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Mountain West-Missouri Valley Challenge Rundown: Which conference will finish on top?

Both conferences are trying to climb out of the mid-major pack.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Loyola vs Nevada Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri Valley Conference teams need to make a statement. This week’s Mountain West/Missouri Valley Conference Challenge pits two leagues that want to differentiate themselves from the other mid major conferences.

This week’s eighth and final edition of “The Challenge” finds two leagues that routinely compete for the top spot outside of the ‘power 6’ designation facing off for midseason bragging rites. The Mountain West owns a 38-27 edge, while the conferences have split the series in each of the last two seasons.

Last year’s tie-breaker was played in the Sweet Sixteen game between Nevada and Loyola, won by the Ramblers as part of their magical run to the Final Four. Those two teams meet on Tuesday night to tip off “The Challenge.”

While each league is looking for significant non conference wins Nevada is probably the most notable team in either conference. The Wolf Pack have three all-conference players and are ranked No. 5 in the AP poll.

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Nevada (6-0) @ Loyola (4-2) – Tuesday – 7 p.m. - ESPNNews

Last year’s dramatic Sweet Sixteen win by Loyola (69-68) sent the Ramblers to the Elite Eight. Reigning league players of the year, Clayton Custer (MVC) (14.8 PPG) and Caleb Martin (MWC) (21.0 PPG, 4.8 RPG) return and so do the quotable and energetic coaches Eric Musselman (Nevada) and Porter Moser (LUC).

Martin’s twin brother, Cody (8.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game) is the MWC’s returning defensive player of the year and forward Jordan Caroline (18.2 points, 10.5 rebounds per game) is an impressive inside/outside player. The Ramblers counter with the Valley’s reigning freshman of the year, Cameron Krutwig (13.2 PPG) and Marques Townes (13.2 PPG). Krutwig has grown into a true difference-making center.

Prediction: Loyola is the underdog, but the Ramblers recapture the magic and defeat the Wolf Pack 73-70.

San Diego State (3-2) @ Illinois State (5-2) – Saturday – 1 p.m. – ESPN+

The Aztecs and Redbirds were each picked to finish second in their respective leagues. They are both looking for consistency in a season that has been marked with stiff competition and uneven play. San Diego State was crushed by Duke and Iowa State, but knocked off Xavier. Illinois State has won three straight after losses and poor play against Belmont and Georgia.

Both teams bring essentially four starters back from last year. San Diego State is talented and the Aztecs are big. 6’10 Jalen McDaniels toyed with going to the NBA and is averaging 15.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game. Guard Devin Watson (15.6 PPG and 4.4 APG) leads the team in scoring. Matt Mitchell (13.0) and Jeremy Hemsley (10.0) are Brian Dutcher’s other two returners.

Dan Muller’s are all seniors. Point forward Milik Yarbrough also flirted with the NBA. He is the key to the Redbird attack. The enigmatic Yarbrough is fifth in the Valley in scoring (16.9 ppg), second in rebounding (8.3) and fifth in assists (4.3). Keyshawn Evans, Phil Fayne and William Tinsley are the other returners while newcomers Josh Jefferson and Zach Copeland are contributing at a high level.

Prediction: The Redbirds soar at home, edging the Aztecs 79-68.

New Mexico (3-1) @ Bradley (6-1) – Saturday – 7 p.m. – ESPN+

Bradley head coach Brian Wardle finally has a veteran squad and it shows. The Braves own the Valley’s two best victories to date with wins over Penn State and SMU. Junior Darrell Brown (14.4 PPG) is tied for the team lead in scoring with this week’s Valley Player of the Week, 6’7 sophomore Elijah Childs. Senior guard Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye is a defensive stopper and averages over ten points per game.

New Mexico pushes the pace and because of that they score a lot of points and give up a lot. They are yet to allow fewer than 78 points in a game.

They can score. Seven Lobos average over nine points per game. Returning guard Anthony Mathis and Connecticut transfer Vance Jackson each average over 16 points per game.

Prediction: Bradley’s superior defense wins the day. 80-76.

The Other Seven Games – Winners in Bold

Boise State (2-3) @ Drake (3-1) – Tuesday – 7 p.m.

Southern Illinois (3-3) @ Colorado State (4-2) – Tuesday – 8 p.m.

Valparaiso (3-3) @ UNLV (4-1) – Wednesday – 9:30 p.m.

Wyoming (2-4) @ Evansville (2-3) – Wednesday – 6 p.m.

Northern Iowa (3-3) @ Utah State (5-1) – Wednesday – 7 p.m.

Missouri State (3-3) @ Air Force (2-4) – Wednesday – 8:15 p.m.

Indiana State (3-1) @ San Jose State (1-5) – Wednesday – 9 p.m.

If the Valley dominates like this, their season is back on course, if the the Mountain West prevails, they will leap frogs the Valley for mid major supremacy.