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State of the Valley - One Game Left

With one game to go, it is time for the fourth of my five “State of the Valley” articles.  This is the part where I typically talk about how awesome the Valley is this year.  Since I have already done that several times (spoiler: the Valley is very good this year), I’d like to briefly talk about the race for the Larry Bird Trophy instead.  There are a few candidates to win it, although one guy is a pretty heavy favorite.  But before I talk about the true candidates, here are a few other dudes worth mentioning.


(Full disclosure, I wrote this part before the games on Wednesday, so the stats are a little old.  I could have gone back and changed them but…..I didn’t). 


·         Alston Mason- Missouri State (18 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 3.6 APG): The conference’s third leading scorer has been great for the Bears.  But his team isn’t good enough.

·         Malik Dia- Belmont (17.1 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.3 APG): The Vandy transfer has been a revelation for Belmont and may well be a future Larry Bird winner.

·         Isaiah Swope- Indiana State (16.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 2.1 APG): We knew the Southern Indiana transfer would be a good player, but I don’t think most thought he would make this big of an impact this quickly.  He is my top pick of this list.

·         Cade Tyson- Belmont (16.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.7 APG): One of three stud Belmont sophomores.

·         Jayson Kent- Indiana State (13.1 PPG, 8.2 RPG): The Bradley transfer has made huge strides this season and leads the league in rebounding. 

·         Darnell Brodie- Drake (11.7 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2 APG): The big man has always been good, but has elevated his game to another level this season.

·         Others: Myles Foster (Illinois State), Duke Deen (Bradley), Isaiah Stafford (Valpo), Ryan Conwell (Indiana State), Isaiah Rivera (UIC), Connor Hickman (Bradley), Malevy Leons (Bradley), Nate Heise (UNI), Ben Humrichous (Evansville), JaCobi Wood (Murray State)


That brings me to the three final candidates for the Larry Bird.  I think most of us know who we think will win, but I think all three of these guys deserve a look.

·         Xavier Johnson- Southern Illinois (22.4 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 6.2 APG):  Based purely on statistics, Xavier Johnson has probably been the best player in the league.  He leads the league (and is 4th in the nation) in points per game and assists per game (where is he 16th in the nation).  He is also 4th in the Valley in steals.  He has been incredibly important to his team, which was picked near the bottom of the league but is on the cusp of getting a bye to Arch Madness.  No one else on SIU averages double figures.  Unfortunately, this award rarely goes to someone on a team that is not at least in the title hunt.  And his stats aren’t dominant enough to likely surpass the contributions made by these two other guys who played for the league’s two best teams.

·         Robbie Avila- Indiana State (16.7 PPG, 7 PRG, 3.8 APG):  This award has, historically, gone to the “best player on the best team”.  So if that is your metric, I present to Robbie Avila of Indiana State.  Some might say Isiah Swope is the correct answer here, but looking at the stats it is hard to argue against Avila who is 6th in the league in scoring, 5th in rebounding and 8th in assists.  The big man can do it all, and he is only a sophomore.  If the Trees can keep him in Terre Haute, he is bound to win this award at some point in his career.

·         Tucker DeVries- Drake (21 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 3.5 APG):  At the end of the day, though, Tucker Devries is the odds-on favorite to win this award.  The trophy was always his to lose.  He won it last year and was named preseason player of the year this year this year.  He is second in the league in scoring, 9th in rebounding, 12th in assists and 5th in steals.  He is the unquestioned leader of one of the best teams in the league.  And he has built a pedigree over the course of this career that cannot be matched by anyone else in the MVC.  He also turned it on late, scoring 22 or more points in seven of his last nine games (and no less than 17 in the other two).  If I were a gambling man, I would bet the house on DeVries taking home this award for the second time in a row.


With that out of the way, let’s move on to the meat of the article.  As I said before, life has not allowed me to regularly update this blog this year.  But I have written “SOTV” articles for my friends at the 50%, 75%, 90%, 95% and 100% marks of the season for years and I will continue to do that now.  And if I am doing it anyway, why not share it with everyone? 


