MVC Weekly Notebook: Tourney Time

February 27th, 2007

After a rugged 18-game conference schedule, the Southern Illinois Salukis are the 2007 Missouri Valley Conference Champions. SIU closed out the regular season by winning their fifth conference title in the last 6 years and will
enter the conference tournament as one of the top non-BCS teams in the nation at 25-5. The Salukis appear to be in line for a very favorable NCAA Tournament seed, one that could be in the top 4. The Creighton Bluejays finished second, 2 games behind SIU, and the Bluejays saw their chances at a conference title fade away as they went 0-2 against SIU. Missouri State finished 12-6 in league play for the second consecutive year and will enter the conference tournament as the 3 seed. The Bradley Braves finished fourth at 10-8 followed by Northern Iowa at 9-9. Wichita State, last years MVC regular season champion, finished in a disappointing sixth place at 8-10. Illinois State, Evansville and Drake all finished in a tie for seventh at 6-12, with the Redbirds winning a tiebreaker for the #7 seed at the conference tournament. After starting 4-1, the Indiana State Sycamores ended the season in dead last with a 5-13 league mark.

After winning the regular season crown, the Southern Illinois Salukis continued their climb in the national polls released Monday. SIU jumped from #13 to #11 in the AP Poll and the Salukis are also ranked #11 by the coaches in the USA Today / ESPN Coaches Poll after coming in at #14 last week. Creighton, the runner-up to SIU, was the only other MVC team to receive votes this week. The Bluejays received 12 votes in the USA Today / ESPN Coaches Poll, good for a #33 ranking.

The Missouri Valley Conference, currently with a #6 ranking in the RPI as a conference, appears to be in good shape this season to get three teams into the Big Dance. The Salukis however, will be the only team to enter the conference tournament as a “lock” to make the NCAA Tourney, as both Creighton and Missouri State need to win their quarterfinal games to enhance their resumes. The Bluejays and Bears, both currently in the top 40 in the RPI, appear to be at-large worthy and a win by both teams in their quarterfinal games will all but assure both teams of a tourney appearance. A loss by either team in the quarterfinals could send them packing to the NIT. The Bears failed to reach the semifinals last season, fell out of at-large status and were left out of the Big Dance despite a lofty RPI. It’s simple, win and get to the semifinals. And, the Bluejays and Bears have to like their chances.

The Missouri Valley Conference Tournament gets under way this Thursday from the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, MO. The tournament dubbed “Arch Madness,” is sure to be a dandy. SIU will look to become repeat champions and the first #1 seed to walk out with the league’s automatic NCAA Tournament berth since 1998. However, don’t just crown SIU the champs. The rest of the league will be vying for the all-important automatic bid and SIU will get the league’s best shot. If exciting college basketball is what gets your blood flowing, tune in this weekend to the always-entertaining MVC Tournament.

Game of the Week – #13 Southern Illinois at Indiana State, Tue Feb. 20, Hulman Center, Terre Haute, Indiana

The Southern Illinois Salukis knew all they had to do was win and the 2007 Missouri Valley Conference Championship would be theirs out-right. It was easier said then done Wednesday night in Terre Haute but the Salukis weren’t about to let everything they had worked for slip out of their grasp. SIU battled back from a 2-point halftime deficit and held on to beat Indiana State 58-50 and in doing so won the MVC. The Salukis have now won or shared 5 of the last 6 conference championships. Despite entering the contest having lost 4 straight games and in last place in the conference, the Indiana State Sycamores gave it their all and almost pulled off the biggest upset of the conference season. ISU built a 5-point advantage after a bank shot by Trent Wurtz at the 14-minute mark but SIU responded with a 10-2 run giving SIU a three-point lead with 7 minutes to play. SIU would never relinquish the lead and they would go on to beat ISU, earning the number 1 seed for this weekend’s conference tournament. Jamal Tatum and Tony Young each had 15 points as SIU shot 44 percent from the floor while holding Indiana State to just 35 percent. Marcio Stinson was the only Sycamore in double figures with 17 points. The Salukis will now head to St. Louis with their 25-5 record and the role of team to beat in the MVC Tournament. If SIU can become the first number one seed to win the tourney title since 1998, the Salukis could be heavily rewarded come Selection Sunday. With a tournament championship on their resume, SIU could land a # 2 seed in the Big Dance.

