MVC Tournament Preview: Will Loyola Steamroll Arch Madness?

MVC Tournament Preview: Will Loyola Steamroll Arch Madness? article feature image

© Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Arch Madness is a conference tournament near and dear to my heart, as I used to attend the MVC tourney every year with my brother. I grew up in Terre Haute, IN, home of the Indiana State Sycamores. I basically attended every ISU home game from first grade through high school so I saw a lot of bad basketball.

2018 MVC Tournament Overview

All games will be played in St. Louis, with the winner being crowned on Sunday, Mar. 4. All ten Valley teams make the conference tournament, with the top six seeds receiving a first round bye. Defending champion Wichita State will not have a chance to defend its crown, as the Shockers of course moved to the AAC before the season.

Let’s dive into the bracket to identify any potential sleepers in a league that Loyola Chicago dominated all season. I will also finish up with both first round ATS predictions for tonight, one of which I really fancy.

Who Should Win

Loyola Chicago +105

Anything short of a title run for the Ramblers would be a disappointment in my opinion. The Ramblers are not  only the clear class of the league, but one of the best mid-major teams in the country. They are truly worthy of an at-large bid should they get upset in St. Louis. Don’t forget this team won at Florida, despite losing MVC Player of the Year Clayton Custer in the first half. Loyola only lost one Valley game with Custer in the lineup. That loss came at Bradley, which does happen to be in Loyola’s half of the bracket.

Loyola has the most efficient offense in the Valley, and it’s not even close. Head coach Porter Moser, a Rick Majerus disciple, runs one of the best 4 out motion offenses in the nation. Majerus’ motion offense prevents teams from ever relying on jump shots. Per, the Ramblers attempt shots at the rim at the 40th highest rate in the country. They get to the tin at will via post ups from Cam Krutwig, and by cutting and driving from Aundre Jackson on the wing and Custer at the point. This opens up the perimeter for sharp shooting wing Donte Ingram. The Ramblers as a team shoot the 3 at nearly 40%.

Defensively, Loyola limited MVC offenses to .945 points per possession (ppp). Loyola is an absolutely dominant pick and roll defense, thanks to Ingram, Marques Townes, and Ben Richardson, who can switch on every ball screen. Krutwig has shown severe limitations guarding outside of the paint on screens, but the extremely versatile and athletic Jackson covers up a lot of those mistakes. Moser will often even put the 6’5 power forward on the better post players in the league. Loyola plays great team defense, but if it can be broken down by quick guards off the dribble, which Valpo and Bradley did successfully.

If Not Loyola, Then…

Missouri State +750

If Missouri State wins the “play-in game” tonight, it could emerge as a sleeper. However, no team in the history of Arch Madness has gone from PIG to champ. In fact, only one team has even made it to the semis.

You can make a case that Missouri State was the most disappointing team in the entire country, falling from preseason Valley favorite to the dreaded play-in game. Head coach Paul Lusk will almost certainly lose his job over this disastrous season, barring a miracle run to the title. However, given the talent level of this team, that miracle run is at least somewhat possible. With probable NBA first round pick Alize Johnson running the offense through the post, the Bears can be a difficult matchup, especially if the supporting cast is hitting jumpers. Unfortunately, that hasn’t happened very often. Mo State shot a league low 32% from beyond the arc in MVC play.

So why did the Bears finish 4-11 after a 3-0 start in league play? First, they have no cohesion, despite returning the 8th most experience in the country this season. The MVC is a grind. Every coach knows the tendencies of every other coach. Teams must move the ball efficiently and hit open jump shots to have success. The Bears do neither, relying on Johnson to create offense in isolation. Defenses eventually started helping off shooters to double Johnson, and Lusk never adjusted. It was coaching malpractice in real time. They were even more of a disaster off the court. It had a theft incident involving two players and a bizarre off campus cryotherapy treatment incident that left two players with such badly blistered feet that they haven’t played since.

