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State of the Valley - One Week Left

We’ve got two rounds to go in the Valley season and the question on every MVC fan’s mind is, “How awesome is Arch Madness going to be this year?”  The answer that questions is, as always, very awesome.  The other question is, “Is the #TwoBidValley dead?”  The answer to that question is…..maybe?  Probably?  I think Drake is probably out of luck at this point but I am not giving up on Indiana State.  Although I probably should because I am probably setting myself up for disappointment. 

 

But I don’t want to talk about that right now because, frankly, I’ll be talking about it later.  And also because I am tired of talking about it.  Instead, I want to make a few points about just how good the Valley has been this year.  The Valley is 9th in NET, wedged between the Atlantic-10 and the American (and WELL ahead of our perennial rival in the West Coast Conference who is struggling with a down Gonzaga this year).  Two teams reside in the top 50.  Five teams reside in the top third of college basketball.  Ten of twelve teams are in the top half.  And only one, Valpo, sits outside the top 200.  You know how many conferences can say they have only one or fewer teams outside the NET top 200?  Seven….the power six and the MVC.  This is a darn good league.  As good as it has been in years.  Unfortunately, that might still only make us the best one-bid league in the nation (again). 

 

This is my third of five planned “State of the Valley” articles.  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 at the 90% mark, just nine days shy of 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. 

 

This week’s article will focus less on each squad’s overall performance this season and more on what they have done in the last week and half since the last SOTV, and what that means for their postseason basketball prospects.  As usual, I will start at the bottom and work my way up.  Go Valley!

 

12.) Valparaiso Beacons (2-16, 6-23, NET: 301, Hackman Projected Seed: 12.00-12th): Valpo has not won a game since I started writing my “State of the Valley” reports at the midpoint of the MVC season.  In fact, the Beacons have lost ten straight and 21out of 23 overall since a 4-2 start.  They entered the first NET rankings on December 1st ranked 291 and have only fallen ten spots despite going 2-20 in that span.  That speaks to the strength of the Valley to be sure, but also shows how little was thought of Valpo this year.  They were picked to finish last in the Valley in the preseason because head coach Roger Powell Jr. was hired too late in the recruiting period to realistically build a competitive roster.  The Beacons lack much experience, and their talent is unproven.  And after a feisty start, Valpo has become more-or-less what we expected them to be.  There simply isn’t enough there.  Since the last SOTV, Valpo went a hard fought 0-3 against a tough schedule.  They had Missouri State on the ropes in Springfield, leading by 8 points with 8 minutes to go.  But they only scored two points the rest of the way, allowing an 18-0 Bears run that only ended with a garbage layup at the buzzer.  Then they hung with league leading Indiana State for 30 minutes at home before the Trees pulled away in the final ten minutes.  Finally, they led much of the game at Murray State, holding the lead as late as 7:21in the second half before being outscored 19-6 from then on.  So, they’ve struggled to finish games.  It is the kind of thing you expect to see with a young team that is still learning how to win.  But they’ve proven that they cannot be overlooked.  Despite what their record says, Valpo is capable of pulling an upset.  The Beacons have effectively clinched the 12-seed at Arch Madness (Hackman has them as a 100% lock) due to the fact they are 2 games removed from 11th place UIC (and they are over 100 spots behind everyone else in the NET).  But they could still force UIC to join them in the cellar by snagging season ending wins at UNI and at home against Illinois State.  At the end of the day, this young team is playing with house money.  Coach Powell’s true judgement period doesn’t begin until next season.  And a team with nothing to lose can be very dangerous.      

 

11.) Illinois-Chicago Flames (4-14, 11-18, NET: 180, Hackman Projected Seed: 10.96-11th):  UIC is on the cusp of avoiding the Valley cellar for the second time in as many seasons since joining the league last year.  They have already effectively clinched avoiding the bottom seed in the Valley tournament, and as of this writing they are a top half NET team.  Yet somehow, I don’t think they are going to be throwing a parade on Michigan Avenue for the Flames.  While it was expected UIC would struggle early in its MVC tenure, you would like to see Luke Yaklich’s team make noticeable improvements from year one to year two.  It is tough to make the argument that has happened this year no matter how you dice it.  Last year, UIC finished 11th with four league wins and 12 overall.  This year they currently sit in 11th with four league wins and 11 overall.  Last year, they got off to a surprising 9-5 start before struggling to the finish with just 3 more wins.  This year, they were 7-4 before struggling with (to date) just four more wins.  The one thing you can say is that UIC’s NET ranking is over 100 spots better this year (179 vs 288) and until Christmas they were a top 100 NET team.  But overall, it has been a disappointing, stagnant year two in the Windy City.  UIC went 1-2 since the last SOTV.  A pair of non-competitive games vs Belmont and at Indiana State sandwiched a home win over Evansville.  The Flames are likely looking at the 11-seed (Hackman’s model gives them a 96% chance at landing there), but there are 256 scenarios out of 4,096 that see UIC snag the 11-seed.  Safe to say, seeing as they trail 10th place Evansville by two games, that they all involve the Flames picking up upset wins at home against Drake and at Missouri State to end the season (while UE simultaneously goes 0-2).  If you’re a UIC fan, you can feel pretty good about playing in that last game on Thursday in St. Louis.  I say get here early and take in all the games regardless of when your team is playing anyway!        

