When the 10 teams of the Missouri Valley Conference took to the floor in St. Charles, Missouri, on Thursday for the leagues postseason tournament, all came with the goal of winning the leagues automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. (Obviously, the chances of some to accomplish that objective were materially better than others.)
But one team came with an agenda that was somewhat different from those of the nine others The one, Illinois State, will be seeking to take another step toward establishing itself as the dominant program in the league. The rest of the league will be trying to stop them.
The Redbirds won their third straight regular-season championship this year with a 16-2 record in league play (23-6 overall). If they take home the hardware on Sunday, it will be their second tournament title in the past three years. They're already half-way there, having sat out Thursday's preliminary round games thanks to the bye they earned in regular-season play, and having beaten Illinois State, 76-39, in Friday's quarterfinal.
Next up for the Redbirds will be University of Northern Iowa in Saturday's first semifinal, a game that, at least on paper, should be far more evenly matched.
1. Illinois State, 23-6, 16-2
Leading the way for coach Robin Pingeton are All-Conference seniors Ashleen Bracey (15.3 points and 7.8 rebounds per game), Maggie Krick (14.8 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game) and Nicolle Lewis (11.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game). Bracey, who led the team in scoring and rebounding, and Krick were named to the MVC first team and Lewis was tabbed for the second team. Bracey and Lewis also garnered MVC All-Defensive team honors.
The Redbirds dominated the league statistically in the regular season. They were first in field-goal offense and defense percentages and third in rebounding margin. Only Creighton turned the ball over less. Their one weakness? Illinois State forced fewer turnovers than any team in the league. That shouldnt be enough to keep them from cutting down the nets again this year.
2. Creighton, 18-9, 13-5
Second-seeded Creighton looks to have the best chance to upset the Redbirds. Missouri State and Bradley were lesser threats , but they are already gone from the tournament. Creighton was the preseason pick to win the regular-season championship and wound up second to Illinois State. Creighton has won its last three games, including a home victory over Illinois State on March 4. If they get to the championship game against Illinois State, that win should give them confidence and a definite, albeit small, chance of defeating the Redbirds again.
Under Jim Flanery, the Bluejays are a very strong defensive team that finished first (i.e., lowest) in the league in points allowed and third in field-goal defense. They were second in rebounding margin. But the Jays are not a strong offensive team. They finished in the bottom half in the league in all shooting percentage categories.
Creighton is led by senior Megan Neuvirth (13.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game) and junior Sam Schuett (12.7 points and 7.5 rebounds per game), both of whom were named to the All-Conference first team for the second straight year.
3. Missouri State, 20-9, 12-6
Missouri State, led by sophomore Casey Garrison (19.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game), are a strong offensive unit. The Lady Bears finished first in points scored and in three-point field-goal percentage, second in field-goal percentage and third in free-throw percentage.
Garrison, who was named to the All-League first team for the second consecutive season, is perhaps the leagues top player and is more than capable of carrying her team. But she cant overcome the fact that Missouri State is simply a bad defensive team. They finished dead last in points allowed and in three-point field-goal percentage and ninth in field-goal defense.
If the Lady Bears could get and stay hot from the field for the entire tournament, they have an outside shot at winning it all. But it was a very long shot when they came into the tournament, and in the end, it was simply not to be. The Bears gave up 80 points to sixth-seeded Wichita State (16-13, 8-10), but managed to put up just 75 points of their own. They have no real chance for an at-large bid to the Big Dance, but could well get an invitation to the WNIT, so the season may not be over quite yet for Missouri State.
4. Bradley, 16-12, 12-6
Bradley is essentially the opposite of Missouri State. They are a strong defensive team and are easily the best rebounding team in the league. They out-rebound their opponents by 7.3 boards a game (Creightons +4.9 rebounding margin is second-best in the league). None of the Braves score in double figures but junior Sonya Harris, a second-team All-Conference selection, averages 10.0 rebounds a game -- good for second-best in the league.
The Braves have the ability to make things difficult for their opponents, but they dont have the scoring power to win three game in St Louis. Indeed, while they enjoyed a bye into the quarterfinals thanks to their fourth-place regular-season finish, Bradley dropped their first tournament game to fifth-seeded University of Northern Iowa (14-15, 10-8).
The Rest of the Pack
Some of the major conferences are experiencing parity to an unprecedented level. The Missouri Valley isnt. After the top four, no one seems capable of winning the championship. Tenth-seeded Evansville (4-25, 1-17), ninth-seeded Southern Illinois (5-23, 4-14), and eighth-seeded Indiana State (16-13, 7-11) have all lost and are out of the running. Seventh-seeded Drake (14-14, 7-11) was the most promising of the lower echelon teams this year, with ample talent which they parlayed into a disappointing seventh-place conference finish. Playing closer expectations in the tournament, Drake took its opening round game over cellar-dweller Evansville, 73-62, and gave Creighton a good game before dropping their quarterfinal match-up, 62-65.
Sixth-seeded Wichita State pulled off a major upset in its quarterfinal dispatch of third-seeded Missouri State, and fifth-seeded Northern Iowa pulled off a minor upset in defeating fourth-ranked Bradley, 70-50. But the Wichita State Shockers do not appear capable of electrocuting the two-seed when they meet Creighton in Saturday's semifinals. Wichita State dropped both their regular-season meetings with Creighton, the first by a 41-point margin (48-89), and though the encore had a less disparate margin (48-58), you couldn't really call it close. Both teams shoot roughly the same from the field (39.1 percent for Creighton; 40.1 percent for Wichita State), but the Shockers have no real perimeter threat, shooting just 28.5 percent from beyond the arc (to 34.7 percent for Creighton, which as previously noted, boasts the league's top scoring defense).
Northern Iowa poses a bigger threat to the Redbirds. At least on paper, the two teams match-up well in scoring (71.2 points per game for Illinois State to 68.7 for UNI), field-goal percentage (44.8 percent for the Redbirds to 41.1 percent for UNI), and three-point field-goal shooting (34.8 percent for Illinois State to 33.2 percent for UNI). The Redbirds also have the better rebounding margin (+5.7 to +3.4). And though one would think from the difference in the two teams' overall and conference records that Illinois State would be by far the more dominant team, in reality the Redbirds took their two regular-season match-ups with UNI by relatively narrow margins (70-64 on UNI's home court and just 69-66 in Redbird Arena).
Still, Illinois State has shown an ability to close out games that UNI has too often lacked this season. And Illinois State's league-second best scoring margin (+6.2) has been significantly better than UNI's fourth-ranked +2.4, owing largely to the Redbirds' superior defense. So look for an Illinois State-Creighton final.
The winner of the tournament gets the leagues automatic NCAA bid. Should Illinois State lose in the championship game, they have a decent shot at getting an at-large bid. No other team in this league has any chance of being asked to Dance without the automatic.