Game of the Upcoming Week – Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Championship Game, Sun. March. 4, Scottrade Center, St. Louis, Missouri at 1 p.m. on CBS

The Missouri Valley Conference will take center stage this Sunday when the league will host its conference tournament championship game on CBS. The Southern Illinois Salukis have to be the favorite this year to be the ones holding up the signs at center court on Sunday that read “Missouri Valley Champs”. The Salukis stormed through the regular season with a 15-3 conference record and enter Arch Madness with an 11 game winning streak. Top challengers would appear to be Creighton, the #2 seed and Missouri State, the #3 seed. The Salukis, during the regular season, however, swept both teams. And don’t rule out Bradley, who made an impressive run last year to the tournament final as the #5 seed, and Wichita State, who was ranked as high as #8 nationally this year. If these two teams can get on a roll, they have the talent and ability to win the tournament. Very rarely do the seeds hold to be true, but this year will be the exception. Southern Illinois, Creighton, Missouri State and Bradley, the top 4 seeds, will all make it to the semifinals Saturday. From here, it’s anybody’s guess, but Southern Illinois is to strong and Nate Funk has always played well in St. Louis and on Sunday the Salukis will battle the Bluejays with the league’s automatic berth on the line. SIU will defeat the Bluejays for the third consecutive time this season and enter the NCAA Tournament on a 14 game winning streak. The Salukis will likely receive a top 4 seed, possibly as high as # 2. SIU will have tons of momentum entering the Big Dance and they have the talent to make it very deep run into March.

Prediction – Southern Illinois over Creighton – 58-50

Player of the Week – Randal Falker, Jr., C – Southern Illinois

The recent emergence of junior center Randal Falker has been a big reason why SIU has climbed into the Top 15 of the national polls and just recently captured their fifth conference title in the last 6 years. Falker was a man among boys Saturday night in the Salukis win over Evansville as he put his team on his back and carried them to victory. Falker hit 13-of-15 shots from the floor while scoring a career-high 30 points while grabbing a game high 7 rebounds. In the Salukis conference championship-clinching win over Indiana State Wednesday, Falker had just 4 points but he took only 3 shots. Falker continued to be a force down low, however, as he grabbed a team high 10 rebounds. The only glitch in Falker’s game, which could prove to be costly in close tournament games, is his free throw shooting as he made just 6-of-15 attempts this past week. Falker is dominating on both ends of the floor and he is currently second on the team in scoring with 13 points per game while leading the team in rebounding, averaging 7 boards a game. When Falker his playing to the best of his ability, the Salukis are almost unstoppable. SIU needs to Falker to continue his solid play if they look to bring the MVC Tournament title to Carbondale.

Team Capsules

1. Southern Illinois (25-5, 15-3) Last Week: 1st

The Southern Illinois Salukis wrapped up the 2007 Missouri Valley Conference regular season championship Wednesday night when they defeated Indiana State 58-50 in Terre Haute. The Salukis have won or shared 5 of the last 6 regular season Valley Championships and in doing so have made a name for themselves on the national scene as one of the top mid-majors in the country. Despite trailing by 2 at the half to the Sycamores, the Salukis, who only had 6 buckets in the first half, played like champions in the second half as they held on to beat ISU behind 15 points from Tony Young and Jamal Tatum. The Saluki defense was once again outstanding as they held ISU to just 35 percent shooting. SIU then extended its winning streak to 11 games Saturday night when they knocked off Evansville, the same Ace team that beat them earlier this season, 76-69. Junior Randal Falker wasn’t going to let this years SIU seniors, who have accomplished so much, go out with a loss. Falker scored a career-high 30 points while grabbing a team high 7 rebounds as SIU avenged their earlier loss to Evansville. Young added 17 and Tatum had 15 in their final home game of their career. The Salukis will open up MVC Tournament action as the #1 seed Friday at noon when they face the winner of Thursday’s Evansville / Drake game. SIU will have no trouble moving on to the semis and even though no top seed has won the conference tournament since 1998, you’ve got to like the Salukis chances as they enter tournament action on an 11 game winning streak. A tournament championship will greatly enhance the Salukis chance at a top 4 seed in the Big Dance.

