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MVC Tournament Preview – Welcome to Arch Madness.

by Matthew Stevens | March 5th, 2009

Two big firsts are the big stories heading into the 2009 State Farm MVC Tournament, starting Thursday.

1. If you take the wacky world of the Missouri Valley Conference regular season as a litmus test, nine different teams can make a serious argument that they can take home the championship trophy and the automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Three of the four teams playing in Thursday’s opening round have a combined eight wins against this year’s top three seeds.

“Northern Iowa and Creighton look to be the favorite in the respected sides of the bracket that they are in,” MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said. “Nothing would surprise us the way the regular season has gone and with the ability of the lower division teams to beat the teams in the upper part.”

No. 7 seed Wichita State has home victories against Creighton, UNI, and Illinois State; while No. 8 seed Drake was the only team in the MVC to beat co-league champs UNI and Creighton on their home courts.  No. 9 seed Indiana State also won at UNI and swept third-seeded Illinois State.

“I think three teams (in the opening round) are playing really good basketball and proven they can get anybody throughout the event so that’s no different than a number of different years,” Northern Iowa head coach Ben Jacobson said.

2. For the first time since 1997, this league is currently considered a one-bid league and each team that shows up in St. Louis has to think the only way it can be dancing in March is win tournament for the automatic bid.

“I think it’s partly a product of our leagues not being as good as they were two years ago,” Elgin said. “None of our coaches are thinking about next weekend but they’re worried about the next opponent. The only sure way to do it is to win the automatic berth.”

FAVORITES

No. 1 Northern Iowa Panthers (20-10, 14-4)

First Game: vs. No. 8 Drake/ No. 9 Indiana State winner, Friday 12:05 p.m.

The bad news is top-seeded Panthers have to win three games in three days to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006, but the good news is they are coming to the Scottrade Center with some momentum.

After losing four of five over a 13-day period in February, UNI got a big double overtime road win at Illinois State and finished off its co-championship title with a 69-62 home win against Evansville.

“We hope we’ve got some good basketball left in us and somehow find our way through three games in St. Louis,” UNI head coach Ben Jacobsen said.

On the offensive end, Northern Iowa’s five starters (Adam Koch, Jordan Egleseder, Ali Farokhmanesh, Kwadzo Ahelegbe and Johnny Moran) are all averaging between 9.6 and 11.9 points per game.

When they need a spark off the bench, the Panthers can turn to the league’s best reserve player in 6-foot-6 sophomore forward Lucas O’Rear. The Nashville, Ill. native averaged 5.4 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, while averaging 23 minutes per contest.  He shot 63 percent from the field, scoring eight or more points eight times this season.  The sophomore ranks second on UNI in both blocked shots (14) and steals (24).

Player to Watch: Adam Koch, junior forward, 11.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 49 FG%, 78 FT%.

No. 2 Creighton Blue Jays (25-6, 14-4)

First Game: vs. No. 7 Wichita State/ No. 10 Missouri State winner, Friday 6:05 p.m.

Can’t begin discussion without mentioning Creighton is the ONLY team with at-large consideration if it doesn’t win the conference tournament. However, the Bluejays have won the event six times in the past decade.

“The shame of Creighton possibly not getting a bid is they won the share of a championship in the ninth best league in the country and they held serve by being picked to the win the league and then did it,” Elgin said. “You really have to look at what’s left in terms of the 34 bids (because) I can tell you we’ll seriously rooting for teams like Utah State and Butler to win their tournaments.”

On the floor Creighton has the best player in the league with senior shooting guard Booker Woodfox.

“I never go a day without shooting the basketball,” Woodfox said. “(Coach Altman) didn’t have to bring me here and he’s always knowing I’m going to step up in the middle of a game.”

The 6-foot-1 sharpshooter leads the country in three-point field goal percentage by knocking down an astounding 51 percent from beyond the arc.

