins, but both squads have a lot of Arch Madness experience.  I don’t expect either to go down easy.  With a NET of 60, the Braves are also in contention for an NIT bid if they don’t win it all this weekend.  Which I, for one, am ecstatic about.    

 

2.) Drake Bulldogs (16-4, 25-6, NET: 48): Showing no signs of fatigue after their 3OT game on Wednesday, Drake built a big lead over Bradley and hung on for a 74-66 win.  The Bulldogs finish the season having won seven of eight games and while they fell short of the regular season title and will be the 2-seed at Arch Madness, I believe they will be neck-and-neck with ISU as betting favorites this weekend.  They have talent, experience, and one of the best coaches in the league (although all of the top teams can say that this year).  They also have probably the best player in the league in Tucker DeVries.  As the 2-seed, Drake will open Arch Madness at 6pm on Friday against either Illinois State or Evansville.  Drake blew out the Aces at home but played a barnburner at the Ford Center.  They also blew out Illinois State twice but haven’t played the Redbirds since mid-January.  Both potential matchups offer some intrigue, but Drake will be heavy favorites in to advance to the semifinals regardless.  That is where things will look to get exciting.  With a NET of 48, Drake is probably not a viable at-large candidate.  But they could certainly make some noise in the dance if they get in.  They are basically a lock for my beloved NIT.              

 

1.) Indiana State Sycamores (17-3, 26-5, NET: 29): Indiana State held off a tough effort by Murray State to claim the outright MVC regular season title.  Congratulations to the Sycamores.  It was their first regular season Valley title since 2000 and comes only two years removed from a ninth place (out of ten) finish in 2022.  Josh Schertz has proven he is an excellent coach, and he has built an excellent team.  I hope the Trees can keep him (and his players that retain eligibility) beyond this year.  But now is not yet the time to think about next year.  ISU will enter the tournament as favorites along with Drake, and a possible championship game between them and Drake would be great TV for the national CBS audience.  Their first game will be at noon on Friday against either Murray State or Missouri State.  Indiana State swept both teams this year, although their contest at Missouri State was a doozy.  The Bears seem to have more potential for an upset, but the Sycamores will be heavy favorites either way.  Now, should they fail to win three games in three days will they still get in?  My guess would be no.  ESPN and CBS bracketology both have them on the 11-line currently, which would be the same line as the “last four in”.  I can’t say for sure, but my guess is they are currently being projected as the top automatic bid behind all the at-large bids.  A NET of 29 would be the lowest to be left out the field since NET started being used as a tool.  However, this scenario would mean another loss for the Trees, and the Valley tends to hold dubious records like this anyway (looking at you 2006 Missouri State).  I hope I am wrong because I would love to see nothing more than a #TwoBidValley.  But it isn’t quite stacking up right now.      

 

And that is it for this edition of “State of the Valley”.  I’ll see you all at Arch Madness.  

 

2024 Arch Madness Schedule

 

Thursday, March 7, 2024

-Game 1: #8 Murray State (9-11, 12-19) vs. #9 Missouri State (8-12, 16-15) – Noon (MVC TV)

-Game 2: #5 Belmont (12-8, 19-12) vs. #12 Valparaiso (3-17, 7-24) – 2:30pm (MVC TV)

-Game 3: #7 Illinois State (9-11, 15-16) vs. #10 Evansville (6-14, 15-16) – 6pm (MVC TV)

-Game 4: #6 Southern Illinois (11-9, 19-12) vs. #11 Illinois-Chicago (4-16, 11-20)- 8:30pm (MVC TV)

 

Friday, March 8, 2024

-Game 5: #1 Indiana State (17-3, 26-5) vs. Game 1 Winner – Noon (MVC TV)

-Game 6: #4 Northern Iowa (12-8, 18-13) vs. Game 2 Winner – 2:30pm (MVC TV)

-Game 7: #2 Drake (16-4, 25-6) vs. Game 3 Winner – 6pm (MVC TV)

-Game 8: #3 Bradley (13-7, 21-10) vs. Game 4 Winner – 8:30pm (MVC TV)

 

Saturday, March 9, 2024

-Game 9: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner – 2:30pm (CBS Sports Network)

-Game 10: Game 7 Winner vs. Game 8 Winner – 5pm (CBS Sports Network)

 

Sunday, March 10, 2024

-Championship Game: Game 9 Winner vs. Game 10 Winner – 1pm (CBS)

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