Friday, February 21, 2020

Rosenberg: Bradley and Valpo play another key piece in the Arch Madness puzzle Saturday night

By: Jeremy Rosenberg

There are a few experiences in time and space that are iconic in sports. An afternoon at Wrigley. Friday night lights in Texas. Sunday at Arrowhead. For a college basketball fan, a winter Saturday night in Indiana will do nicely, the welcome generated warmth of a packed crowd contrasting nicely with frigid outdoor temperatures. A chance to escape the brutal weather, as well as the stresses of the week, to lose yourself for a couple hours rooting for a local team.
There is a lot to love about college hoops as a whole, but I do have a special place in my heart for Missouri Valley Conference basketball. Over the years, tournament success is synonymous with the MVC, and no power conference wants to end up facing the MVC champ. Basketball in the Missouri Valley is tenaciously competitive, and at a high enough level to put genuine fear into even the most storied of basketball programs.

The 2019-2020 version of the MVC potentially promises more of the same. A four-way bunch at the top of the standings, with one game separating perennial power Northern Iowa, 2018 Final Four darling Loyola-Chicago, defending conference tournament champ Bradley, and the upstart Southern Illinois Salukis. Pride plays a big factor in motivating these teams to a regular season championship, but let’s face it, as much as I love MVC hoops, the defections by Creighton and Wichita State has relegated the MVC to a one-bid conference. Enter Arch Madness.

Let us ponder what Arch Madness in St. Louis might look like this year. Earlier this week, the two teams I will be watching Saturday night played in desperate overtime battles, Bradley winning at home against Missouri State, while Valparaiso lost a valiant comeback effort at Drake. Come MVC tournament time, expect more of the same. For sheer competitive, rabid fan-fueled college hoops, in the words of Nelly, you can find me in St. Louie.

The ten-team format employed by the MVC is probably the most ideal for a conference tournament. Seeds seven to 10 play an opening round game, giving premium importance to being a top six seed. Obviously, you would like to be in the top two. But more important is to avoid the opening round, keeping the legs fresh for what will in all likelihood be a grueling gauntlet to the finals.

Currently, four teams are fighting for the five and six seeds. Drake and Indiana State have the edge with a one game lead, but with three games to play nothing is certain, especially with Valparaiso and Missouri State hot on their heels. Which brings us back to Saturday night in Indiana.

Bradley, 19-9 (10-5), is seeking a return to the NCAA tournament, as well as a regular season title. The Braves will battle Valparaiso, 14-14 (7-8), a team that has its back firmly against the wall. The Crusaders need a win to stay in the hunt for a top six seed and to avoid the dreaded opening round game.

Bradley has all the ingredients of a tough NCAA tournament out. A senior leader in point guard Darrell Brown. All-around talented forward Elijah Childs. Senior big man Koch Bar, and senior guard/small forward Nate Kennell. The Braves are talented and deep, with size and experience. 

Valpo is led by dynamic sophomore guard Javon Freeman-Liberty, the best player named Liberty since Marcus at Illinois. Valpo has youth, adding Mileek McMillan and Donovan Clay to the mix. When healthy, senior Ryan Fazekas makes Valpo a greater threat than their record indicates.

Saturday night in Indiana will be a tough road game for Bradley, but this is where true Sweet Sixteen contenders emerge, showing the ability to win difficult conference road games, in what will likely be a raucous environment. Whatever happens, I’ll be in St. Louis in two weeks to watch the Valley settle the season once and for all.