“He’s had a great year (and) has been so consistent,” Creighton head coach Dana Altman said. “He’s been a leader and is the most popular players on our team.”

One of the factors that have led to the Bluejays coming into the postseason conference tournament on a 10-game winning streak is the continued improvement of their forwards in sophomores Kenton Walker and Kenny Lawson Jr. That pair averaged a combined 13.5 points and nine rebounds per game.

“They got a little confidence and that did stabilize our team,” Altman said. “They were very inconsistent early in the year but they have started to be more consistent down the stretch.”

A 20-win team for the 11th straight season, the Bluejays have the depth to play 10 players at least 13 minutes.

“They’re running as hot as anybody could be,” Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said. “Over a three-game period, I love what the have. Most of us don’t play that many people that many minutes, but they do.”

Player to Watch: Booker Woodfox, senior guard, 15.9 ppg, 51 3PT%, 50 FG%, 89 FT%.

DARKHORSES

No. 3 Illinois State Redbirds (22-8, 11-7)

First Game: vs. No. 6 Evansville (17-12, 8-10), Friday, 8:35 p.m.

Congratulations to Illinois State guard and leading scorer Champ Oguchi for Bracketography.com MVC Tournament Joe Namath award for bulletin board material before the event starts.

When the Redbirds senior was asked if he’d like to see Creighton for a third time after losing the two regular season by a total of 27 points he responded to the Omaha World Herald with this.

“I wouldn’t mind that at all,” Oguchi said. “Give some payback to these guys.”

Junior guard Osiris Eldridge, who had a breakout offensive season as a sophomore, became a defensive specialist for the Redbirds this year as a junior, while contributing 13.5 points per game and 6.1 points per game.

Oguchi was also named MVC Newcomer of the Year after averaging 14.8 points per game and making 75 three-pointers.

When Evansville head coach Marty Simmons was asked how concerned he was about defending the Redbirds guard play, it only took one word.

“Very,” Simmons said. “All their perimeter guys are triple threat that can pass it, shoot it and they obviously can drive it. They’re good.”

Player to Watch: Osiris Eldridge, junior guard, 13.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 35 3PT%, 40 FG%.

No. 8 Drake Bulldogs (17-14, 7-11)

First Game: vs. No. 9 Indiana State, Thursday, 6:05 p.m.

Can’t finish off a conference tournament preview without mentioning the defending champions, even if they are relegated to the opening-round games after losing seven of their last ten games.

Simply keep these pair of thoughts in mind.

  1. In tournament play, the defending champ still holds the title until it gets beat, and Drake can show at any point that the players’ light bulb of Mark Phelps style can turn on at any point.
  2. Drake was the last team to beat Creighton in the regular season. Bulldogs guard Josh Young scored 16 points as the Bulldogs escaped Omaha’s Qwest Center with a 74-62 win on Jan. 24.

“I guess that was a big motivating game for them,” Young said.

Player to Watch: Jonathan Cox, senior forward, 11.9 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 40 3PT%, 43 FG%.


SCHEDULE

THURSDAY

Game 1 – Drake vs. Indiana State – 6:05 p.m.

Game 2 – Wichita State vs. Missouri State – 8:35 p.m.

FRIDAY

Game 3 – Northern Iowa vs. Game 1 winner – 12:05 p.m.

Game 4 – Bradley vs. Southern Illinois – 2:35 p.m.

Game 5 – Creighton vs. Game 2 winner – 6:05 p.m.

Game 6 – Illinois State vs. Evansville – 8:35 p.m.

SATURDAY

Game 7 – Game 3 winner vs. Game 4 winner  – 1:35 p.m.

Game 8 – Game 5 winner vs. Game 6 winner – 4:05 p.m.

SUNDAY (CHAMPIONSHIP)

Game 9 – Game 7 winner vs. Game 8 winner – 1:05 p.m. (CBS)

Beginning Friday, Bracketography.com will have game-by-game recaps and provide breaking news and other daily features from the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.

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