Thursday, March 5, 2009

Preview of the Missouri Valley Tournament

When you hear "The Valley", unless you are a clueless follower of the major conferences, you know that the reference belongs to the Missouri Valley Conference. As Ned Beatty's character, Dean Martin, in the movie "Back to School" would say, the Valley is the creme de la creme of mid major conferences the past several years.

The conference is responsible for putting Larry Bird and Indiana State on the map, along with seemingly perennial NCAA tournament teams Creighton, Wichita State and most notably recently, Southern Illinois. The conference has a history of putting multiple teams in the tournament. In fact, until last season, the Valley had a stretch of TEN straight years with multiple bids. The penultimate season was 2005-06 when they had four teams make the NCAA Tournament.

The Valley also has another nickname. The Bizarro Valley. It is well deserved because only twice in the past eleven years has a Valley team won both the regular season and conference tournaments in the same season. Drake won last season and Illinois State won in 1998. So it is very likely the #1 seed, Northern Iowa, will not win the tournament.

The Valley has a shot again at having multiple teams in the tournament. Currently, Joe Lunardi and Bracketology has the Valley with two teams in the tournament, with Creighton, the #2 seed as an at large. However, it is in Creighton's best interests to make it to the conference final and better yet, win the conference tournament to secure they bid.

The question is will they. As I see it, there are three teams with the best chances to win the tournament, otherwise wittingly known as Arch Madness; Creighton, Northern Iowa and Illinois State, the #3 seed. Evansville and Bradley have remote chances to win (in fact Bradley is the only other team with a winning record in the Valley this season).

Illinois State is the toughest bird to figure out (figures, the team name is the Redbirds). The Redbirds were the favorites to win the Valley and they started out like such with an 11-0 record. Then came the conference season and the Redbirds got off to a nice 3-0 start. Thus Illinois State was 14-0. The problem was that the Redbirds hadn't faced reality...the Bizarro Valley Road Reality. Ten of Illinois State's first fourteen games were at home. Only one of those four road games was in conference, an 72-69 win over Missouri State.

The Redbirds would first lose in conference at Wichita State. This would be the beginning of a pattern with Illinois State as the Redbirds would go 8-8 the rest of the way. Outside of a 14 point beatdown at Niagara, the Redbirds know how to lose the close on. The other seven Illinois State's losses are by six points or less. This is due in part to two factors. One, they are often too reliant on the three. In their eight losses, the Redbirds have shot 59 of 185 from three 31.8 percent which is significantly lower than their 37.7 percent for the season which is third in the Valley. Even more important is their free throw shooting in these games, a collective 68 of 117, which is 58 percent, again significantly lower than their free throw percentage on the season, 70 percent. The free throw shooting no doubt cost them their games twice against Indiana State, at home to Northern Iowa and at Creighton.

Still the Redbirds are a talented veteran group led by Osiris Eldridge, Champ Oguchi, Lloyd Philips and Emanuel Holloway, each averaging in double digits in scoring. Easy to understand why they are second in the Valley in scoring. Also, Illinois State leads the Valley in FG percentage defense at 41.6 percent, in three point FG percentage defense at 30.8 percent and rebounding margin.

Northern Iowa was the team that flew under the radar this season. While Illinois State and Creighton were considered the favorites, the Panthers were picked for middle of the pack in the Valley. But often is the case in the Bizarro Valley, a team emerges, and in this case it was the Panthers. They didn't emerge in non-conference early on, only going 6-5 outside of the conference with no marquee wins to speak of. Then they lost their first game at home to Indiana State, 85-84 and there the Panthers stood at .500 overall, 6-6.

Then it happened. The Hickory Hoosier lookalikes started playing like the Hickory Hoosiers. They had an incredible 11 game winning streak in conference. Even more impressive, seven of those wins were on the road, an incredible feat for a conference that is so unforgiving on the road (see Illinois State for further proof). It had to be expected that the Panthers would hit a lull, and they have, as they split their last six games including losses to Creighton at home and a drubbing at Siena (though the final score 71-65 doesn't indicate it). Still they salvaged the #1 seeding by beating Illinois State on the road for their eighth road win in conference and a home win over Evansville to end the season.