So here is where we stand in the MVC with just one game to go before Arch Madness.  The rankings are not power rankings, but rather where each team would be seeded at Arch Madness if it started today.  When I refer to a team’s “Hackman Projected Seed”, I am referring to their average projected Arch Madness seed based on the most recent Matt Hackman simulations/projections.  The computed average is listed first, followed by where that ranks them in the league out of twelve next. 


As usual, I will start at the bottom and work my way up.  Go Valley!


12.) Valparaiso Beacons (2-17, 6-24, NET: 303, Hackman Projected Seed: 12.00-12th): Valpo played at UNI without Cooper Schweiger on Tuesday and took it on the chin.  The game ended up being a 14-point loss for the Beacons which was less competitive than the score indicated.  UNI had a 25-point lead with less than four minutes to go before Valpo finished on a 13-2 run.  That is kind of funny because the spread was 14.5.  Apologies to all the degenerates who bet on the Panthers.  The loss means the Beacons will finish in the cellar by themselves no matter what happens against Illinois State at home on Sunday.  I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again.  Roger Powell gets a mulligan for this season.  Do not judge him until at least year two.  Valpo is playing with house money in St. Louis.  The Beacons will be the 12-seed and will open the tournament at 2:30pm on Thursday against Belmont, SIU or UNI.  It is a cliché, but that game will be their Super Bowl. If they can win a game in St. Louis, that’ll be a great source of momentum going into next year.      


11.) Illinois-Chicago Flames (4-15, 11-19, NET: 179, Hackman Projected Seed: 11.00-11th):  The Flames and Drake played what may have been the game of the season in the MVC on Wednesday night.  Drake prevailed in three overtimes, but UIC showed that if they are on their game, they are capable of making a little noise in St. Louis next weekend.  The Flames probably should have won it in the first OT, as they had a three-point lead in the ball with under a minute to play.  But Drake rallied and ultimately prevailed.  UIC has now taken Drake, Indiana State and Southern Illinois to the wire on their home floor, and they knocked off UNI.  Had they won on Wednesday, it would have made things a bit more interesting with seeding scenarios across the league.  As it stands, though, UIC is locked into the 11-seed and will open the tournament at 8:30pm on Thursday night against SIU, UNI or Belmont.  Whoever their opponent is better take the Flames seriously or they will be a one-and-done.  The results haven’t necessarily been there, but a close look at what this group has done shows a potentially dangerous team on a given night.  UIC finishes the year at Missouri State on Sunday in a game that will have no bearing on Arch Madness seeding whatsoever.        


10.) Evansville Purple Aces (6-13, 15-15, NET: 198, Hackman Projected Seed: 10.00-10th): I have been saying a lot of nice things about the Aces lately, but their play hasn’t really been backing me up.  Beating Indiana State was always going to be a tough ask.  But other than a run in the middle of the first half, UE got blown out of their own building against the Trees.  The good news for Evansville is that, despite this result, they were able to lock in the 10-seed with UIC’s loss to Drake.  That means that this Saturday’s game at Belmont won’t matter for the Aces, and they’ll open the tournament at 6pm on Thursday.  Their opponent will be either Illinois State or Murray State.  Their seed may be locked in, but I still think this weekend’s game is important for UE.  They want to put a stop to a six-game losing streak before the tournament, and a win would also give them at winning regular season.  Plenty of reason to give it everything they have in Nashville.      


9.) Missouri State Bears (7-12, 15-15, NET: 155, Hackman Projected Seed: 9.00-9th): Missouri State lost what would have been the game of the day on most days when there wasn’t a 3OT thriller elsewhere.  Trailing by ten with five minutes to go, the Bears went on a furious rally in an attempt to steal a W at Illinois State.  They went on a 13-2 run to take the lead with under a minute to go.  The lead changed hands three more times even after that, and MSU ended up on the losing end of Johnny Kinziger’s last-second jumper to give ISU the win.  In the end, it didn’t matter a whole lot, and it makes this Sunday’s final game against UIC meaningless for seeding purposes.  The Bears are locked into the 9-seed and will play in the tournament opener at noon on Thursday against either Murray State or Illinois State.  While seeding may not be on the line, there is still something to play for on Sunday for the Bears.  Mo State is on a 3-game losing streak and has lost six of seven with their only win coming at home to Valpo.  They’d like to reverse that momentum.  They’re also playing for a winning record (at least in the regular season).  Beyond that, you want to win on senior day of course.  When it comes to Arch Madness, Mo State is capable of giving the 1-seed a run in round two.  But they’re just as likely (if not more likely) to get blown out in the 8-9 game. 


