CARBONDALE — Five months ago, many believed the Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball race would be as tight as it's been in decades.
Without Wichita State, a perennial top-20 program that finished in the top-two in the league the last eight years, all 10 programs felt like 2017 could be their year. And even though top-seeded Loyola takes a seven-game winning streak into St. Louis, many still believe the same thing.
"With the way it is this year, just as balanced as it is, Loyola a clear favorite for this one as well as they're playing, with the unbelievable job Porter has done, but everybody else has showed glimpses that they're just as good as anybody if they just play well that night," said Indiana State coach Greg Lansing. "So it is wide open."
Lansing led the Sycamores to the 2011 Arch Madness championship as the No. 3 seed, the last one to do it from that position, and opens the tournament as the sixth seed against Illinois State Friday.
Loyola (25-5, 15-3 MVC) hasn't lost since falling 69-67 at Bradley on the last day of January, but the Ramblers understand not many will automatically pencil them into Saturday's semifinals. Loyola's two potential opponents Friday in the quarterfinals, Evansville (17-14) and Northern Iowa (15-15), present problems. The Purple Aces just got guard Dru Smith, its second-leading scorer, back from a heel injury, and the Panthers have won the Valley Tournament four times under coach Ben Jacobson.
Here are five things to know about Arch Madness:
No. 1 — Loyola playing like a champion
The top seed has never lost its first game in the tournament, even going back to 1977, when the event was held at campus sites, and the Ramblers look anything but vulnerable. Junior point guard was named the MVC player of the year this week, backcourt mate Ben Richardson was named the defensive player of the year, and center Cameron Krutwig was named the league's freshman of the year.
Loyola can score like crazy and play big or small, but is just 3-4 at the MVC Tournament. Past Krutwig, a 6-foot-9, 260-pound righty, the Ramblers don't have a ton of size but have been able to rely on a stifling defense. Valley opponents scored just 61.6 points a game against Loyola, and could face an even bigger challenge on a neutral court they don't normally play on.
No. 2 — Get ready for the Madness
Will every higher seed win in St. Louis? Don't bet on it. The regular-season champion has won the Valley Tournament only eight times in 27 years in St. Louis, and three wins in three days (or four wins in four days) could be taxing for anybody in the field.
Thursday night's lineup could be one of the best in the last few years. Evansville and Northern Iowa are tough, defensively. Missouri State, the biggest disappointment of the season, still features the most talented player in the field (forward Alize Johnson) and a head coach with a lot of pressure to win (Paul Lusk). Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said in July his team would be a lot better in February than in November, and has been proven right.
If the sixth-seeded Sycamores beat third-seeded Illinois State Friday, it will give every team in the Valley 14 or more wins for the first time. That kind of balance bodes well for chaos at a win-or-go-home event.
No. 3 — History on Salukis' side
SIU faltered badly in its last two regular-season games, losing by 19 at home to Loyola and by 31 at Evansville, but history is on the Salukis' side for a rebound in St. Louis.
The second seed has lost its first game at the tournament only once in the last 27 years (a combined 53-1). The No. 2 seed has also won the tournament more than any other seed since it moved to a neutral floor (10 times). SIU is also 3-1 this season against the two teams it might play in Friday's quarterfinals, 2-0 against Missouri State and 1-1 against Valparaiso.
No. 4 — Injuries could play major role
During the non-conference season, injuries knocked out starters/projected starters for 63 games, including the 18 left by Saluki forward Thik Bol's knee injury. Evansville's Ryan Taylor, a first team all-conference pick, missed some time. Loyola guards Ben Richardson (10 games with a broken hand) and Custer (five games for sprained ankle) also missed some time, but things are looking up for most of the league.
SIU got forward Jonathan Wiley back after he missed 10 games with a knee injury, and Smith returned for the Purple Aces on Saturday. Bradley could be without starting point guard Darrell Brown, according to Braves coach Brian Wardle, for their tournament opener Friday, and Missouri State could be down forwards Reggie Scurry, Abdul Fofana and guard Ronnie Rousseau III, but everyone else will be as healthy as they've been going into the event.
No. 5 — Your team could be the home team at the Scottrade Center
Walk-up sales will make a big difference in the attendance at this weekend's event, but in mid-February, Illinois State and Northern Iowa's fans showed the most initiative to try to make the Scottrade Center their homecourt.
Redbird fans and donors bought a league-high 475 all-session tickets from the school, according to ticket sale numbers released by the Valley, while Northern Iowa fans bought 300. Both paled in comparison to Wichita State's following, which bought 1,354 all-session tickets before the bracket was announced. Every MVC program is required to buy 225 all-session tickets from the league, which they can sell to the public, give to donors, or do a mix of both.
SIU fans bought 250 all-session tickets after buying 358 last season, when the Salukis were the fourth seeds and beat Loyola in the quarterfinals before losing to Illinois State. SIU's second-place finish this season was its best since winning the regular-season title in 2007.