2. Creighton (19-10, 13-5) Last Week: 2nd

The Bluejays surprising home loss to Drexel in last Saturdays BracketBuster Event hung around a little longer than the Bluejays would have liked as they lost for the second consecutive time Tuesday, falling to Illinois State 65-55 in Normal, Illinois. The loss ended the Bluejays slim conference championship hopes and may have even put a damper on the Jays at-large hopes. If the Jays can get hot in St. Louis they’ll stay in the Big Dance mix. Creighton jumped out to a 10-point halftime lead and appeared to be coasting before the Redbirds made a stunning second half comeback. The Redbirds outscored CU 40-20 in the second half and went on to hand the Jays their fifth conference loss. Nate Funk led the Bluejays with 16 points and Anthony Tolliver added 12 points and 9 rebounds. Creighton however, bounced back and picked up a solid win Saturday to avoid entering the conference tournament on a three game skid. CU beat Wichita State, avenging an earlier loss to the Shockers, 71-54 at the Quest Center on Senior Night. The Bluejays were deadly from beyond the arc as they hit 56 percent of their three point attempts as they jumped all over the Shockers and coasted to a 15 point win. Nick Porter had 17 points and Funk added 16 as the Bluejays finished conference action 13-5. The Bluejays will enter the MVC Tournament as the 2 seed despite losing 3 out of their last 5 games to close out the regular season. Creighton will get the winner of the 7-10 match up between Illinois State and Indiana State. The Bluejays should have no trouble beating the winner of that game Friday and moving on to the semifinals where they’ll face either Missouri State or Wichita State. Creighton has the ability to make the championship game so don’t be surprised if they are playing for the league’s automatic bid Sunday afternoon on CBS.

3. Missouri State (21-9, 12-6) Last Week: 3rd

After losing 2 home games last week, the Missouri State Bears found themselves on the “bubble” for the NCAA Tournament. When faced with adversity, good teams respond and that’s just what the Bears did, picking up 2 wins this past week and putting themselves right back in the NCAA Tournament mix. Tuesday night, the Missouri State Bears did something they hadn’t done since 1996 when they beat Wichita State in Wichita. The Bears got 18 points from Nathan Bilyeu and 17 from Blake Ahearn as the Bears beat the Shockers 71-65 and in doing so completed the season sweep of Wichita State. Despite shooting just 42 percent from the field, the Bears were on fire from the three-point arc hitting 11-of-27 attempts, which proved to be the difference in the game as MSU was out rebounded 40-28. The Bears then picked up their second win of the week, a 92-74 win over Drake Saturday night and will now enter the MVC Tournament with some momentum. Blake Ahearn scored 24 points in his final home game in a Bear’s uniform and he also hit 4 threes giving him the school record for threes in a career. Ahearn hit 267 three points shots during his tenure as a Bear. The Bears were once again on fire all night long as they hit 55 percent of their shots and 42 percent of their three point attempts. The Bears have made the conference tournament final in 2 of the last 3 years, but have come up just short in both instances. It’s never easy to beat the same team 3 times in a season but the Bears will get that chance when they play Wichita State Friday night. The Bears should get past the Shockers and in doing so almost lock up an NCAA at-large berth. Missouri State could make a run at the tourney title but they are 0-4 against SIU and CU. The Bears will likely fall in the semifinals.

4. Bradley (20-11, 10-8) Last Week: 4th

Entering this week’s action the Bradley Braves were on everybody’s radar as a possible NCAA Tournament at-large team. The Braves didn’t help out their cause Tuesday night when they fell to UNI, but don’t count out the Braves just yet. If they can get hot in St. Louis, just like they did last year, and reach the tournament final, they may find themselves right back in the at-large picture come Selection Sunday. Bradley opened up last week with a very damaging loss, a 79-70 setback to Northern Iowa. The Braves jumped out to a 7-point halftime lead but then they allowed UNI to shoot a remarkable 78 percent from the floor in the second half as the Panthers came back and handed the Braves a 9-point loss. Daniel Ruffin had a game-high 20 points and 9 assists and Zach Andrews had 14 points and 12 rebounds in a losing effort. The Braves however, bounced back Saturday as they closed out the regular season with a 74-58 win over Indiana State and in doing so locked up a fourth place finish in the MVC. Jeremy Crouch led 5 Bradley players in double figures with 13 points. After only leading by 4 at the half, the Braves caught fire in the second half, outscoring ISU 40-28 as they coasted to their tenth conference win of the year. The Braves won’t have to wait long to get revenge on the Panthers for their loss last week. Bradley opens up tournament action Friday with a game against UNI. Bradley gets past the Panthers before losing to SIU in the semifinals.

