No. 8 Loyola (15-16) vs. No. 1 Wichita State (23-7)
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Coach: Porter Moser
Tournament titles: None
RPI rank: 236
Players to watch: F Montel James averages 14.3 points and 8.7 rebounds over the past nine games.… G Milton Doyle had a disappointing season, but is capable of big things. He averages 11.5 points and 3.2 turnovers.… G Devon Turk burned the Shockers for 18 points in last week’s meeting, making 4 of 7 three-pointers.
Pack enough clothes for: A short stay. The Ramblers possess the talent to make the Shockers work. They don’t own enough size or depth to win, especially with injuries to G Earl Peterson (toe) and G Tyson Smith (knee).
Most recent NCAA Tournament: 1985
What they are: Great campus, great city, bare-minimum facilities, no fan support (except for the wonderful Sister Jean). The Ramblers need to continue stepping up their commitment to basketball. A practice court, a necessity these days, is a good place to start. Where do the Ramblers work on their game when the NCAA champion men’s volleyball team practices?
What the rest of the MVC sees: Empty seats at Gentile Arena. And they beat Creighton.
What they should be: With its location, strong endowment and an enrollment of 9,206, the temptation exists to say there is potential. Loyola hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 1985. That indicates much needs to change for the program to move toward the top of the MVC.
Coach: Gregg Marshall
Tournament titles: 1985, 1987, 2014
RPI rank: 38
Players to watch: G Fred VanVleet leads the MVC with an average of 5.8 assists.… G Ron Baker averages 13.9 points and 4.6 rebounds.… C Shaq Morris and C Anton Grady combine to average almost 15 points and eight rebounds. Grady is shooting 62.1 percent from the field in his past 10 games.
Pack enough clothes for: The Shockers should be in St. Louis for the duration. Their defense and depth are suited to playing three days in a row and the seniors are driven by the knowledge winning on Sunday is the only way to guarantee themselves an NCAA bid.
Most recent NCAA Tournament: 2015
What they are: The MVC’s dominant force with no sign of letting up. Valley schools can’t match WSU’s resources, fan support, profile or scheduling power.
What the rest of the MVC sees: It’s baseball season.
What they should be: Fans and university president John Bardo think they belong in another conference. Until that happens, the Shockers are the MVC’s marquee team and would welcome more challenges on the order of 2015 Northern Iowa. Or Creighton.
No. 5 Southern Illinois (22-9) vs. No. 4 Northern Iowa (19-12)
When: 2:30 p.m.
Coach: Barry Hinson
Tournament titles: 1977, 1993, 1994, 1995, 2006
RPI rank: 129
Players to watch: G Anthony Beane averages 19.4 points and makes 37.6 percent of his three-pointers. He is 7 of 30 from behind the arc in the past four games and twice failed to score more than six points.… C Bola Olaniyan is a bulldog on the boards, averaging 8.9 rebounds and a conference-leading 3.1 offensive rebounds.…F Sean O’Brien averages 12.1 points and 5.8 rebounds.
Pack enough clothes for: Carbondale is close enough to run home for more, if needed. The Salukis are stumbling into St. Louis and are 2-6 against the teams seeded above them. It’s been a good rebound season for SIU, which was picked ninth.
Most recent NCAA Tournament: 2007
What they are: Close enough to the Weber-Painter-Lowery glory days that it seems possible to challenge again. A seven-year NIT/NCAA drought is the program’s longest since the 1980s.
What the rest of the MVC sees: They’re glad the Salukis don’t foul as much as they used to. Everybody enjoys Hinson’s rants. Everybody wants SIU fans to fill Scottrade Arena again.
What they should be: From 1989-2008, SIU finished first or second in the MVC 11 times. The Valley needs SIU to move back in that direction soon.
Coach: Ben Jacobson
Tournament titles: 2004, 2009, 2010, 2015
Players to watch: G Matt Bohannon is UNI’s leader, shoots 42.9 percent from three-point range and is 19 of 19 from the line in the past nine games.… G Wes Washpun is a blur who runs the offense and is a disruptive force on defense.… C Bennett Koch is one of the MVC’s most improved players, averaging 8.1 points.
Pack enough clothes for: Sunday is a possibility. The Panthers enter the tournament winners of 9 of 10 games, a stretch that includes a win over SIU and a 4-0 record against the top three seeds. A semifinal against Wichita State should be great theater.
Most recent NCAA Tournament: 2015
What they are: The MVC’s strong second with six NCAA Tournament appearances from 2004-15. The Panthers are well-coached and a fixture in the top half of the MVC. Few envisioned this when UNI joined the conference in 1991.
What the rest of the MVC sees: Every athletic director must visit Cedar Falls and think, “If they can win here, why can’t we?” Answer: You don’t have Jacobson as coach.
What they should be: Don’t mess with success. The Panthers are right where the MVC needs them to be.
No. 7 Missouri State (13-18) vs. No. 2 Evansville (23-8)
When: 6 p.m.
Coach: Paul Lusk
Tournament titles: 1992
RPI rank: 235
Players to watch: G Dequon Miller made shots in the final eight seconds to beat Oklahoma State, Northern Iowa and Loyola and his three sent a game against Illinois State into overtime, leading to an 84-81 win. He averages 12.7 points and 2.9 assists.… Freshman G Jarred Dixon is out with a broken hand suffered in the last regular-season game. Dixon started 17 games and averaged 8 points.… F Chris Kendrix averages 12.1 points for the season, 16.1 over his past nine games, in which he is 50 of 57 from the line.
