TERRE HAUTE —
When the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament begins tonight at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, there’s really only one burning question to ask.
Is Arch Madness a basketball tournament or a soap opera?
One could be forgiven if they voted “soap opera” … there’s so many juicy subplots to sink your teeth into.
Will Indiana State’s prodigal son (Manny Arop) return to the fold when the Sycamores open play on Friday? And will he help his team rediscover their potential to make an Arch Madness run?
Can a 23-year-old curse be exorcised by a team (Wichita State) that has repeatedly come to St. Louis with high hopes only to limp back to the prairie haunted yet again by its Scottrade Center demons?
And most juicy of all, has one of the Missouri Valley Conference bell-weather programs (Creighton) been messing around with another conference?
All of these storylines will add spice to the tournament, but if the regular season proved anything, it will be the basketball that is most operatic.
The 2013 MVC Tournament promises to be more even than it’s ever been. For the first time in league history, every school has at least 10 overall wins and six conference victories.
There is no weak link in the field. To wit, last-place Southern Illinois has won five of its last six.
“The great thing about this time of the year is that everyone comes in their with a new chalkboard. Everyone has an opportunity. This is it. This is the time in college basketball. I told our guys this is the most fun they’ll have,” SIU coach Barry Hinson said.
Creighton – which is rumored to be headed to the Catholic 7/new Big East as soon as next season with an announcement that may or may not be imminent – enters Arch Madness as the regular season champion and top seed. The No. 1 seed has won Arch Madness in four of the last five seasons. ISU was the last team to win without having the top seed as it prevailed as the No. 3 seed in 2011.
Creighton had to fight to get the No. 1 seed. With its MVC regular season title hopes hanging by a thread, the Bluejays won their last four and beat Wichita State 91-79 in a winner-take-all battle for the championship in Omaha last Saturday.
“We had to win four in a row to win the conference title and we did it. I’m not sure we can do much more than that,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. “I think it aids in your preparation as you have a bounce in your step. On the other hand, teams that aren’t playing well enter practice like you have a new lease on life.”
The No. 2-seeded Shockers enter Arch Madness with their tail between their legs, having lost two in a row. WSU only needed to win one game last week to clinch a MVC championship that seemed a foregone conclusion, but couldn’t do it.
But as much as the Shockers are trying to shake off recent blues, it’s their history in St. Louis that haunts them.
The Shockers have never won the MVC Tournament in St. Louis since the MVC set up camp there in 1991. There have been notable near-misses for WSU in recent seasons.
In 2009 in the quarterfinals, Wichita State, seeded seventh, rallied from a double-digit deficit and thought it had No. 2-seeded Creighton beaten only to have Creighton’s Booker Woodfox hit a shot at the buzzer-beater to lift the Bluejays to a dramatic 63-62 victory.
WSU coach Gregg Marshall famously complained about the arena clock management saying that Woodfox had time for “two dribbles and a ham sandwich” before he released his shot.
ISU upset WSU in 2011 on its way to a tournament title and Illinois State knocked the No. 1-seeded Shockers out last season in a physical 65-64 victory.
WSU and Illinois State could play again in a quarterfinal. Marshall was asked this week during the MVC coaches’ teleconference whether last year’s loss is something that motivates the Shockers this season.
“I haven’t asked them that question … it hasn’t come up,” Marshall said.
The Shockers and Redbirds had an even more contentious game on Feb. 17 at Normal, Ill. WSU rallied in the final minute to win 68-67, an effort aided by a bizarre flagrant foul by Illinois State’s Jackie Carmichael because of a Kung Fu-style kick. WSU’s Cleanthony Early was then incorrectly sent to the free throw line to shoot the foul shots. The coaching staffs traded heated words in the game’s aftermath.
WSU and Illinois State could meet again in what would be a juicy quarterfinal match-up.
As for ISU and Arop, ISU coach Greg Lansing has stated that Arop status is “day to day”.
“We took him to Evansville with us. He’s practiced with us this week. It’s a day-to-day. He’s going to go with us and I’ll make that decision when Friday gets here,” Lansing said.
Arop missed two games due to suspension for an unspecified rules violation last week and the Sycamores lost both contests.
Lansing shed some light on Arop’s status last week when he said that Arop would return to action this season. Given that, it would be a surprise if Arop wasn’t used in Friday’s game against Evansville.