ST. LOUIS — A five-day break and a change of location can make the past four months meaningless. Illinois State's Tim Jankovich, who has coached in tournaments ranging from junior college to the Big 12, knows that regular-season performances are largely irrelevant in March.
Even if a team is on a roll, as are his Redbirds.
"Almost nothing carries over," he said. "I really think the cliche is right in that it is a completely different animal."
It's uncertain what that means for the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament in St. Louis this weekend. Northern Iowa must be the favorite, based on its three-game margin — largest since 2005 — in the final standings.
As usual, however, the tournament matches a bunch of evenly-matched teams who just spent 18 games proving a lucky bounce, an injury or a buzzer-beater is all that separates them.
"I don't think there's a huge difference between the upper echelon and the lower echelon," Bradley coach Jim Les said.
Two teams enter the Scottrade Center with win streaks — Creighton with three and last-place Evansville with two. Northern Iowa lost to Evansville in its second-to-last regular-season game. Then the Panthers ended Illinois State's six-game win streak. Thirty-one of the 90 conference games were decided by five or fewer points, and the four-game spread between second place Wichita State and seventh-place Missouri State is the smallest since the 2000-01 season.
As a bonus, nine of the teams are wildly desperate to win the NCAA Tournament automatic bid. Only Northern Iowa is an attractive at-large candidate.
Wichita State's road to the title seems unusually difficult for a team that finished second. The Shockers didn't appear to earn any breathers.
On Friday, WSU will play either seventh-seeded Missouri State or Evansville. WSU swept MSU by a total of five points. Evansville split with the Shockers, losing in overtime at Koch Arena.
Should the Shockers survive, Illinois State or Indiana State await in a Saturday semifinal. The Redbirds won 6 of 7 games to close the regular season. WSU swept Indiana State, but didn't face guard Dwayne Lathan in either meeting and missed All-MVC guard Harry Marshall in one. Both are back from injury for the Sycamores, who avoided the play-in round for the first time since 2001.
While Jankovich doesn't know what it means starting Friday, he isn't surprised his team is peaking. The Redbirds returned three starters and almost no others with significant experience. A few months later, junior-college transfers Austin Hill and Tony Lewis and freshman Jack Carmichael are producing consistently.
"Our team was set up, from Day 1, to be at our best at the end of the year," Jankovich said.
Lewis, who moved into the starting lineup, is averaging 6.7 rebounds in the past seven games. Hill led the Redbirds with 14 points in a win at Bradley and added 10 in a win at Creighton.
"What has happened in our last three weeks or so, is we've had a lot of different heroes," Jankovich said. "Our team became deeper right in front of our face."
Jankovich could afford to wait because of his three seniors — All-MVC guard Osiris Eldridge, Defensive MVP Dinma Odiakosa at center and guard Lloyd Phillips. Odiakosa finished second in MVC Player of the Year voting after averaging 17.1 points and 9.8 rebounds over his final nine games.
"We truly believe we came together at the time we needed it most," Odiakosa said. "Now we truly believe we have huge momentum going into the tournament."
Eldridge, playing through hip pain, averaged 15.9 points and 4.0 rebounds despite a prolonged shooting slump.
"It's not been anything serious, just nagging," Jankovich said. "I think he's doing very well right now, so hopefully it will not be an issue this weekend."
Indiana State coach Kevin McKenna knows all about dealing with injuries. He kept his team together despite injuries to Lathan, Marshall and Jake Kelly, who was lost for the year.
Lathan, averaging 12.2 points and 4.7 rebounds, missed 11 games with a leg strain and a high ankle sprain. He has played two games since returning, scoring 15 points with seven rebounds in the regular-season finale against Missouri State.
Marshall, a second-team All-MVC pick, missed five games in February with a stress fracture in his right foot. Also back two games, Marshall led the Sycamores with 21 points and played 40 of 45 minutes in an overtime win against Missouri State on Saturday.
More Shockers honored — Wichita State's Gabe Blair and Garrett Stutz were voted to the MVC's All-Bench team.
Blair, a junior forward, averaged 6.8 points and 4.9 rebounds. He averaged 21.1 minutes in 28 games as a reserve. Stutz, a sophomore center, averaged 7.2 points and 4.2 rebounds.
Two Shockers — Stutz and Graham Hatch — were voted to the Most Improved team.
Hatch started 31 games and averaged 9.4 points and 3. 8 rebounds as a junior. He shot 38.3 percent from three-point range, up from 26.2 percent as a sophomore. Hatch started five games and averaged 3.6 points in 2008-09.
Stutz improved from averages of 4.2 and 2.6 as a freshman.
Both teams are voted on by newspaper beat writers.
Cheering in St. Louis — WSU will hold pep rallies two hours before each game at the Sheraton St. Louis Center, 400 S. 14th St. (across the street from the Scottrade Center).