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MVC Tournament Championship Preview: Everything is on the line for the Shockers and Redbirds

It’s all about the matchups at Arch Madness.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri State at Wichita State
Wichita State’s Shaquille Morris and Markis McDuffie are tough matchups.
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

The titans of the Missouri Valley Conference will collide today in downtown St. Louis. Co-champions Illinois State (27-5) and Wichita State (29-4) vie for Valley bragging rights and the MVC’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.

The two rivals split their regular season games, with the home team winning each time. Illinois State won by 14 in Normal, but were buried by 41 points in Wichita.

What will break the tie between these two bitter rivals? It’s all about the matchups.

Guard Play

MVC Player of the Year Paris Lee is the spiritual leader of the Illinois State squad, and led the Valley in steals and assists, and was second in made three-pointers. Backcourt mate Tony Wills joined Lee on the MVC’s all-defensive team. Sophomore Keyshawn Evans has emerged during Arch Madness.

They face a Shocker backcourt that features MVC Freshman of the Year Landry Shamet and MVC third-teamer Conner Frankamp. Those well decorated starters are spelled by Daishon Smith and freshman Austin Reeves.

All four of the Shocker guards make more than 40 percent of their shots from deep. Frankamp has made eight of his 12 Arch Madness long distance attempts.

The guard play will be stellar, but there is a wild-card in this mix of backcourt matchups. In the blow out in Wichita, Shocker head coach Gregg Marshall put 6’6 Zach Brown on Lee and radically disrupted the Redbird offense. Lee finished that game with a two for 10 shooting performance. Meanwhile, all-defensive team member Brown scored ten points and handed out five assists.

While Lee is ISU’s second leading scorer (13.0 points per game), his command of the offense and ability to involve his teammates is the key to this game.

Sizing Up the Frontcourt

Four all-conference members are found here. Wichita State’s Markis McDuffie was a first teamer and junior center Shaquille Morris was a third teamer. The Redbirds counter with a pair of second-team performers in Deontae Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh. Both ISU players are double digit scorers.

Morris, who scored 21 points in the semifinal win over Missouri State, recorded a double-double against the Redbirds in early February. How Illinois State defends Morris is critical. Hawkins is often the man defending the post, but how head coach Dan Muller can put 7’ sophomore Daouda Ndiaye into the mix, and this could be a significant factor.

McIntosh scored 20 points in ISU’s win over WSU and sat out the loss in Wichita, which came three days after his right knee surgery. How Marshall chooses to match his defenders to the explosive and athletic Redbird forwards will be interesting theater. With McIntosh back in the lineup, perhaps it forces the Shockers to use Bush on the 6’7 McIntosh.

The most fun matchup might be McDuffie against Hawkins. The 6’8 players are both athletic, shoot the three and enjoy the big stage. McDuffie did a nice job on Missouri State’s all-conference forward Alize Johnson in the semifinal win.

Depth Issues

Illinois State uses eight or nine players, but their depth is more reflected in that most of their players can play multiple positions. Wichita State employs at least ten players that all contribute. On the way to their 41 point win over the Redbirds, the Shockers led by 13 points at the half and ran ISU out of Koch Arena with a 51-point second half.

Wichita State ranks second in the nation with over 35 points per game from its bench. There is no drop off when the second unit is on the floor. Only Shamet has started every game, and ten different Shockers average over 12 minutes of action per game.

Intangibles

Illinois State has more at stake. National pundits are throwing their backing behind the Shockers as an at-large tournament team, rather than the Redbirds.

As great as Marshall has been with the Shockers - they’ve finished first or second for the past eight years - this is just his fourth championship game appearance. In the previous three, he has come away with just one tournament trophy.

Both of these streaking teams are motivated for today’s nationally televised (CBS) game.