Thursday, March 5, 2020

Rosenberg's guide to the 2020 edition of Arch Madness

By: Jeremy Rosenberg
Twitter: @CSportsOverload

For the 30th straight year, Arch Madness and the hopes of Missouri Valley Conference fans converge on the banks of the Mississippi River, in downtown St. Louis. There is something to be said for this degree of consistency, how it becomes an annual pilgrimage, a chance to explore the Gateway City and to sample its robust beer and party culture.

Each of the ten MVC teams brings different expectations to Arch Madness. Whoever emerges will likely prove themselves to be a formidable NCAA Tournament foe, a prime upset candidate that tends to nestle comfortably in the twelve seed.

Northern Iowa 25-5 (14-4), enters the conference tournament as the number one seed, uncertain of an at-large bid, with memories of last year’s disappointment fresh on their minds. A series of nail-biters brought the Panthers to the finals, only to lose to Bradley 57-54. Sophomore A.J. Green won the MVC Player of the Year award earlier this week, and will be expected to provide a scoring punch, while Defensive Player of the Year Isiah Brown will look to lock down the opponent’s top scorers each game. Led by Coach of the Year Ben Jacobson, UNI is deep, well-coached, and with a couple of wins may secure their bid by Sunday, without having to win. Not that they want to leave that to chance.

Who could possibly forget the dream 2018 Final Four run by Loyola-Chicago21-10 (13-5)? Remember what happened the following year? Probably not, as the Ramblers were cut down in the MVC semifinals by those same Bradley Braves, 53-51. Cameron Krutwig and Tate Hall lead Loyola, who also has defensive ace Lucas Williamson to add balance. Under Porter Moser, the Ramblers are a threat to win it all and get back to the big dance.

Indiana State 18-11 (11-7), stormed into the three seed with a four-game win streak to close out the season. Entering March hot is always a good idea, and the Sycamores are full of confidence. ISU is bursting with talent, led by dynamic guard tandem Tyreke Key and Jordan Barnes, with outstanding freshman Jake LaRavia making an impact. But watch out for senior Christian Williams, a team leader and lockdown defender. The Sycamores fell on opening night of Arch Madness last year, and the 2020 team has expectations far beyond the quarterfinals.

The elephant in room is defending champion Bradley 20-11 (11-7). The Braves had their eyes on the number two seed, but late losses to Valpo and Loyola, alongside ISU’s surge dropped Bradley to number four. This sets up an intriguing semifinal rematch with Northern Iowa, but there is no guarantee they will get there. Four vs. five Arch Madness games tend to be close affairs, true 50/50 matchups. Bradley is led by seniors Darrell Brown and Nate Kennell, as well as junior Elijah Childs. Koch Bar is disruptive in the middle. Bradley seems to be facing an underachieving 2020 season, unless they can pull out another Arch Madness title.

The Southern Illinois Salukis16-15 (10-8), have been overachievers this year. Picked to finish last in preseason polls, SIU put together a respectable record, a credit to the job done by head coach Bryan Mullins. The Salukis come with something old, seniors Aaron Cook, Barret Benson, and Eric McGill, and something new, freshmen Marcus Domansk and Lance Jones. Domansk especially will command attention, and a string of Saluki upsets will start with him turning Arch Madness 2020 into a personal coming out party.

Missouri State 15-16 (9-9) managed to escape the dreaded opening round game by securing the number six seed. Last year, in a typical four vs. five game, the fourth seeded Bears lost to, wait for it, Bradley, 61-58. MSU has a formidable front line with Gaige Prim and Tulio Da Silva. Senior guard Keandre Cook makes the engine run, but for the Bears the loss of Tyrik Dixon may be too difficult to overcome.

All hopes for Valparaiso 16-15 (9-9), rest on the health of superb sophomore Javon Freeman-Liberty as he is listed as probable. Valpo has been slow to adapt to the MVC after dominating the Horizon League for years. Having to play in the opening game makes things difficult, but senior Ryan Fazekas can provide complementary scoring if Freeman-Liberty is back and healthy.  If the Crusaders are clicking, they could pull an upset or two.

Drake 18-13 (8-10), lost a two-point heartbreaker to Northern Iowa in the MVC semifinals last year. The mighty Panthers await the Bulldogs in the quarterfinals, but only if they escape their first-round game. 7-0 sophomore Liam Robbins anchors the middle, while 5-11 junior Roman Penn is one of the more underrated players in the Valley. 

The injury bug has taken the depth from Illinois State 10-20 (5-13). A healthy Keith Fischer would go a long way towards helping the Redbirds spring an upset over Drake. Any kind of lengthy run by Dan Muller’s crew is highly unlikely.

Last and certainly least, Evansville 9-22 (0-18) has already accomplished the season goal of ruining Kentucky’s NET. Look up the words “Dumpster Fire” in the dictionary and you will see a description of the Purple Aces program. Do they even print dictionaries anymore?

As for predictions, I’d like to be bold and say Bradley or Loyola will pull this out. I could go all hot take and pick Valpo, led by Freeman-Liberty. But, I cannot and will not do these things. Northern Iowa has been the best team in the conference all season, and has the depth and talent to pull an NCAA upset or two should the matchups align favorably. 

Opening Round:        

(8) Drake over (9) Illinois State 
(7) Valparaiso over (10) Evansville


(1) Northern Iowa over (8) Drake
(4) Bradley over (5) Southern Illinois
(2) Loyola over (7) Valparaiso
(3) Indiana State over (6) Missouri State


(1)   Northern Iowa over (4) Bradley
(3) Indiana State over (2) Loyola


(1) Northern Iowa over (3) Indiana State