8.) Murray State Racers (9-10, 12-18. NET: 156, Hackman Projected Seed: 7.94-8th): Wednesday was a bad for Murray State.  First, they got blown out at home by one of their biggest rivals, Belmont.  It was their third loss in four tries, and eighth out of twelve.  Then Illinois State won at the buzzer, meaning Murray is looking like they are headed for the Thursday afternoon opener at Arch Madness.  Which is a bummer because I’d like to see their fanbase have a chance to get settled in at the Enterprise Center.  Their fate as the 8-seed isn’t set in stone, but it is pretty close.  The Racers would have to go on the road and knock off Indiana State, AND, Illinois State would have to lose to Valpo.  For those of you keeping track at home, that means the best team has to lose (at home) and the worst team has to win.  If we were just doing coin tosses, Murray would have a 25% chance at the 7-seed.  But Hackman’s model gives MSU just a 6% chance of getting both outcomes they need.  It is, indeed, a longshot.  The most important thing for MSU is just to make sure they’re as prepared as possible for their Arch Madness opener.    


7.) Illinois State Redbirds (9-10, 15-15, NET: 172, Hackman Projected Seed: 7.06-7th): You want to talk about a team in the bottom half of the standings that no one wants to play?  How about the Illinois State Redbirds.  ISU is peaking at the right time.  After their win over Missouri State, they’ve won four out of five including Ws at Indiana State and at home against UNI.  Wednesday’s win was particularly exciting.  The ‘Birds had a ten-point lead with five minutes to go, then blew it by allowing a 13-2 run to the visiting Bears giving them a one-point lead. In the end it was a freshman who made the game winning play on senior night.  Johnny Kinziger hit a short pull-up jumper in the final second to give ISU a one-point victory.  Illinois State will go to Valpo on Sunday with a chance to finish strong.  A win would guarantee them the 7-seed and see them enter Arch Madness having won five out of six.  A loss would not necessarily see them fall out of the 7-seed, as Murray State would have to win at Indiana State as well.  Hackman says they’re a good bet to finish 7th (94%) as either scenario (ISU losing or Murray winning) is not likely.  Watch out for those Redbirds in St. Louis!    


6.) Southern Illinois Salukis (11-8, 19-11, NET: 107, Hackman Projected Seed: 4.64-4th): The Salukis’ winning streak came to a halt in an 86-67 loss to the Braves in Peoria.  That took the 3-seed off the table for SIU, but everything is still right in front of them when it comes to the bye.  The Salukis will host UNI on Sunday, and the winner will most likely get the last bye at Arch Madness.  I say “likely” because there is a chance Belmont could leapfrog the winner and claim the spot.  But that really only applies to UNI, because SIU is 14 spots clear of Belmont.  That is too much for the NET Gods to work their magic and create enough funky math to make up the difference in a scenario where both teams win, especially because SIU is playing a tougher team (on paper).  So Bryan Mullins can rest safely knowing that funky math is unlikely to cost them the 4-seed and if they beat UNI they’ll be skipping Thursday at Arch Madness.  Hackman gives SIU the best shot at the 4 at 64%, probably because the Salukis are playing at home.  Their second most likely seed is actually 6th, which is the seed the loser of the UNI-SIU game is likely to get if Belmont beats Evansville.  Hackman gives them a 28% chance of landing there.  They’ll only get 5th if they should lose, and Belmont were to lose also (and no funky math occurs).  As complicated as all that is, it is ultimately quite simple for SIU.  No one has ever won four games to win Arch Madness.  The path is much clearer if you’re not playing on Thursday.  SIU can make that happen if they win on Sunday.