 

10.) Evansville Purple Aces (6-12, 15-14, NET: 199, Hackman Projected Seed: 10.03-10th): Evansville is not going to finish last this year.  The Aces are going to win at least six league games this year.  Neither of those things may seem like much, and in fact they are not.  But given their recent history, both of those facts are cause for celebration at the Ford Center.  Evansville has finished in last place four of the last five seasons, and with two or fewer wins three of the last five.  It is fair to say that the Purple Aces have shown the kind of improvement in David Ragland’s second year that we were hoping to see out of UIC.  UE fans are once again excited about the future.  And who knows, that future may be sooner than we think.  Evansville did lose all three games since the last SOTV, and they have lost five straight overall.  But I am still convinced this is not a team you want to play in the first round at Arch Madness.  The streak started with consecutive heartbreaking buzzer beating losses @ Murray and vs. Drake.  Then, since the last SOTV, they’ve lost hard fought games at Illinois State, at UIC and vs. SIU.  The Aces may well lose their last two vs. Indiana State and at Belmont and enter Arch Madness on a seven-game losing streak.  But I think they are a dangerous pick to win at least one at St. Louis.  Hackman sees them as near locks to finish in the 10-seed (94% chance according to his model).  If they go 0-2 and UIC goes 2-0 they could fall to 11th.  If they go 2-0 and Missouri State goes 0-2 they could jump to 9th.   Neither scenario is very likely.  You can go ahead and put them on the 10-line but make sure you use a pencil just in case.    

 

9.) Missouri State Bears (7-11, 15-14, NET: 152, Hackman Projected Seed: 8.72-9th): Death, taxes, and Missouri State basketball having a talented team that can’t seem to put it together.  Those are the three certainties in life.  And this year’s edition of MSU has not disappointed (or rather, they have and that is the problem).  The Bears have had some of the league’s best moments, including a win at Saint Mary’s and at home against Drake.  But they’ve also had several letdowns, one of which is currently ongoing.  After four straight wins (including the W over Drake, a win at SIU, and a win over Belmont) to get to 6-6 in the league, MSU has now lost five of six and seems destined for the opening 8-9 game of Arch Madness.  Since the last SOTV, the Bears pulled out a hard-fought win over Valpo at home before getting blown out at home to Bradley and at Belmont.  They find themselves yet again hovering around .500, after a 17-15 finish last year.  Coach Ford just cannot seem to get his Bears over the hump.  At their best, they could be a problem for an Indiana State or Drake in the Arch Madness quarterfinals.  At their worst, they could get blown out in the 8-9 game.  That seems to be very likely where they’ll end up, as Hackman’s model gives them a 29% chance at the 8-seed and a 70% chance at the 9 (for a 99% chance at the 8-9 game).  There are 256 scenarios out of 4,096 where the Bears fall to tenth.  All of them include Evansville sweeping Indiana State and Belmont this week, while the Bears lose their two games at Illinois State and at home to UIC.  That seems unlikely, so Bears fans should plan on being in St. Louis right away for the start of festivities.

 

8.) Illinois State Redbirds (8-10, 12-14, NET: 170, Hackman Projected Seed: 7.78-8th):  All of a sudden, the Redbirds are playing very good basketball.  ISU played spoiler in their final game before the last SOTV by beating the newly ranked Indiana State Sycamores, and it looked like they were just a bad team ruining everyone’s fun.  But now it seems like they were really a kind-of-ok team……ruining everyone’s fun.  From there, Illinois State handled Evansville and Northern Iowa at home before going down to the wire on the road in a loss at Bradley.  Ryan Pedon has his team doing what you like to see young teams with a new coach do.  They are playing their best basketball at the end of the season.  There is reason to believe the future is bright in Normal.  The Redbirds seem poised to be a tough out in St. Louis.  In fact, a possible Illinois State-Missouri State tournament opener has the potential to be very entertaining.  But Hackman’s model actually gives ISU a great chance to move up into the 7-seed.  That is because the Redbirds swept Murray State this year, so if they catch the Racers (who currently lead ISU by a game in the standings) they would win the tiebreaker.  Hackman gives ISU a 41% chance at the 7-seed, and 53% chance they’d land in the 8/9 game.  They also have a 5% chance of still finishing as high as sixth.  There are 160 scenarios out of 4,096 in which that happens.  And that would mean ISU would avoid the 7-10 or 8-9 game for first time since 2018.  They’ll need a strong finish to make it happen, and that is entirely possible with a manageable remaining schedule.  They host Missouri State midweek and head to Valpo on Sunday.    

