Tournament preview: Missouri Valley

Wichita State used Creighton’s exodus to the Big East as its cue to take over the Missouri Valley Conference. The Shockers did like none other, winning all 18 games by an average of 15.5 points and having only three games decided by fewer than 10. They were the first team to go unbeaten in the Valley since Bradley was 16-0 during the 1985-86 season.

As teams converge on St. Louis for the conference tournament beginning on Thursday, the question looms: Are nine other teams just competing for second place?

“It’s going to have to be a game where somebody goes out there and beats them,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “Wichita State does not make mistakes, and that’s at both ends of the floor. They defend and rebound as well as anybody in the country.”

The good news for the field? The Missouri Valley tournament almost never plays out the way it should on paper. Southern Illinois earned a No. 1 seed five times in six seasons from 2002-07 but had five agonizing tournaments that it did not win. Since 2000, the regular-season champion has claimed a matching conference tournament crown on only four occasions.

What’s at stake?

Since 2006, when a record four Valley teams received NCAA tournament bids, the league hasn’t sent more than two teams there. This season the league will end up represented by only one unless some team can dethrone the Shockers. The most likely challengers to Wichita State are the three teams that posted only single-digit losses to the Shockers.

Indiana State, which finished second in the standings, was one of just three conference teams to outrebound the Shockers in a game this season. In the closing minutes at home, the Sycamores played a one-possession game with Wichita State but lost 65-58. The Sycamores enter the tournament without any momentum, however, having lost their past three games.

“After we secured that second spot, I really think we were guilty of coasting a little bit,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “We had a stretch where those teams were more determined than us.”

No. 3 seed Northern Iowa played the Shockers close in both meetings before second-half runs broke the games open. During the Panthers' 82-73 loss on Feb. 8, they used nine 3-pointers to stay within striking distance.

“We’ve got two guards in Deon Mitchell and Wes Washpun that have the ability to get in the lane that can put pressure on a defense that way, and that will open up shots on that 3-point line,” Jacobson said. “If somebody is going to beat them, your guard play has to be very good.”

No. 4 seed Missouri State led the Shockers by as many as 19 in January only to squander the lead late in regulation and lose the game 72-69 in overtime. In the rematch last week, Wichita closed out its perfect regular season with a 68-45 win on senior night.

“They can play and beat anyone in the country,” Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said. “As with anything in college basketball, you can get beat by a lot of people. That doesn’t matter what league you’re in.”

Team with the most to gain

Wichita State may very well be playing for seeding. There are still those who are skeptical that its undefeated run through the regular season merits a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. The Shockers' win at St. Louis was arguably their best in nonconference play, but the Billikens' current three-game losing streak is sabotaging the value. The only way to lock up a top NCAA seed would be to win the conference tournament.

Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said he believed the Shockers deserve a No. 1 seed based on the regular season. But do the Shockers really want to take that chance?

“I don’t have to worry about that, I just have to worry about playing the games, and hopefully we can win and advance,” Marshall said. “If we don’t, we’ll be playing in the NCAA tournament regardless. Last year we went to the Final Four as a 9-seed, so I really don’t think it matters, just who is playing the best during those pivotal games in late March and April.”

The Valley has had one No. 1 seed in its history: Larry Bird’s 1979 Indiana State team that lost in the national championship game to Magic Johnson and Michigan State.