Throw the regular season out the window, they call it Arch Madness for a reason.
By SEAN KEELER FS Midwest
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — You want crazy? We’ve got crazy. We love crazy. We
This week, Arch Madness comes with a straitjacket attached. Consider: The Missouri Valley Conference’s regular-season champion, Creighton, lost at home to the MVC tournament’s No. 6 seed, Illinois State, and fell at 9 seed Drake. Wichita State, the loop’s surprising runner-up and the tourney 2 seed, lost at 10 seed Southern Illinois and got swept by 4 seed
Aces also swept third-seeded Northern Iowa. And did we mention that the Salukis, the Valley’s last-place squad, took out the 2 seed (Wichita), the 3 seed (UNI), the 4 seed (Evansville), and the 5 seed (Indiana State) at home?
So after nine weeks of scores that left us doing double takes, why not one more weekend of complete Looney Tunes, just for good measure?
“I think you can throw out everything once you get to St. Louis,” noted Bluejays coach Greg McDermott, who’s won two MVC tourneys — one at Creighton and one at Northern Iowa. “I think this is a very balanced league this year, and I think anything can happen once we get there.”
It sounds like a hyperbole, but in terms of the Valley this winter, it’s absolutely true: For the first time in some time, every team at Scottrade Center — top to bottom — is a bona fide, viable threat.
The golden ticket to Bracketville is anybody’s for the taking. McDermott’s Jays (24-7) were expected at Christmas to blow through the league, only to hit a wall in late January, stumble through February, and rebound at the end of the month to snatch the regular-season crown by a solitary game. The
Redbirds (17-14), the preseason pick to finish second, opened league play 0-6, finished 8-10, and are lurking on the other side of the bracket.
Indiana State (17-13) was the league’s most interesting team in January; Evansville (18-13) was arguably the MVC’s most dangerous team over the past three weeks. And the hottest bunch in the field, believe it or not, might be the kids at the very bottom of the pack: Southern Illinois (14-16), which closed out the regular season by winning five of six and three in a row, and sports a veteran hand at the controls in new coach Barry Hinson.
Wichita State (24-7) totes the kind of defense and toughness that travel well — the Shox were 10-5 away from raucous Koch Arena — but St. Louis has been, shall we say, less than kind to coach Gregg Marshall over the years. Between 2009-12, Wichita was 42-12 in league play (a .778 winning percentage), but just 4-3 (.571) under the Arch, including a semifinal setback to the Redbirds a year ago.
“It’s just not shooting the ball well,”
Shockers forward Carl Hall said of Wichita’s misfortunes at Scottrade. “I guess at some point, it’s kind of like we start struggling offensively. And you play teams so much, you kind of figure (them) out.”
But that comfort smells sweet to at least one Arch Madness favorite: Creighton brings swagger and history to the Gateway City, having won seven MVC tourney titles here since 1999.
“The fans — it’s like a home game for us,” offered Jays senior Josh Jones. “Look at the arena blueprint and see the colors of the (crowd). It’s like we’re playing in the CenturyLink (Center Omaha) again. The fans are just huge — it’s huge for us.
“Every time we go down there, we feel like, no matter what our record is, the title’s still got to go through us.”
As it stands now, only Creighton can feel 100 percent assured of an at-large bid, regardless of what happens at Scottrade. Wichita State is presumed to be safe, but a quick exit could make some sweaty palms on Selection Sunday. For the rest of the field, though, the only path to the Big Dance is to win out and clinch the league’s automatic berth.
You want desperation? We’ve got desperation.
“And coaches are so good at preparing their teams (toward) taking away the things you want to do and make you go to secondary options,” McDermott explained. “Often times, when you win a conference tournament, it’s an unheralded guy that steps up and has great games.”
For the Jays in 2012, that was guard Grant Gibbs, who netted 20 points in an overtime victory over Illinois State in the championship. In 2011, it was Indiana State’s Jake Odum, who averaged 12.3 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists over three games for the upstart
“Because of the balance of our league this year, I think, again, anything can happen,” McDermott continued. “I think you’ll see some surprises. I just hope none of them involve the Bluejays.”
The party’s on, kids. You bring the drinks. The Valley will bring the nuts.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org