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Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Preview: Loyola is the 1 seed, but Southern Illinois could play spoiler in Arch Madness

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The tournament is wide open.

NCAA Basketball: Southern Illinois at UNLV
SIU’s Armon Fletcher could be the key to Arch Madness
Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

This has been a wild year in the Missouri Valley Conference. It was a season where the co-champions set a record for the most losses by a title winner and road teams won games at an MVC record pace. While Loyola should be the favorite, five other teams have legitimate hopes on cutting down the Enterprise Center nets on Sunday.

Defending champion Loyola has stumbled more often than it did on the way to last year’s Final Four, but the Ramblers still have a talented and well-schooled team. Co-champion Drake (23-8) lost a key player during the season’s last game.

The top seven Valley teams were separated by three games, as the four teams tied at 9-9 had to be seeded from fourth to seventh places according to tiebreakers.

Every Valley squad knows that it has to win the Arch Madness crown if it hopes to play in the NCAA Tournament, and there is no clear-cut favorite.

Bracket

Schedule (all times Central)

First Round (Thursday, March 7)

Both Games on MVC TV Network

Game 1: No. 8 Indiana State vs. No. 9 Valparaiso, 6:05 p.m.
Game 2: No. 7 Illinois State vs. No. 10 Evansville, 8:30 p.m.

Quarterfinals (Friday, March 8)

All Four Games on MVC TV Network

Game 3: No. 1 Loyola vs. Game 1 Winner, 12:05 p.m.
Game 4: No. 4 Missouri State vs. No. 5 Bradley, 2:35 p.m.
Game 5: No. 2 Drake vs. Game 2 Winner, 6:05 p.m.
Game 6: No. 3 Southern Illinois vs. No. 6 Northern Iowa, 8:35 p.m.

Semifinals (Saturday, March 9)

Both Games on CBS Sports Network

Game 7: Winners of Games 3 and 4 at 2:35 p.m.
Game 8: Winners of Games 5 and 6 at 5:05 p.m.

Championship Game (Sunday, March 10)

On CBS

Winners of Games 7 and 8 at 1:05 p.m.

The Favorites

Loyola (19-12, 12-6): If there is a favorite, it is Loyola. The Ramblers know how to win tournament games and have four proven postseason performers. Guard Marques Townes is this year’s Valley Player of the Year, and he’s joined by all-conference center Cameron Krutwig and last year’s league MVP Clayton Custer. The fourth piece of the puzzle, energetic Lucas Wiliamson, just returned to the lineup and those four players know how to perform on the biggest stages.

Drake (23-8, 12-6): Co-champion Drake lost outstanding point guard D.J. Wilkins during the Bulldogs’ final game. The All-Freshman Team member broke a bone in his ankle and his season is over. With Wilkins, Darian DeVries’ team was a strong threat. Without him, they could struggle to get out of the quarterfinals. Defensive Player of the Year Nick McGlynn is the heart and soul of this team, and the Bulldogs will need even more out of the 6’8 center. Senior guard Brady Ellingson is the Valley’s best three-point shooter.

Southern Illinois (17-14, 10-8): Wilkins’ injury catapults third-seeded Southern Illinois into top contender status. The Salukis have been hot, have great balance, and they play rugged defense. Kavion Pippen and Sean Lloyd were both named to the MVC’s All-Defensive Team and all five starters average more than 9.5 points per game. Coach Barry Hinson’s team looks dangerous. Guard Armon Fletcher is the hottest player in the league, averaging over 22 points and eight rebounds over the last six games.

Other Contenders

Missouri State (16-15, 10-8): The Bears swept Loyola this season. First-year coach Dana Ford rebuilt in a hurry. Three of his new players are on the Valley’s All-Newcomer Team but stumbled, losing two games in the season’s final weekend or they would have won the conference title. South Florida transfer Tulio Da Silva was an all-league performer and was joined on that Newcomer squad with Keandre Cook and Texas Tech transfer Josh Webster.

Bradley (17-14, 9-9): Standing in Missouri State’s way are the Bradley Braves, as the two teams face off in the quarterfinals. Brian Wardle’s team lost its first five conference games and rebounded to a 9-9 record. High-scoring guard Darrell Brown and productive post man Elijah Childs get the headlines, but Nate Kannell, the Valley’s Sixth Man Award winner has contributed greatly to the Braves’ second-half surge.

Illinois State (16-15, 9-9): No Missouri Valley team has ever played in the opening round of the tournament and also played in finals, much less claim the trophy. And only one team has ever played in the opening round and then won a quarterfinal game. But this team could do it. The Redbirds have arguably the league’s most talented player in Milik Yarbrough and all-conference power forward Phil Fayne can take over the paint. If they get any production out of point guard Keyshawn Evans, they could win on Thursday and then take out a wounded Drake team on Friday.

Prediction

Loyola should win, but any of these other five teams could cut down the nets. If it isn’t the Ramblers, look for Southern Illinois to ride their defense and Fletcher’s hot hand to a win on Sunday afternoon.