There are two types of conferences as we approach March: those where the playoff picture solidifies and those where it grows murkier every day.
The Missouri Valley Conference is in the latter group.
It’s a giant game of rock-paper-scissors among the top four: Loyola Chicago, Drake, Northern Iowa and Missouri State’s losses have come almost exclusively at the hands of one another. Just as it seemed the gap between the top four and bottom six was impossible to bridge, Bradley shocked Loyola to join the conversation.
So, where are we now?
Tournament darlings Loyola Chicago started the season off with a bang, proving that even in the post-Porter Moser era the Ramblers are a team to be feared. A brief COVID pause in late December seemed to be the only bump in the road for the Ramblers until hitting a mini-slump as the end nears. They dropped games to Drake and Missouri State — not a cause for much concern — but being stunned by Bradley might have jeopardized their at-large bid safety net. A grueling end of their final season in the Valley awaits as they face Northern Iowa twice, along with a rematch with Drake.
The Drake Bulldogs, while not quite as strong as they were last year, are still in strong contention for a shot at the title. They beat a good Loyola team by 11 points in the Knapp Center, only to fall in overtime to rival Northern Iowa at home. Ironically, the loss to Northern Iowa came on the heels of an overtime win in the McLeod Center a week prior. Despite Roman Penn breaking a program record for career assists, Missouri State outscored them in the second half to deal them a fourth loss. The Bulldogs sit at 8-4, with key matchups against Loyola and Bradley still to come.
Northern Iowa sits atop the conference standings at 10-3, leading for the first time since 2020 thanks to a deep bench. After a 2020-21 season that can only be referred to as disastrous, it’s out for revenge. The Panthers had a slow start to the season, but ride a five-game win streak heading into the last two weeks of conference play. Their three losses came at the hands of Bradley, Drake and Valparaiso. The final two weeks of the season include two huge matchups with Loyola and one with Missouri State. Most notably, the Ramblers and Panthers meet on the last day of the regular season in McLeod Center in a match that will likely have major implications for the Arch Madness bracket.
At 9-4, Missouri State is a much more dangerous team than their record would suggest. Junior guard Isiaih Mosley has two 40-point games to his name this season, and its wins include Drake, Loyola, and Bradley. The Bears only lost to Northern Iowa by the slimmest of margins. They haven’t garnered the same buzz as some of the other teams mentioned, particularly because of some unflattering losses to Illinois State and Indiana State, but they’ve got a chip on their shoulder. Their biggest tests are going to be games at Northern Iowa and home versus Bradley.
And finally: Bradley. Until Feb. 9, the Braves had largely been viewed as the middle-of-the-pack team that separated the top four from the bottom five.
Then, they stunned the Loyola Ramblers.
Bradley had started the season off strong by knocking off Northern Iowa by two points, only to lose three in a row to Indiana State, Missouri State and Loyola. Bradley quietly returned to knock off four teams in a row, including Drake. A loss at Northern Iowa, then two more wins, including yesterday’s match against Loyola. The Braves are proving they have what it takes to hang with the top teams as March approaches. The road ahead has rematches with Drake and Missouri State.
The bottom of the conference is just as tight: Indiana State and Evansville are tied at 2-9, with Valparaiso and Illinois State tied at 4-8. Southern Illinois stands alone at 5-8. Despite their records, you can’t count them out from pulling off a surprise upset. It was only two years ago that No. 7 Valpo became the first team to make it to the championship from a Thursday night game, taking out No. 2 Loyola in the process.
Bottom line: It’s going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight for the win, and your guess is as good as mine as to who’ll be champion when the clock hits zero.
Arch Madness tips off Thursday, March 3rd at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.