ST. LOUIS — It is the time to tell yourself this could happen.
To wish for one of those crazy, March miracles.
Because if you’re one of the other nine teams competing for a Missouri Valley Conference Tournament championship this weekend, it’s going to take some serious doing to knock off unbeaten, No. 2 Wichita State.
Not that they’ll be backing down anytime soon.
“Regardless of the year Wichita State has had, going undefeated, we’re all going (to St. Louis) with the same thing in mind,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “Because of what (WSU) has done, it’s going to take a heck of a run to beat them. I don’t think that takes the heat off the rest of us.”
Not one of the other coaches was willing Thursday to say anything that sounded remotely like conceding a conference tournament title to the Shockers, who take a 31-0 record into Friday’s quarterfinal game against the winner of Thursday night’s Evansville-Drake game.
“I still think it’s wide-open,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “WSU has done a lot, but they’ll have to beat three good teams that are playing really well to win it.”
Of the five teams seeded below the Shockers — No. 2 Indiana State (21-9), No. 3 Northern Iowa (16-14), No. 4 Missouri State (19-11), No. 5 Illinois State (16-14) and No. 6 Southern Illinois (13-18), the Panthers seem the most equipped to pull off an upset.
Northern Iowa closed out the regular season by going 4-1 over its last five games, including a 71-69 win over Indiana State in the regular-season finale. They also have a big man that could give the Shockers trouble in 6-foot-8 All-MVC selection Seth Tuttle (15.4 points, 7.7 rebounds) and are the only MVC team to play WSU within single digits since the Shockers’ 72-69 overtime win over Missouri State on Jan. 11. WSU won 82-73 on Feb. 8 in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
The Panthers play Southern Illinois at 8:35 p.m. Friday. A UNI win makes Jacobson the school’s winningest coach.
“There were four teams that fought it out for the middle part of our league, and I think for a large part all four teams are playing really well,” Jacobson said. “Indiana State is good enough to win the whole thing, they’ve got the right experience.”
The second-place Sycamores might have seemed like the biggest threat two weeks ago, but they lost three straight games to close out the season to end any discussion of receiving an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.
“I’m disappointed with how we’ve played lately,” Lansing said. “I think what happened was our kids secured second place and the second seed and coasted a bit. The teams we were facing were playing with a lot more determination than we did. They competed better and we couldn’t get up to their level.”
Illinois State and Southern Illinois played well down the stretch, both going 3-2 in the last five games. Illinois State has probably the greatest advantage on any of the other teams — the passing of time. Of seeds 2-6, the Redbirds have the greatest distance from last facing WSU, a 70-55 Shocker win at Normal, Ill., on Jan. 22.
“We’ve gotten better over the last two months,” Illinois State coach Dan Muller said. “We’re making more shots, we’re playing better defense ... the thing that’s hurt us as a team has been rebounding, but we’re understanding the intensity you have to play with every game. Collectively, we’ve improved.”
And then there’s the St. Joseph’s question. The Hawks were last team to finish the regular season undefeated, going 27-0 before losing to Xavier in the first round of the 2004 Atlantic-10 Tournament. They advanced to the Elite Eight that year.
“I knew they lost, I forgot it was in the first round, so thanks for reminding me of that,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “The way you go 31-0 is you have a healthy respect for your opponent. Every coach is paid to win. Every team has, hopefully, 13 scholarship guys who want to go win. We’ll be ready for the challenge.”