 

7.) Murray State Racers (9-9, 12-17. NET: 146, Hackman Projected Seed: 7.40-7th): There isn’t much new to say about the Racers since the last SOTV.  Things went more-or-less as expected for Muarry over the last week and a half.   They lost at Drake and again at SIU, then they won at home against Valpo (although the had to rally to do it).  With their 9-9 league record, the Racers are about as middle-of-the-pack as it gets in the Valley.  Unlike most teams in this part of the standings, they have for the most part won the games you’d expect them to win and lost the games you’d expect them to lose.  While they currently sit in the 7-hole, they are in danger of falling into the 8-9 game.  That is because they have a tough schedule to finish the season (vs. Belmont, @ Indiana State) and because they got swept by the team directly behind them in the standings (Illinois State).  Hackman’s model gives Steve Prohm’s squad the slight edge over ISU for 7th, but they still have a strong chance at finishing 8th which would mean they would play in the tournament opener.  They currently have a 48% chance at 7th and a 46% chance at 8th.  They also have an outside shot at 6th (5%) and even 5th (1%).  Beating Belmont at home midweek will be key for avoiding any type of worst-case scenario.  It should be a good one at the CFSB Center. 

 

6.) Belmont Bruins (10-8, 17-12, NET: 131, Hackman Projected Seed: 5.75-6th):  In the last SOTV, Hackman’s model gave Belmont just a 13% chance at finishing in the top four.  Despite this, I declared them to be my pick to take the spot.  The Bruins went 2-1 since that time, and their chances of finishing in the top four according to Hackman changed to…..1%.  OK, so, the odds are stacked against them but I am holding onto that chance.  Belmont did not play poorly since the last SOTV, winning at UIC by 15, losing at Drake and winning at home against Missouri State by 15.  The Bruins have now won five games out of six overall and four of those wins have come by double-digits.  The problem is that tiebreaker math is not currently working in their favor.  Of the three teams vying for the last bye, Belmont has the worst NET at 131 (UNI’s is 119 and SIU’s is 102), and they split their regular season series with both the other teams.  The Bruins are also a game behind SIU to start the week.  So, in order for the Bruins to snag the 4-seed, they’ll either need to leapfrog the other squads in NET or pass them both outright.  To accomplish the latter, Casey Alexander’s team will need to win their final two games at Murray State and against Evansville, SIU will have to lose both their last two games at Bradley and against UNI, and UNI will have to lose their other remaining game to Valpo.  It isn’t an impossible scenario, but as any gambler can tell you the more games you stack on top of each other the harder the prospect of pulling it off becomes.  The one percent chance of seeing it happen represents 129 out of 4,096 possible scenarios.  Best of luck to Belmont in making it happen.  If they can’t do it, you can expect to see them in either the 5-spot (33%), 6-spot (57%) or 7-spot (9%).  Winning at Murray on Wednesday will be key to avoiding the bottom two scenarios. 

 

5.) Northern Iowa Panthers (10-8, 16-13, NET: 119, Hackman Projected Seed: 4.87-5th): UNI’s last five games feature losses to Illinois State and UIC and wins over Bradley and Drake.  That is pretty much the Panthers’ season in a nutshell. There are signs of a great team out there, but they just can’t seem to get it together consistently.  The same squad that blew out Stanford, nearly knocked off Texas Tech, and handled Richmond also has losses to three of the five worst teams in the Valley.  The same squad that went on the road to beat Murray State and Belmont…..got blown out at home by Murray State and Belmont.   Since we last spoke, UNI beat Bradley by double-digits at home, lost at Illinois State, and knocked off Drake by 14 at home.  The Drake game, in particular, was probably UNI’s best performance of the year (in front of probably the best crowd at McLeod since 2022).  If Coach Jake’s squad plays like that all weekend at Arch Madness, they could win the whole thing.  Unless some crazy NET leapfrogging happens, UNI controls its own destiny for the bye.  If they beat Valpo at home on Tuesday, then their final game at Southern Illinois on Sunday will likely be for a bye.  In fact, if UNI goes 2-0 and SIU and Drake both beat Bradley this week, UNI could move all the way to #3.  But winning in Carbondale is a big ask, and that is why Hackman’s model gives SIU the edge.  The Panthers have a 4% chance at the 3-seed, and a 30% chance at the 4-seed.  Should UNI fail to go 2-0 this week, the 5 (42%) or 6 (23%) seed is their most likely destination.  Although there are scenarios where they finish 7th (1%) or 8th (less than 1%).  First thing is first for UNI.  If they can beat Valpo on Tuesday, they’ll likely be safely in at least the top six.    

