Men's Basketball

MVC Men’s Basketball Coaches Prepare for Sprint to the Finish Line

Emily Burdett | The PhoenixLoyola men's basketball head coach Porter Moser draws up a play during a timeout against Northern Iowa at Gentile Arena Feb. 15.

There are four games left in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) regular season — and the standings are tightening up with the conference tournament around the corner.

The top four teams are separated by just two games, and with the MVC Tournament a little more than two weeks away, it’s a sprint to the finish line. University of Northern Iowa sits in first place at 11-3 while Loyola (10-4) is a game back. Bradley University and Southern Illinois University are tied for third with identical 9-5 records.

If the season ended Feb. 19, they’d be the top four seeds at Arch Madness, the conference tournament. But Loyola and Bradley play each other one more time Feb. 29, and Southern Illinois is set to face Northern Iowa Feb. 23 in Cedar Falls. That means the standings will likely look much different when the final buzzer sounds Feb. 29 — the last day of the regular season.

1. Northern Iowa

Northern Iowa came up short in an overtime loss to Loyola Feb. 15. If the Panthers would have won, they’d have a three-game advantage over Loyola, Bradley and Southern Illinois.

But Northern Iowa still appears to be the favorite for the MVC crown and ranks No. 39 in the NCAA Evaluation Tool rankings — a metric that helps determine which of the 353 Division I teams could get an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

“If you can get your team to get up and work hard every day, regardless of circumstance … things are usually going to work out.”

Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa head coach

Panthers head coach Ben Jacobson — who has won two MVC titles and coached in four NCAA Tournaments — said his team is focused on getting better in practice every day. He also added he has learned valuable lessons from his former boss, current Creighton University head coach Greg McDermott, and his former college coach Rich Glas.

“If you can get your team to get up and work hard every day, regardless of circumstance … things are usually going to work out,” Jacobson said. “This team’s been great about that. I’ve really been impressed with their ability to tune in to what we’ve got to get done each day so we can get ready for the next time, and we’re going to stay on that track.”

2. Loyola

Coming off that big victory over Northern Iowa, Loyola has now won three straight games and finds itself alone in second place with four games left on the schedule. 

Some projections show the Ramblers as the favorites for the No. 2 seed at Arch Madness with just a six percent chance of the top spot when the season ends. The Ramblers have beaten three of the four teams left on the schedule, only losing to Drake University on the road Jan. 7. 

But Loyola head coach Porter Moser said his team can’t worry about what things will look like in two weeks. Instead, he’s still preaching his “one game at a time” mentality.

Loyola men’s basketball head coach Porter Moser celebrates after the Ramblers’ thrilling overtime victory over Northern Iowa at Gentile Arena Feb. 15.

“You can’t think beyond what’s right in front of you in this race,” Moser said. “You’ve just gotta have tunnel vision on what’s right in front of you. Obviously, you know it’s February and you’ve got four [games] left, but everything we’re geared [toward] is what’s right in front of us, and that’s Wednesday night vs. Illinois State.”

T-3. Bradley

Last year’s Arch Madness champions, the Braves — who are coming off their first NCAA Tournament since 2006 — are finally getting healthy. Reigning Arch Madness Most Outstanding Player Elijah Childs returned to the lineup Feb. 9 after missing 12 games with a broken hand, meaning head coach Brian Wardle finally has a healthy rotation.

Bradley has won three straight games since Childs came back. Childs missed the Braves’ game against Loyola Feb. 1, a 62-51 Ramblers victory.

“With Elijah finally back and everybody healthy, we haven’t had this roster much this year.”

Brian Wardle, Bradley head coach

Wardle said staying healthy is key to finishing strong, but he added his team still needs to get better in certain areas. 

“With Elijah finally back and everybody healthy, we haven’t had this roster much this year,” Wardle said. “We’ve got to find more rhythm on both ends of the floor, a little bit more flow. … But obviously, I like when we’re clicking. Our level of play, I think, is really high.”

T-3. Southern Illinois

Southern Illinois head coach Bryan Mullins has put himself in conversation for MVC Coach of the Year as his Salukis have surpassed preseason expectations all year. They were picked to finish last out of 10 teams in the preseason poll, but are currently tied for third in the standings and would be the No. 4 seed at Arch Madness if the season ended after 14 games.

Mullins, who coached under Moser at Loyola from 2011-19, is taking the same mentality as his former boss. He’s keeping his team focused on the game ahead and trying not to get too far ahead of himself.

Nick Schultz | The Phoenix Southern Illinois head coach Bryan Mullins calls out a play against Loyola at Gentile Arena Jan. 16. Mullins was an assistant coach at Loyola from 2013-19.

“I think everyone in our league, [there are] no easy games,” Mullins said. “You can’t look ahead. Every game, now it seems like, is coming down to the last couple possessions.”

Arch Madness is scheduled for March 5-8 in St. Louis. Final seedings are expected to be announced March 1 — the day after the season ends.

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