5. Northern Iowa (18-12, 9-9) Last Week: 6th

After losing eight of their last nine games entering this past week, the Northern Iowa Panthers season looked to be slipping away. However, the Panthers bounced back last week picking up 2 very important conference wins and will now enter the MVC Tournament with a little momentum. If this team can get hot, they could be very dangerous in St. Louis, but they must be able to make their outside shots because when they can’t, they are in trouble. UNI opened the week with a solid 79-70 win over Bradley, led by Brooks McKowen and Travis Brown who each had 15 points. UNI trailed by 7 at the break but shot 78 percent from the floor in the second half as they picked up the win. The Panthers also hit 8-of-10 three-point shots in the game and showed they can be deadly from beyond the arc. Grant Stout and Eric Coleman each recorded a double double in the Panthers victory over the Braves. UNI then closed out the regular season Saturday with a 71-66 win over Illinois State. Stout, the Missouri Valley Player of the Week, had 19 points and 9 rebounds and Coleman added 15 points and 7 rebounds as they reasserted themselves as they top frontcourt duo in the conference heading into the MVC Tournament. UNI once again was solid from outside hitting 40 percent of their threes and they ended MVC action at 9-9. The Panthers will open tournament play Friday with an afternoon contest against Bradley. The Braves are the better team and will likely send UNI packing, but the Panthers played solid last week and could give the Braves fits. The Panthers however, had a solid year, despite their recent skid, and they will most likely be headed to the NIT after a loss to the Braves.

6. Wichita State (17-13, 8-10) Last Week: 5th

It’s been a strange year for the Wichita State Shockers, but with a solid showing at the MVC Tournament, the Shockers could resurrect what has been a very disappointing second half of the season. The Shockers rose all the way to #8 in the polls after a solid non-conference portion of the season but they then went 8-10 in MVC action and will now likely be playing in the NIT instead of the Big Dance for the second consecutive year. The Shockers picked the wrong time to fade as they have now lost 4 consecutive games as they head into St. Louis this weekend. The Shockers opened up play last week looking to end their two game skid but the Missouri State Bears come into Koch Arena and beat the Shockers on their own floor 71-65 for the first time since 1996. The Shockers out shot and out rebounded the Bears but they were just 9-of-20 from the free throw stripe and the Bears hit 11 three point baskets which proved to be the difference. Kyle Wilson and Karon Bradley each had 17 points in the loss. The Shockers then closed out the season Saturday with their fourth loss in a row, a 71-54 setback at the hands of Creighton. PJ Couisnard led the Shockers with 16 points and 12 rebounds. The Shockers will take the court at the Scottrade Center Friday night when they take on the Missouri State Bears. The Shockers have fallen to MSU twice this season, but they are good enough to win this game. However, Wichita State’s recent struggles will continue and their season will end with a quarterfinal loss in the MVC Tournament. The Shockers will likely be headed to the NIT.

7. Illinois State (15-15, 6-12) Last Week: 8th

The Illinois Sate Redbirds will enter the Valley Tournament this weekend having won 3 of their last 4 games. ISU picked up a very solid win Tuesday night when they beat the second place Creighton Bluejays 65-55 at Redbird Arena. After trailing by 10 at the break, the Redbirds went on numerous runs in the second half, led by the MVC Newcomer of the Week Osiris Eldridge who scored all 18 of his points in the second frame and ISU outscored CU 40-20 in the second half. The Redbirds used a 14-4 run to start the second half to tie the game and later went on a 15-5 run to distance themselves from the Jays. Levi Dyer added 12 points as the Redbirds won their sixth conference game of the year. The Redbirds however, saw their three game winning streak come to an end Saturday as they fell in their final game to Northern Iowa 71-66. Dyer had 17 points and Greg Dilligard had 12 points and 9 rebounds. The Redbirds will play the second opening round game Thursday night in St. Louis when they’ll battle the 10th seeded Indiana State Sycamores. Illinois State should have no trouble with the Sycamores and they’ll advance to the quarterfinals to take on Creighton. The Redbirds beat the Jays last week, but that won’t happen again. ISU’s season will end when they fall to Creighton on Friday at the MVC Tournament.