 

4.) Southern Illinois Salukis (11-7, 19-10, NET: 102, Hackman Projected Seed: 4.34-4th): If you want to talk about who had the best time since the last “State of the Valley” it is hard to argue for anyone other than these Salukis.  The only team in the league to go 3-0 during the stretch, SIU knocked off a ranked Indiana State team, beat rival Murray State, and won at Evansville.  The 3-0 run puts the Salukis on the cusp of securing the last bye, and even gives them a shot at the 3-seed.  This after everyone had them pegged for the bottom of the league preseason after losing their studs.  Instead of reeling from the loss of said studs, Bryan Mullins just produced an entirely new stud.  Xavier Johnson is 4th in the nation in scoring, and 16th in the country in assists (he also leads the team in steals).  Statistically, you can make a strong argument that he has been the best all around player in the conference.  Certainly, the one most valuable to his team.  Will he win the Larry Bird?  I dunno.  But there is no denying he has been great.  For SIU the math is simple.  If they win their last two games, they’ll secure a bye.  In fact, a 2-0 finish coupled with a Bradley loss at Drake would see SIU jump to the 3-seed.  Even if they lose to Bradley, though, they will still likely control their own destiny with regard to a bye on the final day of the season when they host UNI.  Hackman gives them a 13% chance at the 3-seed, and a 53% chance at the four.  If they falter, they have a 22% chance at the 5-seed and a 13% chance at the six.  Midweek games should clear that picture up a bit, but the bottom line is that the ball is in SIU’s court when it comes to skipping Thursday in St. Louis.    

 

3.) Bradley Braves (12-6, 20-9, NET: 65, Hackman Projected Seed: 3.12-3rd): Bradley continues to cruise along in the #3 spot, out of the spotlight of the title and at-large race but still very much a contender to win the dang thing at Arch Madness.  Since we last spoke, the Braves went 2-1.  They lost at UNI (despite a furious rally attempt), but recovered to win at Missouri State and at home against Illinois State.  The latter game, the latest edition of probably the biggest rivalry in the Valley, was a real rock fight.  It was a 48-45 home victory for BU.  Bradley is doing fine these days, but I don’t know if I would say they are playing their best basketball of the year right now.  They are 3-3 in their last six games, and none of the results in that stretch are absolute disasters per se.  But they are also not the sign of a team operating at full capacity.  For most of the season they have had the 3-spot on lock.  But now they have a little bit more work to do.  Namely, they must beat Southern Illinois at home on Wednesday to avoid the race coming down to the final day.  And that final day  for Bradley includes a trip to Des Moines to play Drake.  At the end of the day, there isn’t much difference between the 3 and 4 seed, unless you’d rather play Drake over Indiana State in the semifinals.  So, Coach Wardle has to feel pretty comfortable with his team’s Arch Madness chances either way.  According to Hackman’s model, they have an 81% chance to finish with the 3-seed, and a 15% chance at the 4-seed.  They actually have a 3% chance at the 2-seed as well.  I think that likely would entail a Bradley win over both SIU and Drake this week, Drake finishing 0-2, and the Braves passing Drake in NET.  That wouldn’t be crazy in that scenario as the Braves currently trail the Bulldogs by 19 spots.  One other consideration for Bradley over these last two games is the NIT.  I still hate that tournament for dropping automatic bids and guaranteeing home games for mediocre power 6 teams, but weirdly enough the new system will benefit teams in a situation like Bradley’s.  There will be more at-large bids to be had, and Bradley has a real shot if they finish strong.  Honestly, a 2-0 finish would see them in great shape for that dumb fricken tournament.                