Northern Iowa is a very balanced scoring team where five players average between 8.8 and 11.9 points per game, led by Adam Koch who shoots 49 percent from the field. The Panthers offense is best when they work it into the 6 foot 8 Koch or the 7 foot 1 290 pound monster, Jordan Eglseder. Northern Iowa is first in the Valley in FG percentage at 45.3 percent. The Panthers tend to be in the top three or four of every other category, except steals, which they are last and turnover margin, next to last.

Creighton was my preseason favorite to win the Valley. An up and coming young talented squad fresh off a NIT appearance (like Illinois State) seemed poised to make the Valley a multiple team bid conference again this season. But the Bluejays stumbled out of the gate losing to UALR and Nebraska on the road, which doesn't look so bad since both teams are having successful years. Then after their 3-2 start, the Bluejays reeled off nine wins in a row, including winning at St Joseph's, a signature win over likely at large Dayton, and two wins in conference.

Then the Bluejays hit a rut, losing four of their next nine and looking up at several teams in the Valley. But considering its been a year of runs for Valley teams such as Northern Iowa (11 wins in a row) and Illinois State (14 wins in a row), Creighton has won their last nine games. Eight were in conference and one was an impressive win over George Mason, the team with the highest ranked RPI in the CAA. The Bluejays finished tied for first with Northern Iowa, but got the second seed in Arch Madness.

The Bluejays are led by one of the best names in college basketball, Booker Woodfox, who averages nearly 16 points per game for the Bluejays. Sophomore P'Allen Stinnett chips in with 12.6 points per game, and Cavel Witter, Kenny Lawson and Justin Carter combine for 25 points per game. Creighton is first in the Valley in scoring offense at 74.7 points per game. The Bluejays are also first in free throw percentage at 76 percent, second in FG percentage at 45.2 percent, first in three point FG percentage at 39.4 percent, first in blocked shots at 4 per game, first in steals at 8.2 per game, first in turnover margin, second in assists and first in assist to turnover ratio. You get the picture, they are a very solid team.

There are other teams in the mix such as Bradley, the only other team to finish over .500 in conference at 10-8 with Theron Wilson averaging 14 points and 7 rebounds per game. There are the Aces of Evansville who are 17-12 after an abysmal 9-21 season thanks to guys like Shy Ely, right up there with Booker Woodfox for best name in college basketball. In fact, the Valley can put out an All Name Valley team with Booker Woodfox, Shy Ely, Osiris Eldridge, Champ Oguchi and the aptly named Lucas O'Rear. When you are 6 foot 6 and 255 pounds, baby's got back and your name should be O'Rear! :-)

Prediction - Well considering this is the Bizarro Valley, I am so glad that Creighton didn't get the number one seed, because as noted above, history has not been kind to the #1 seeds in Arch Madness. It's also pretty funny that if you currently pull up Creighton's page on ESPN, you get "The Cat ate the canary" grin of Joe Lunardi! That's because, as noted, he has Creighton as an at large in the tournament right now.

Illinois has the most difficult path having to play Evansville first, no gimme there after Evansville's impressive home win over Miami Ohio in the Bracketbusters. Then if the Redbirds survive, they get Creighton. Creighton will win because, they do the little things like free throw shooting and ball control, while Illinois State knows how to do the little things lose like miss free throws and clang threes.

Meanwhile Northern Iowa's path is not all that easy considering likely quarterfinal foe Drake beat the Panthers on their home court. Northern Iowa has swept likely semifinal opponent Bradley but by only five points and three points respectively. And its very hard to sweep a team three times. But they will get by somehow.

Thus its Creighton and Northern Iowa in the final. The Bluejays must at least make the final to get strong consideration for an at large. Anything less will likely mean the NIT. If I was the Bluejays, in one of the possible contentious years ever for at large spots, I wouldn't take my chances. Nor will they. I expect Creighton to be on all cylinders. Thus, I will take the more balanced piping hot Bluejays to beat the Panthers and make the at large bid question moot.

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