8. Evansville (14-16, 6-12) Last Week: 7th

The Evansville Purple Aces picked the wrong time to lose two games and the Aces, after falling in their final two games of the season last week, will now enter the MVC Tournament this weekend reeling. Evansville opened up last week with a hard fought 82-79 loss to Drake in Des Moines. After trailing 61-44 with just over 12 minutes top play the Aces went on a 16-1 run to get within 2 points but they couldn’t get over the hump. Jason Holsinger hit 8-of-12 three pointers on his way to a career high 29 points. Matt Webster added 15 points and 7 rebounds as the Aces split the regular season series with Drake. The Aces then had a very tough challenge Saturday night as they closed out the year with a visit to SIU for the Salukis Senior Night. The Aces hung around all night but the Salukis showed why they are ranked #11in the country as they avenged an earlier loss to the Aces by the score of 76-69. Webster led the Aces with 21 points as the Aces lost despite shooting over 50 percent from the floor and from three-point land. Of the four teams playing opening round games on Thursday at the MVC Tournament, the Evansville Purple Aces, despite entering the tournament as the 8 seed, are the most dangerous team of the four. The Aces own wins over Missouri State and Southern Illinois in conference play and if they can get hot from three-point land they could surprise some people in St. Louis. The Aces kick off the tournament Thursday with a game against Drake, a game they should have no trouble winning. The Aces will then give SIU all they can handle again Friday before falling in a very close game to the #1 seeded Salukis.

9. Drake (16-14, 6-12) Last Week: 10th

The Drake Bulldogs will enter this week’s Valley Tournament having won 4 of their last 6 games. Drake opened up last week with a solid 3-point win over Evansville Wednesday night. Drake jumped out to an 11-point halftime advantage and survived a late 16-1 run by Evansville to hold on for the 82-79 victory, their sixth conference win of the year. Nick Grant led the Bulldogs with 25 points on 9-of-15 shooting and Ajay Calvin added 16 points as the Bulldogs forced the Aces into committing 13 turnovers while only committing 6 themselves. The Bulldogs then closed out their regular season with a trip to Missouri State to take on the Bears who had not lost in 17 consecutive games on Senior Night. That streak ran to 18 as the Bulldogs fell to the Bears for the second time this season 92-74. Drake is 0-8 against the Bears in the last four years under coach Tom Davis. Calvin led the Bulldogs with 19 points and 9 rebounds as the Bulldogs got run off the floor by the Bears in the second half. The Bulldogs will open tournament action Thursday when they take on the Evansville Purple Aces. The two teams split their regular season series, with Drake beating Evansville just this past week. This time though the Drake Bulldogs will be on the short end of the stick as their season will come to a close as they’ll fall to the Aces in St. Louis. Despite their opening round loss to Evansville, it was still a very solid year for the Bulldogs as they finished the season with their first winning record in 20 years

10. Indiana State (12-17, 5-13) Last Week: 8th

The Indiana State Sycamores, after starting MVC play 4-1, and being one of the early surprises in the Valley, proceeded to go 1-12 in their final 13 conference games and wound up finishing in dead last in the conference standings. Indiana State had an opportunity Tuesday night to pull off one of the biggest upsets of the conference season when they hosted Southern Illinois as the Salukis looked to win the conference title outright. The Sycamores hung close for most of the game but SIU pulled away and beat ISU 58-50. The Sycamores had a 2-point halftime lead but SIU outscored ISU by 10 in the second half and held on for the 8 point win. Marcio Stinson was the only ISU player in double figures as he had 17 points. The Sycamores shot just 35 percent from the floor in the loss. ISU then closed out the regular season with a 74-58 loss to Bradley, their sixth consecutive loss. ISU was within 4 at the half but they allowed Bradley to shoot 49 percent from the floor in the second half and the Braves pulled away handing the Sycamores their 13th conference loss. Jay Tunnell had 14 points and Gabe Moore added 10. The Sycamores will likely be one and done at the MVC Tournament in St. Louis this weekend. The Sycamores open play with Illinois State Thursday night and the Redbirds should be able to dispatch the Sycamores rather easily. Indiana State’s season will end in St. Louis and they’ll return home with a 12-18 overall record and a bitter taste in their mouth after a very disappointing season that started so promising.