 

2.) Drake Bulldogs (14-4, 23-6, NET: 46, Hackman Projected Seed: 1.94-2nd): I’ll get right to brass tax here.  Drake’s conference title chances, and their at-large chances, took a gigantic hit with their loss at UNI last weekend.  Since our last SOTV, Drake snuck back into the title race and put themselves on the at-large radar with double-digit wins over Murray State and Belmont.  Then they got nicked in Cedar Falls last weekend.  That put the at-large talk on ice and took their conference title aspirations out of their hands.  That isn’t to say I don’t think Drake deserves an at-large.  Because, while I am quite biased, I definitely do.  The MVC is one of the best leagues in the country and Drake has shown it is one of the better teams.  But a Valley team is never going to get the benefit of the doubt, and a NET in the 40s is probably not going to cut it.  Much more important the 8th best SEC team gets their deserved shot.  I mean, c’mon guys, Texas A&M is 15-12!  You gonna leave that out?  Be real.  I thought this country was about 13th chances.  As far as the league title goes, Drake will need to finish with wins in its final two games at UIC and vs. Bradley and hope that Indiana State slips up this week to claim a share.  It is out of their hands now.  What is not out of their hands is their ability to win Arch Madness.  And while they will very likely enter as a 2-seed (Hackman gives them an 87% chance to land there, 10% chance at the 1-seed and 3% chance at the 3-seed), don’t be surprised if they are the betting favorites.  They can also likely lock up an NIT spot (cue sarcastic “cool” meme) with a strong finish as well.    

 

1.) Indiana State Sycamores (15-3, 24-5, NET: 33, Hackman Projected Seed: 1.10-1st): One week.  It isn’t just an awesome Barenaked Ladies song.  (Sidenote: If you really want to know, “One Week” is probably not even in the top 50% of BNL’s best songs…..but I digress).  One week, or one bad week to be specific, is all it takes to derail a mid-major’s at-large hopes.  A loss to Illinois State and a (quite frankly totally understandable) loss at Southern Illinois, and all of a sudden the #TwoBidValley is on life support.  It doesn’t matter that the Sycamores have a top 35 NET, or that they are 5-4 against Q1 and Q2, or that they are still the outright leaders of the 9th best conference in the country.  Sorry Trees.  You had a bad week.  Since the loss in Carbondale, Indiana State recovered for double-digit wins at Valpo and at home against UIC.  ESPN’s bracketology currently has them as an 11-seed, which would put them on the same line as the last four teams in.  So maybe if they win out and lose in the championship game, they still have a shot.  I wouldn’t fully count them out.  But it is going to be a tough ask of the committee to leave out Indiana State in favor of….say……Texas A&M for example.  The Aggies are listed as the “first team out” on bracketology and are 25 spots worse than ISU in NET, have a worse winning percentage against the top two quads, only have 12 losses, and are currently in a 3-way-tie for 8th place in their conference with a 6-8 league record.  Same can be said for the next two teams out, Villanova and Utah.  They are 15-12, and 16-11 respectively, with .500 and below .500 league records, and both have a lower computer ranking than ISU.  How could we possibly have a tournament where one of those squads were left out in favor of a 24-5 league champ?  It would be a travesty akin to the medieval plagues!  For their part, the Trees just have to keep winning.  They must finish strong with a win at Evansville and at home against Murray.  Then we’ll see what happens in St. Louis and go from there.  My little mid-major heart isn’t ready to let go of a #TwoBidValley quite yet.  It would appear I am still in the denial stage.

 

And that is it for this edition of “State of the Valley”.  I’ll be back on Friday for the next edition!  Again, thank you to everyone who read this, and the previous editions of “SOTV” too.  Thank you to Hackman for his models!  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 Illinois State (8-10, 14-15) vs. #9 Missouri State (7-11, 15-14) – Noon (MVC TV)

-Game 2: #5 Northern Iowa (10-8, 16-13) vs. #12 Valparaiso (2-16, 6-23) – 2:30pm (MVC TV)

-Game 3: #7 Murray State (9-9, 12-17) vs. #10 Evansville (6-12, 15-14) – 6pm (MVC TV)

-Game 4: #6 Belmont (10-8, 17-12) vs. #11 Illinois-Chicago (4-14 11-18)- 8:30pm (MVC TV)

 

Friday, March 8, 2024

-Game 5: #1 Indiana State (15-3, 24-5) vs. Game 1 Winner – Noon (MVC TV)

-Game 6: #4 Southern Illinois (11-7, 19-10) vs. Game 2 Winner – 2:30pm (MVC TV)

-Game 7: #2 Drake (14-4, 23-6) vs. Game 3 Winner – 6pm (MVC TV)

-Game 8: #3 Bradley (12-6, 20-9) 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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