Nick Knacks

Column: Opening Night Proves MVC is Anyone’s League Yet Again

Henry Redman | The PhoenixThe craziness of the MVC regular season could continue into Arch Madness March 7-10.

A half-court, buzzer-beater to complete a comeback. An underdog coming out on top in a double-overtime thriller. A struggling offense bouncing back to win by 35 points.

Just an average opening night for the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC).

Jan. 2 marked the start of MVC play, with all 10 teams in action. The standings opened eyes around the league after non-conference play. Who would’ve thought Drake University would bring an 11-2 record into its first MVC game? Or that Indiana State University would’ve been 8-4 and playing really well? How about Loyola, Illinois State University and Southern Illinois University — the top three in the MVC preseason poll — sitting tied for fourth at 7-6?

Some members of the media even “revised” their preseason poll ballots on Twitter because of how things got shuffled. People were questioning if Loyola could perform in conference play after a rough follow-up to a Final Four run that captivated the nation. Drake and Indiana State looked like they were gearing up for solid conference campaigns.

Then, everything we thought we knew got turned upside down.

University of Evansville took Drake to two overtimes en route to an 82-77 win over the Bulldogs, who lost three-time MVC Newcomer of the Week Nick Norton to a knee injury in the effort. Indiana State got steamrolled by Loyola 79-44 and Jordan Barnes, who came in scoring an MVC-high 20.8 points per game, didn’t score in 14 minutes. He missed the second half due to an illness, according to Indiana State Athletics.

But the story of the night came from Valparaiso University. The Crusaders went 7-6 in a weak non-conference slate and took on Illinois State at the Athletics Recreation Center in Valparaiso, Indiana. After trailing by as many as 10 points, they stormed back and knocked off the Redbirds 58-56 thanks to a game-winning half-court shot from Markus Golder, which was one of two MVC plays to make SportsCenter’s Top 10 plays.

“You can’t get too high and you can’t get too low,” Loyola head coach Porter Moser said. “We’ve got 48 hours and we’ve got to get ready for Drake, a very hot team. I know they lost tonight … [but] it’s going to be like this in The Valley every night.”

He’s right. The MVC’s wide open again this year, meaning any team can win on any given night. The league’s fairly evenly matched — but not in the way it was last year.

Until this season, the NCAA used the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI) to rank the 353 Division I teams ahead of March Madness seeding. The MVC ranked eighth out of 32 conferences at the end of 2017-18 in the RPI with three teams in the top 100.

The NCAA’s now using the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET) instead of the RPI, and as of Jan. 3, the MVC doesn’t have a team in the top 100. Loyola’s the closest at 101st. It’s been an up-and-down year for the MVC, which makes the next two months before the conference tournament that much more interesting.

“It’s going to be like this all year long,” Moser said. “Every night, we’ve got to come ready to play … you’ve got to be ready every night. Anybody can beat anybody.”

The crazy part? Each team still has 17 more games left. That means there could be even more nights like opening night. Could Valparaiso build off that win to make a run at the title? Will Loyola win it all again? Will Illinois State recover? Those are all questions that’ll hopefully be answered in the coming months.

No matter what happens during the regular season, the real show’s going to start at the MVC Tournament. There’s a reason it’s called “Arch Madness” — other than being a play on words because it’s in St. Louis. If the regular season is as wild as it looks like it’ll be, just imagine what’ll happen March 7-10 at the Enterprise Center.

So kick back, tweet your hot takes and get ready for a wild ride. It’s just getting started.

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