Missouri State will try to salvage their season against No. 10 seed Valparaiso, which suffered through a miserable first season in the Valley. The Bears held Valpo to just .81 ppp in a season sweep. It is simply a favorable matchup for Mo State. Valpo is the most pick and roll reliant offense in the MVC, and one of the few consistent aspects of MSU’s season has been its solid pick and roll defense. Additionally, Johnson dominated Valpo’s frontcourt, totaling 35 points and 29 rebounds in the two victories. Valpo has had its own off court issues, with guard Joe Burton leaving the program and guard Micah Bradford’s arrest over the weekend.

If the Bears advance, they would face No. 2 seed Southern Illinois, which swept MSU in the regular season. However, those two wins came by a total of three points, including an OT win in Carbondale. Kavion Pippen struggled to defend Johnson facing the rim in both meetings, and SIU’s best overall defender, Armon Fletcher, was too small to keep Johnson from backing him down. SIU limps to St. Louis having lost its last two regular season games by a combined 50 points.

Deep Sleeper

Northern Iowa 16-1

UNI has a positive first round matchup with Evansville in the 8/9 game tonight. UNI plays an extremely compact defense, which doesn’t leave room for Evansville’s constantly screening motion offense. The series split between these two featured a grand total of 194 points. However, the Aces played without PG Dru Smith in the loss at UNI. Smith is Evansville’s best defender and takes some heat off Ryan Taylor, the trigger man in Marty Simmons’ motion offense. Taylor actually leads the country in shot rate.

Rumors are flying that this could be Simmons’ last game, so it’s hard to know what kind of effort we’ll see from Evansville. UNI meanwhile is dealing with injuries, as post Bennett Koch is nursing a sore ankle and Ben Jacobson’s best perimeter defender Juwan McCloud will likely miss the tournament. The Panthers are trending upward, but an upset of Loyola would be extremely unlikely. The Ramblers’ offense is built to shred UNI’s containment defense.

Other Considerations

No. 3 seed Illinois State is finally healthy, with PG Keyshawn Evans and center Phil Fayne back in the lineup. ISUred’s defense was among the best in the entire country last year, but it disappeared this season. The Redbirds also became way too reliant on jump shots, leading the Valley in three point attempt rate (despite hitting just 33% in league play). That said, 6’6 Milik Yarbrough’s versatile skill set is arguably the biggest matchup problem in the Valley, rivaled only by Alize Johnson as a point-post.

The Redbirds will face No. 6 seed Indiana State in the dreaded late Friday game, which has basically been a death sentence for the winner. Only one team, Indiana State in 2011, has won the tournament after playing in the late Friday game. Indiana State (ISUblue) posted its most efficient offensive game of the season in a win over ISUred in Terre Haute, scoring 84 points in 66 possessions. The Trees also probably should have won in Normal, as they blew a late 10 point lead before falling in OT on New Year’s Eve. (Evans missed that game for the Redbirds). ISUred can’t contain Jordan Barnes and Brenton Scott in the backcourt, but ISUblue can’t slow down Yarbrough and Fayne at the rim. That’s the crux of this matchup.

I mentioned earlier that No. 4 seed Bradley was the only team to beat a fully healthy Loyola squad, but the Braves could be without leading scorer Darrell Brown. He suffered a sprained ankle last game and is doubtful against No. 5 seed Drake. After that Loyola win, Bradley’s dominant man to man defense suddenly disappeared, and it floundered to a 2-5 finish.

Drake meanwhile was one of the Valley’s top storylines this year. Head coach Niko Medved came in from Furman and immediately changed the culture. Drake runs a 4 out motion offense centered around lethal guard Reed Timmer, but the Bulldogs sputtered when Valley coaches saw Drake the second time around. Medved however tweaked the offense to exploit Nick McGlynn’s constant one on one coverage inside, but he was dreadful in Drake’s two losses to end the year, shooting just 3-20. Drake does match up well against a Bradley team it swept in the regular season. The Braves play outstanding pick and roll defense, but Medved’s offense rarely utilizes pick and roll sets. Drake’s weak side motion consistently flustered Bradley this year.

First Round ATS Predictions

UNI -1

Missouri State -1.5 (top ATS pick)

MVC Final Prediction

Loyola Chicago over Missouri State


Pictured above: Loyola Chicago guard Ben Richardson; credit Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports