Loyola ran away with the Missouri Valley Conference regular season title with a four game cushion over second place Southern Illinois. So the resounding question in Valley Country is, “Who can take down the Ramblers?”
At 25-5 and 15-3 in league play, the Ramblers look downright Wichita State-like. Their average margin of victory of 10.4 points over league opponents was impressive. They’ve had three different seven-game winning streaks and are the second best shooting team in the country.
Are you intimidated yet?
When MVC Larry Bird Player of the Year guard Clayton Custer was in the lineup the Ramblers were 23-2 (2-3 without him). Porter Moser’s team allows the fewest points and hands out the most assists in the MVC.
There are no apparent weaknesses.
I believe three teams have a chance to compete with the Ramblers, but don’t bet your house on it happening.
On Loyola’s side of the bracket only Northern Iowa has the slimmest of hopes. UNI has had significant success at Arch Madness. The Panthers have won five tournament titles since 2004 and nabbed back-to-back banners in 2015 and 2016. Coach Ben Jacobson has won 13 of the 20 games he has coached at Arch Madness. However, this is not your typical Jacobson team.
They don’t shoot as well as you expect, and after an outstanding non-conference schedule — posting wins over SMU, North Carolina State and UNLV — the Panthers fell apart. UNI lost its first five conference games and were searching for answers.
Jacobson has tinkered with his lineup and the Panthers (15-15) have put together a modest turn around. UNI has won two straight games and three of its last four. Some of the Panthers signature defense has come back into form and senior Klint Carlson has finally become an offensive factor.
Two teams on the other side of the bracket have a greater chance to knock off the Ramblers, but obviously not until the finals.
First the long shot.
Missouri State defeated the Ramblers way back on Dec. 22, when the Bears were playing well and Loyola was without the services of Custer. The Bears have crashed and burned since beginning the conference season 3-0. They finished winning just four of their next 15 games.
However, this Bears team, which was the league’s preseason favorite, still has some fire power and the depth to give the Ramblers a run for their money.
That said, MSU is in Thursday’s play-in game. Exactly one team from this game has advanced even as far as the semifinals in the entire history of Arch Madness. But with Alize Johnson in your lineup, you always have a chance.
The 6’9 Johnson led the league in rebounding and was fifth in scoring. The recent uptick in the production of Jarred Dixon, J.T. Miller and Mustafa Lawrence means Paul Lusk’s team has a “puncher’s chance” against anyone.
Remember this is the same team that was 13-3 with wins over Colorado State, South Dakota State, North Dakota State, Wright State and, yes, Loyola. If they defeat Valparaiso in the opening round, they would have a quarterfinal date with Southern Illinois.
The Salukis swept the two meetings with Bears by a grand total of three points. Their last reunion went into overtime and SIU prevailed 81-80. If MSU could get by the injury-riddled Salukis, they would face either Indiana State, whom they swept or Illinois State who swept them.
That brings me to my third team that can claim Arch Madness.
Illinois State is getting healthy at the right time. Keyshawn Evans and second team all-conference forward Phil Fayne have just returned to the lineup. Despite losing two times to the Ramblers this season, I believe the three-headed monster of Evans, Fayne and all-league forward (and Newcomer of the Year) Milik Yarbrough is a difficult matchup for LUC.
Illinois State lives by the three ball, but Yarbrough is an X-factor. He could single-handedly take over a game. Fayne is a rebounding problem for the Ramblers and if Evans gets hot from long distance, the Ramblers would find themselves in a bar fight.
Arch Madness 2018 could be an epic four day event that would shape the Valley and its rivalries for years.