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Missouri Valley Conference Tournament primer: Loyola the team to beat

Nationally ranked Loyola Chicago has big dreams but Drake is a spoiler in waiting along with a dangerous Missouri State

NCAA Basketball: Loyola-Chicago at Wisconsin
Loyola Chicago’s Porter Moser guides his team into Arch Madness.
Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

Loyola has big dreams for this postseason. Rambler seniors Cameron Krutwig and Lucas Williamson were serious freshmen contributors during their 2018 run to the Final Four, and now want to create their own memories in their potential final season.

The No. 21 Ramblers (21-4, 16-2) are the regular-season champions and the top seed for this year’s edition of Arch Madness. While the Missouri Valley has enjoyed having two ranked teams (Drake is the other) and three teams in the NET’s top 100, the league members will arrive in St. Louis a little banged up.

The Bracket & how to watch the games

The first six games of the tournament can be seen on the MVC TV (Fox Sports Midwest and on ESPN+ in some states). The semifinals will air on CBS Sports Network and the championship will be broadcast on CBS.

Loyola has won three of the last four Missouri Valley regular season championships. They are the top defensive team in the nation and have so much talent and depth that only one player averages double figures in scoring. Krutwig’s numbers don’t jump out at you as 15 points and 6.5 rebounds per game don’t blow you away. But the 6-foot-9 lefty averaged almost four assists and 1.4 steals during league play.

The Ramblers allow just 55.7 points per game and own the league’s best defensive field goal percentage (40.7%). They last allowed more than 60 points on Jan. 10. Their only two conference defeats came by five points at Indiana State and in overtime at Drake.

During the Valley’s first 30 years of hosting the conference tournament in St. Louis only nine top-seeded teams have won the season-ending event. Since 2014, only the Ramblers’ 2018 team won both the regular season and the conference tournament.

The Ramblers’ competition

When healthy, the Drake Bulldogs were also in the national rankings. Drake (24-3, 15-3) have been ravaged with injuries. Leading scorer ShanQuan (Tank) Hemphill and the Valley’s best point guard, Roman Penn, have both missed recent games. Hemphill has missed the team’s last seven and Penn the last three. Both are nursing foot injuries. It’s possible that Hemphill (14.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game) could return for Arch Madness. Penn will not.

Drake super subs Joseph Yesufu and Garrett Sturtz have been great in relief roles and have played very well in their new starting roles, but that means the Bulldog bench is depleted. Penn led the league in assists (5.5 per game) while scoring over 11 points.

With increased playing time Yesufu has averaged 25 points during Drake’s last five games.

When healthy, Drake’s offense is the best in the Valley and their defense is second only to Loyola’s. They hold opposing 3-point shooters to just 30.5% from deep. Their other perimeter players (Tremell Murphy and D.J. Wilkins) average nearly 10 points per game and harass opposing shooters into bad shots or decisions. While Seton Hall transfer center Darnell Brodie doesn’t block many shots, he holds his own with the Valley’s talented big men.

Darian DeVries’ teams win games. During his first three years as a head coach at Drake, he has accumulated an amazing .716 winning percentage. They split their two games with Loyola and didn’t have Hemphill in either game. They did have Penn.

Missouri State (16-6, 12-6) is the league’s most explosive team and contains its most dynamic scoring duo. The Bears have the Valley’s first and third leading scorers. Sophomore guard Isiaih Mosley (20 points per game) and center Gaige Prim (16.8 points per game) combined for 59 points during MSU’s second-to-last game of the season. Prim leads the league in rebounding (nine), shooting percentage (62.9%) and is eighth in assists (3.2).

The Bears are a different team since a four-game losing streak in late January to Drake and Loyola. They’ve reworked their rotations and have won seven of their last eight.

The Unknowns

There is some mystery associated with this year’s tournament. Will Hemphill be able to return? Indiana State star Tyreke Key (17.4 points per game) sat out the team’s final two games with a shoulder injury. Will he be ready for quarterfinal action against Evansville?

Southern Illinois’ leading scorer Marcus Domask (16.3 points per game) has missed the Salukis’ last 14 but could reappear in St. Louis.

Bradley recently suspended three players. Could the defending Arch Madness champions reinstate their best player Elijah Childs (14.2 points per game and 8.3 rebounds) in time for a title defense?

Valparaiso (10-17, 7-11) made an historic run last year, becoming the first team to play in the tournament’s play-in round and advance to the finals. This year they were the only Valley squad to defeat Drake when the Bulldogs were at full strength. Matt Lottich’s team is earning an upset special reputation. Valpo plays to the level of their competition. They lost to Vanderbilt by six and Purdue by seven. They lost on the road to Loyola by two points. Don’t sleep on the team formerly known as the Crusaders.

The Valley has been cruising along believing this is a two-bid season for the 114-year-old conference. Drake’s loss of players and late season losses have diminished those hopes. The Bulldogs need to get to — and perhaps win — the Sunday afternoon final to get into the NCAA Tournament. Loyola should receive a dancing invitation either way.