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Previewing The Missouri Valley Championship Game

One of the fun parts of Arch Madness is the relatively constant rate of turnover in the conference championship game. The last time any team appeared in three consecutive MVC title games was when Southern Illinois managed that feat from 1993-1995 (the Salukis won all three years). Since that point all ten current teams have at least made it to championship Sunday, a level of relative parody that not many conferences can speak to.

This afternoon's final has a nice balance of history and modern day success to it. Missouri State ran through the regular season conference schedule producing a 15-3 record, with two of those losses coming by a single point. The Bears haven't reached this point in six years and haven't won a conference tournament championship since 1992. Not that MSU has struggled during that dry spell, let's not forget the Bears run to the Sweet 16 as an at-large in 1999.

Indiana State has had significantly less success at this stage. The Sycamores are generally known for one thing on the national scale: their magical run to the 1979 national championship game. In fact, ISU has won just one conference championship since that year (2001), and now find themselves playing for their third a decade later after downing a strong Wichita State team in the semi-finals. 

Missouri State Bears, #1 Seed, 25-7 (15-3)

The Bears success is built around their offense which probably sounds strange given they average less than 70 points and rank in the bottom half of Division 1 basketball in points per game. But as we've seen in many instances, there are better metrics for determining the potency of a team's scoring capabilities. Missouri State ranks in the top 50 nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency according to Ken Pomeroy and was even stronger through the lens of points per possession, ranking 33rd overall based on data from Synergy Sports Technology. The culprit for low scoring numbers is the snail like pace the Bears play at, ranking 308th in adjusted tempo meaning they are quite literally one of the slowest teams on the planet. Not that playing slow isn't without it's benefits as Missouri State has one of the lowest turnover rates in the country.

The bulk of the teams possessions this season have come in spot-up and post-up situations, with those two play types also proving to be the areas where the Bears have the most success. MSU has proven to be a solid three-point shooting team, posting and adjusted field goal percentage of over 51 in spot-up settings. They're even more efficient scoring in the post thanks in no small part to center Will Creekmore who shoots over 60% from the floor. The Bears rank 26th in post scoring efficiency nationally, but with those plays making up over 14% of their shot attempts, only Gonzaga has shot better in the post with that kind of usage rate. 

Lest we forget, the presence of conference player of the year Kyle Weems at forward certainly doesn't hurt Missouri State's offense either.

Defensively there are some interesting tendencies, mainly that the Bears are only average at this end of the floor. Should this game suddenly pick up and turn into a fast paced contest (unlikely given the two teams playing) it definitely works against MSU. The majority of the games they've lost this season have come in higher scoring contests where the Bears simply don't have the firepower to make up for a defense which ranks in the lower half nationally in pretty much every major statistical category. Of note, they are well below average defending the pick and roll and isolation situations.

Indiana State Sycamores, #3 Seed, 19-13 (12-6)

ISU managed to rise above the crowded fray in the MVC this season, take down second-seeded Wichita State in the semis and reach the conference finals behind a stout defense. The Sycamores are going to need that defense to be at its best today given an offense that ranked 240th in points per game and 182nd in offensive efficiency. If nothing else the team is impressively balanced scoring the basketball, but when that balance revolves around Dwayne Lathan being the only double digit scorer, you know the scoreboard isn't going to be lighting up with too much regularity. Myles Walker has stepped up as of late though, including scoring a career-high 14 points in the semi-final win. 

The Sycamores have won their first two tournament games ugly and if they want to win today they'll have to stick to their guns: keeping opposing offenses in check. ISU held both Evansville and the Shockers to under 55 points in the quarter and semi-finals. Across the board this team is above average defensively, holding opponents to 44% shooting on two-point field goals and 33% from beyond the arc. They stack up fairly well with Missouri State as far as areas that they excel in defensively. The Bears are a good post team and the Sycamores have done a good job of defending interior scores. The same can be said for isolation situations where based on data from Synergy it is very easy to make the claim that no team in the country does a better job of defending iso plays. The Sycamores have held opposing teams to just 23% shooting when the isolate against 171 total possessions defended, by far the highest total of any team in the top ten for defensive efficiency. While it's unlikely Kyle Weems will suddenly get 15 iso possessions today, knowing they can shut down players in this fashion has to be a vote of confidence for Indiana State.

Final Prediction

Ultimately expect a low scoring, blow for blow battle that will come down to a few key possessions in the closing minutes. These teams split during the regular season, but I foresee Missouri State being the better team on this day and earning an automatic bid for March Madness.


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