5.) Belmont Bruins (11-8, 18-12, NET: 121, Hackman Projected Seed: 5.22-6th):  The tiebreaker math may not pan out for Belmont, but the Bruins have become a real threat.  They won their sixth game in seven outings on Wednesday, this time a dominant road win over rival Murray State.  The last several weeks have been good to the guys from Nashville, who have seen five double-digit wins in six games.  It is probably no coincidence that the return of Ja’Kobi Gillespie from a one-month absence occurred just before the start of this great run.  The sophomore averages 17.5 PPG, and the Bruins are a different team with him in the lineup.  They were 3-5 without him and are 15-7 with him this season.  Belmont is currently in a 3-way tie for 4th, but are currently looking unlikely to nab the 4-seed because of tiebreakers.  The two teams they are tied with (SIU and UNI) are playing each other, and as it stands Belmont would lose a tiebreaker to either of them.  Since they split with both teams, a tie will come down to NET.  Right now, SIU is 107, UNI is 119 and Belmont is 121.  In order to grab the 4-seed, Belmont needs to win at home against UE, and leapfrog the winner of the SIU-UNI game in NET.  As they are currently sitting just two spots behind the Panthers, so a UNI victory seems more likely to yield this result.  However, it will take some funky math to make it happen, as UNI is playing a tougher opponent on the road.  Hackman gives Belmont a 1% chance at the 4 due to this funky math.  Their most likely landing spot is 5th (they have a 75% chance according to Hackman).  That will happen if they beat UE and do not get the NET shenanigans they need to win the tiebreak over the winner of the UNI-SIU game (or if they lose to UE and DO get some funky math to win the tiebreak over the loser of the UNI-SIU game).  They can also finish 6th (Hackman gives them a 24% chance) if they lose and don’t get funky math assistance.  To simplify a complicated situation, if Belmont beats Evansville, they are most likely to finish 5th.  If they lose, they are most likely to finish 6th.  But if the Gods of NET smile down upon them they could get 4th with a win and 5th with a loss.      


4.) Northern Iowa Panthers (11-8, 17-13, NET: 119, Hackman Projected Seed: 5.13-5th): I have been very hard on UNI, but that is only because I love them and I want what is best for them.  And I have to say, as disappointing as this season has been, UNI is playing pretty well right now.  They’ve won four out of five, and while a dud at Illinois State was frustrating, they also claimed double-digit wins over both Bradley and Drake in the stretch.  Their run has put them in position where they have a shot at a bye.  Which isn’t where they wanted to be at this point in the season when it started, but based on how it has gone I think they are happy to be there.  UNI will have to go on the road and beat SIU to snag that bye.  That is not an easy task.  And even if they accomplish it, a bye isn’t guaranteed.  The Panthers could beat SIU, see Belmont beat Evansville, and get leapfrogged by the Bruins in NET to fall to the 5-seed.  That is an unlikely scenario, though, as UNI is playing a tougher opponent.  Both teams winning should, in theory, widen the gap between them not shrink it.  But the squads are close enough (UNI 119, Belmont 121) that funky NET math could potentially be at play here.  However, the Panthers can’t control that.  What they can control is their performance on Sunday.  Hackman gives them a 35% chance to pull it off.  Should they lose to SIU, they will most likely end up the 6-seed (which is actually their most likely landing spot at 49%) but could also end up the 5-seed (16%) if Belmont also loses at home to Evansville.        


3.) Bradley Braves (13-6, 21-9, NET: 57, Hackman Projected Seed: 3.00-3rd): In my last write-up I stated that the Braves weren’t playing particularly strong lately.  Well, they shut me right the hell up with an 86-67 drubbing of Southern Illinois on Wednesday.  Bradley forced 14 turnovers and only committed six themselves against the Salukis stout defense.  They got double figure scoring efforts from Leons, Hannah, Deen and Hickman.  If this is the Bradley team that intends to show up at Arch Madness, they can absolutely win the thing.  The win leaves them two games clear of the 4-way tie for 4th, and two games shy of second place Drake.  With just one game to go, it doesn’t take a mathematician to deduce that Bradley will be the 3-seed at Arch Madness.  That means they’ll be the last team to take the floor when they make their debut at 8:30pm on Friday.  So seeding isn’t up for grabs but there is still something to play for when they visit Drake on Saturday.  With a NET of 57, Bradley has put themselves right into the thick of the NIT discussion.  With no automatic bids this year (sorry that is incorrect… automatic bids for non power fives this year), they could pert near lock up an NIT bid with a win at Drake.  And the Bulldogs may be a bit winded after their 3OT affair with UIC on Wednesday.  The NIT still sucks though.    


