You’ve heard it before this time of year, those proclamations that anything can happen on a basketball court in March and that every team has a chance to make some noise at its conference tournament.
More times than not, it’s merely coachspeak. This week in St. Louis, those words actually might ring true.
“Anything can happen in St. Louis,” said Creighton coach Greg McDermott, whose team begins defense of its Missouri Valley tournament title on Friday. “I think that’s the case every year, but that’s probably more true this year than at any time in recent seasons.”
McDermott’s team earned the No. 1 seed at Arch Madness by winning the regular-season championship with a 13-5 record. The five losses are the most by a champion since Evansville also won it in 1999 with a 13-5 record. It’s just the fourth time in league history that the champion lost five times in league play.
At the opposite end, Southern Illinois finished last with a 6-12 record. It’s the first time since 1993 that the last-place team won as many as six games. Five of the Salukis’ wins came in the final month of the season, making them one of the league’s hotter teams.
One of Southern Illinois’ wins came over second-place Wichita State. Creighton lost to Drake, which finished in a three-way tie for seventh, and Illinois State, which finished sixth. Fourth-place Evansville beat Wichita State twice. The Bluejays also lost to third-place Northern Iowa and fifth-place Indiana State.
“I think all you have to do is look at some of the outcomes, how some of the teams that finished in the top four have been beaten by the teams that finished in the bottom four that you say this is truly a year where anything can happen,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said.
Jacobson’s team will face sixth-seeded Illinois State in Friday’s quarterfinals. The Redbirds are the league’s enigma team of the year. Picked second in the preseason, Illinois State opened conference play with six straight losses.
They bounced back to finish 8-4, with one of the losses being a one-point setback to Wichita State in a game Illinois State had in hand until the final seconds.
What could make the Redbirds even more dangerous this week is that they have a roster loaded with players who know what it takes to make it to Sunday. Illinois State made it to the championship game last season, taking Creighton to overtime before losing by four points.
Redbirds coach Dan Muller sees that experience as beneficial heading into the tournament.
“I think you can go back to past experiences and gain confidence,” Muller said. “They understand that you might be a little tired the next day, but mentally that you also have to be tough enough to handle that.
“They’ve had success in the venue, so I’m hoping it turns out to be very valuable for us and comes into play again.”
Muller’s team is as physically talented as any in the Valley and has a pair of all-conference performers in Jackie Carmichael (first team) and Tyler Brown (second team). No player in the league — player of the year Doug McDermott included — has been hotter than Brown over the last eight games as the senior guard has averaged 25 points.
I like the Redbirds to make it back to this year’s championship game by knocking off Jacobson’s Panthers and then avenging their last-second loss to Wichita State.
Creighton benefited from having those three teams wind up on the other side of the bracket, as they would have presented the toughest challenge to the Bluejays getting back to the final. As it stands, the Bluejays should get by their first two games to earn another shot at the league’s automatic NCAA tournament berth.
“We’ve had a year in which we’ve shown that a lot of teams can beat each other,” Muller said. “I think there are a lot of tournaments where one through three are going to win. In our tournament this year, I think there is a high percentage of our teams that could win it.”
Greg Lansing, whose Indiana State team rode a pair of upsets to the 2011 championship, agrees.
“Every team in this league has had a tough stretch, including the conference champion,” Lansing said. “I think it’s really going to be wide open, and if someone can get hot down there, they could win the whole thing.”
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