Pack enough clothes for: The Bears should be headed back to Springfield on Friday evening. Evansville swept the regular season by 17 and 19 points.
Most recent NCAA Tournament: 1999
What they are: In a constant rebuild since the 2011 MVC championship team. The Bears own one winning record since and far too many seats in JQH Arena sit empty. MSU should be one of the Valley’s top programs. Injuries and departures are wrecking Lusk’s plans.
What the rest of the MVC sees: Talented young players, but we’ve heard that before.
What they should be: Finishing in the upper half of the MVC with a student section that shows up more than once a season to show off “Wichita is Not a State” shirts.
Coach: Marty Simmons
Tournament titles: None
Players to watch: C Egidijus Mockevicius leads the nation in rebounding (14) and leads the Valley in blocks (2.8) and shooting percentage (65.7). He was named the Valley’s Defensive MVP.… G D.J. Balentine is the Valley’s busiest player, ranking first in percentage of minutes played (94.5), possessions used (30.5) and percentage of team’s shots attempted (34.1), according to kenpom.com. He averages 20.7 points and is a three-time All-MVC pick.… G Jaylon Brown averages 10.3 points, almost double his output from the previous season. He ranks second in the MVC by shooting 52 percent from the field.
Pack enough clothes for: Suitcases should be full when you’re the No. 2 seed. The Aces need wins to impress the NIT, if they can’t get past Illinois State in the semifinal. While they split the season series, the Redbirds are a bad matchup for the Aces.
Most recent NCAA Tournament: 1999
What they are: Simmons does a good job at the Valley’s smallest school, usually keeping the Aces in the upper half. Nobody enjoys playing his teams. That stability is helpful to the rest of the conference.
What the rest of the MVC sees: We expected a little more when Evansville joined in 1995 after winning five Midwestern Collegiate Conference titles. Is it that hard to drive 171 miles to St. Louis to support your team?
What they should be: Hard to tell. The pre-MVC Aces went to the NCAA Tournament in 1982, 1989, 1992 and 1993. As a Valley member, not so much. Are Evansville’s expectations to avoid the bottom of the conference or compete for championships?
No. 6 Indiana State (14-16) vs. No. 3 Illinois State (18-13)
When: 8:30 p.m.
Coach: Greg Lansing
Tournament titles: 1979, 2001, 2011
Players to watch: G Devonte Brown averages 15.8 points and 4.9 rebounds. His ability to draw fouls (188 of 247) is crucial to Indiana State’s offense. … G Brenton Scott averages 14.9 points and shoots 39.7 percent from three-point range.… G Everett Clemons, a member of the All-Newcomer team, averages 6.3 rebounds at 6-foot-1.
Pack enough clothes for: Wear the 1979 Larry Bird throwbacks in the first game because the Sycamores don’t look like they want to stick around. They lost six of their final seven games, defeating only ninth-place Bradley. Their last three losses came by 28, 33 and 22 points. It was a strange ending for a team with a 7-4 MVC record on Feb. 2.
Most recent NCAA Tournament: 2011
What they are: Solid, which is a blessing to the MVC for a school with Indiana State’s resources. Under Lansing, the Sycamores finished in the top half four times in six seasons with an NCAA and two NIT appearances. That isn’t easy to do in Terre Haute. This season’s meltdown is disturbing, but it could much worse for this program.
What the rest of the MVC sees: A team that lacks identity now that Jake Odum is gone. Brenton Scott heat-checks are fun, but it’s not the same.
What they should be: Exclude two seasons of Steve Reed (and Larry Bird) and a brief burst under coach Royce Waltman and the Sycamores reside at or near the bottom of the MVC for much of the previous 39 seasons. It is hard to expect much more than what they delivered the past six seasons.
Coach: Dan Muller
Tournament titles: 1983, 1990, 1997, 1998
Players to watch: F DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell averages 14.1 points and 4.6 rebounds, although he is 17 of 64 from three-point range (25.4 percent).… G Paris Lee, a member of the MVC’s All-Defensive team, averages 12.8 points, 4 assists and 2 turnovers, while making 35 of 39 foul shots, the past nine games.… F Deontae Hawkins averages 11.4 points and is 36 of 82 (43.9 percent) from three-point range in 18 MVC games.
Pack enough clothes for: The whole thing. The Redbirds lost in the title game four times in the past eight seasons. They enter the tournament winners of nine of their past 12 games. After dealing with the slumping Sycamores, they face Evansville, which they held to 38-percent shooting in a 70-60 win at Evansville on Feb. 11.
Most recent NCAA Tournament: 1998
What they are: Consistently good, not great. The Redbirds finished in the top three of the Valley six times in the past nine seasons. Muller recruits talent and schedules boldly. Player turnover keeps the Redbirds from bumping up a level.
What the rest of the MVC sees: A team that is close to contending, until it trips itself up with player defections or stretches of inconsistency. The Redbirds suffered through a losing streak of three games or more in MVC play each of the past six seasons.
What they should be: Push the highs a bit higher and this program is more of an asset to the MVC than it already is. Credit Muller for his schedules and his ability to keep it rolling after taking over from Tim Jankovich in 2012. He’s improved Illinois State’s MVC record four straight seasons.