2.) Drake Bulldogs (15-4, 24-6, NET: 51, Hackman Projected Seed: 2.00-2nd): I wouldn’t say it is time to ring the alarm at Drake…..I mean the did get the win on Wednesday after all……but they’ve had a couple suspect performances leading into this Sunday’s matchup with Bradley.  Last weekend they lost at UNI, and on Wednesday they took three OTs (and a couple big rallies) to topple UIC in Chicago.  Is it a sign of a coming Bulldog apocalypse?  No, probably not.  But certain overly anxious fans might be concerned about their form heading into Arch Madness.  I still think they’ll be the betting favorite.  A good performance at home against Bradley on Saturday may quell some fears a bit.  The game is unlikely to impact MVC seeding, as it is doubtful a Drake win and an Indiana State loss would close the 23-spot gap in NET that would be required to flip the seeds.  But a share of the MVC title is still potentially up for grabs for Drake.  They’d have to win, and Indiana State would have to lose at home to Murray State.  The latter seems unlikely, but the Bulldogs have to control what they can control.  The game also has potential NIT implications with Drake and Bradley so close to each other in the NET rankings.  But as I’ve said before, that tournament sucks so why do we care?  Bottom line: It should a doozy in Des Moines (and a possible AM semifinal preview) regardless of the postseason implications.       


1.) Indiana State Sycamores (16-3, 25-5, NET: 28, Hackman Projected Seed: 1.00-1st): Don’t look now, but after their 18-point victory at Evansville last week, the Sycamores have snuck back into the NET top 30.  Can you leave a team out that has that solid of a NET ranking?  Well, yes, if that team is a mid-major, but it would still be unprecedented as far as I can tell.  Last year, the best NET rating to be left out on selection Sunday was North Texas at 38.  No surprise it was a mid-major, and no surprise that they went on to win the NIT.  In 2022, Oklahoma was left out at #39.  In 2021, Penn State got left out at 42 (Drake got in at 45 FWIW).  In 2019 it was NC State at #33.  So, if ISU was left out at #28, it would be historic.  But there are a couple things to keep in mind here.  One, the best rated team to be left out in the RPI era was an MVC team (congrats 2006 Missouri State).  Two, in order for any of this to matter, Indiana State has to take another loss.  So, presumably, their numbers would go down.  All they can do is keep winning and hope for the best.  And that starts this weekend at home against Murray State.  They’ve already effectively clinched the 1-seed at Arch Madness, so a win would serve to clinch the outright MVC title and strengthen their NCAA hopes.    


And that is it for this edition of “State of the Valley”.  See you next week for my fifth and final write up.  Thank you to everyone who is reading these and thank you to Matt Hackman for his very helpful model.  Per tradition, I’ll leave you with a rundown of what Arch Madness would look like if it started right now. 


If Arch Madness Started Today….


Thursday, March 7, 2024

-Game 1: #8 Murray State (9-10, 12-18) vs. #9 Missouri State (7-12, 15-15) – Noon (MVC TV)

-Game 2: #5 Belmont (11-8, 18-12) vs. #12 Valparaiso (2-17, 6-24) – 2:30pm (MVC TV)

-Game 3: #7 Illinois State (9-10, 15-15) vs. #10 Evansville (6-13, 15-15) – 6pm (MVC TV)

-Game 4: #6 Southern Illinois (11-8, 19-11) vs. #11 Illinois-Chicago (4-15, 11-19)- 8:30pm (MVC TV)


Friday, March 8, 2024

-Game 5: #1 Indiana State (16-3, 25-5) vs. Game 1 Winner – Noon (MVC TV)

-Game 6: #4 Northern Iowa (11-8, 17-13) vs. Game 2 Winner – 2:30pm (MVC TV)

-Game 7: #2 Drake (15-4, 24-6) vs. Game 3 Winner – 6pm (MVC TV)

-Game 8: #3 Bradley (13-6, 21-9) 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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