Nick Knacks

Column: A Stronger MVC Could Make for More Madness Under the Arch

Emily Rosca | The PhoenixIllinois State's Jaycee Hillsman attempts a layup against Drake March 5. Hillsman finished with nine points in the Redbirds' loss to Drake.

After a wild, 18-game conference season, we’ve made it to the craziest weekend on the calendar. 

Arch Madness — the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) men’s basketball tournament — is underway in St. Louis. It’s one of the pinnacle mid-major conference tournaments. Anything can happen.

“From the top to the bottom, I think everybody has a chance,” said Indiana State University head coach Greg Lansing. “It’s just [about] getting hot at the right time. … You don’t know until you get there at all, and that’s why it’s going to be so exciting.”

That was the case last season, too. Remember when No. 5-seeded Bradley University knocked off No. 1-seeded Loyola in the semifinals? Or when No. 2-seeded Drake was knocked out by No. 3-seeded University of Northern Iowa? That was crazy.

But something feels different this year. There’s an excitement surrounding the 30th edition of Arch Madness that hasn’t been there the last few years.

It could be because the league is stronger — and the numbers prove it.

In 2018, the NCAA introduced the NCAA Evaluation Tool (NET), a metric that was adopted to replace the flawed Ratings Percentage Index in men’s basketball. The NET is one of the key tools in selecting which of the 353 Division I teams get at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament.

Zack Miller | The Phoenix Valparaiso first-year forward Ben Krikke throws down a dunk during the play-in round of Arch Madness at Enterprise Center March 5.

The MVC was tightly packed last season, just as it is this year. But it wasn’t because the league jumped off the page. It was, by all definitions, a down year in 2019.

Loyola was the highest-ranked MVC team in the NET last year, checking in at No. 127. This season, five teams out of 10 rank higher than that, led by league-champion University of Northern Iowa, which ranked No. 37 at season’s end.

In fact, all 10 MVC schools had an average NET ranking of 167.9 in 2019. This year, that number is 140.8. If you take out the bottom two teams — Illinois State University and University of Evansville — it jumps to 117.6.

That should translate to this weekend, meaning we’re in for a weekend of pure madness.

The strength of The Valley goes beyond the metrics, though. Just look at the seedings.

“To see teams like … Drake and [Valparaiso] on Thursday night is just crazy.”

Porter Moser, Loyola head coach

The No. 7 seed, Valparaiso University, finished 9-9 in conference play. Drake, the No. 8 seed, was 8-10. To give you an idea, Loyola was the No. 5 seed three years ago when it went at 8-10 in MVC action.

On top of that, Valparaiso and Drake both finished over .500 overall this year and were both stuck in the play-in games because of how the standings shook out. Yes, Illinois State University finished 17-16 last year and ended up as the No. 7 seed, but to have the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds be over .500 this year says something.

“To see teams like … Drake and [Valparaiso] on Thursday night is just crazy,” said Loyola head coach Porter Moser. “You’ve got to play well for three days in a row, and that’s the bottom line.”

The play-in games are done, so we’re into the heart of the bracket now. Drake and Valparaiso both advanced, so the bracket is set for a wild weekend.

This ought to be fun.

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