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Missouri Valley Conference Preview: Can Northern Iowa finish the job?

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The Panthers are looking to sweep the regular season and conference tournament title.

NCAA Basketball: Iowa at Northern Iowa
Ben Jacobson’s Northern Iowa Panthers are the favorites to win Arch Madness.
Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Northern Iowa won its first Missouri Valley Conference regular season title in 10 years and now the Panthers are the favorites to win league’s postseason tournament. UNI (25-5, 14-4) finished the season with three straight wins and head to St. Louis with a chance to secure a solid NCAA Tournament seed.

During a season in which Valley teams dominated on their home floors, the Panthers won five of nine conference road games including, Saturday’s championship clinching win at Drake.

There are challengers to UNI’s desires to take both titles. Second place Loyola (21-10, 13-5), defending Arch Madness champion Bradley (20-11, 11-7) and the league’s hottest team, Indiana State (18-11, 11-7) all believe they can defeat the regular season champions.

Bracket

Schedule (All Times Central)

First Round (March 5)

Both Games on MVC TV Network

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

Quarterfinals (Friday, March 6)

All Four games on MVC TV Network

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

Semifinals (Saturday, March 7)

Both games on CBS Sports Network

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

Championship Game (Sunday, March 8)

On CBS

Game 9: Winners of Games 7 & 8 - 1:10 p.m.

The Top Tier

Northern Iowa (25-5, 14-4): Northern Iowa is the clear favorite to win the Arch Madness title. The Panthers’ inside/outside game is the best in the league. Player of the Year candidate A.J. Green led the Valley in scoring (19.7), three-pointers per game (2.9) and free throw percentage (91.7%). The sophomore guard broke his nose three games ago and has played through it.

Fellow guard Trae Berhow led the Valley in three-point percentage (45.2%), while center Austin Phyfe led the conference in rebounds per game (8.3). During conference play, Phyfe averaged over nine boards per game and scored 13 points per game. He grabbed a career high 18 rebounds in the finale.

Outstanding defender Isaiah Brown has recently found his scoring touch and fifth year senior Spencer Haldeman is deadly from deep.

Loyola Chicago (21-10, 13-5): Preseason Player of the Year Cameron Krutwig didn’t disappoint. The Loyola center finished in the league’s top four spots in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage and assists, and was also seventh in steals. The 6’9 junior did everything for the Ramblers. Division II transfer Tate Hall added some outside scoring and transfer guard Keith Clemons provided backcourt stability. Freshman guard Marquis Kennedy can be an explosive difference maker and junior wing Lucas Williamson is one of the league’s top defenders.

Indiana State (18-11, 11-7): Indiana State has won five straight games and is getting outstanding play from veteran guards and rookies up front. Junior Tyreke Key finished third in the Valley scoring race (15.8) and senior Jordan Barnes brought scoring (13.0) and distribution (3.7 assists per game). Barnes is finishing his ISU career as a top 10 player in multiple Sycamore statistical categories.

Freshmen Jake LaRavia and Tre Williams gave head coach Greg Lansing a balanced attack. Both players improved all season. LaRavia finished fourth in rebounding (7.4 per game) during conference play.

Bradley (20-11, 11-7): Bradley has all-league players too. Guard Darrell Brown and forward Elijah Childs have the ability to be as dynamic a duo as the league has to offer. Childs missed 12 games due to injury but the 6’7 lefty was the Most Outstanding Player of the Braves run to the tournament title last year. Brown has been the Braves’ leading scorer for four straight seasons. He is closing in on 1,800 career points.

With shot blockers Koch Bar and Ari Boya protecting the rim and three-point marksman Nate Kennell the Braves bring one of the deepest teams to the St. Louis marathon.

Who Is The Darkhorse?

Don’t go to sleep on Missouri State. The preseason favorites have been inconsistent, but center Gaige Prim (13.6 ppg) is a matchup problem for every team in the league. He is the most physical center in the league and is fundamentally sound. Leading scorer Keandre Cook comes off the bench to score 14.6 per game and Tulio Da Silva and West Virginia transfer Lamont West are both 6’8 and dangerous scorers. Freshman point guard Isaiah Mosely is a spark plug.

MSU won four of their final six games, and one of the two losses was in overtime. Since coach Dana Ford inserted walk-on Ross Owens into the starting lineup, the Bears are 5-3. He is the stereotypical ‘glue-guy’ that has given the team the balance they need.

Prediction

Northern Iowa should win, but don’t be surprised if either Loyola or Missouri State coming out of the other side of bracket and upset the Panthers.