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Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Preview and Postseason Awards: Can the Valley get two teams in?

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The Missouri Valley Conference tournament — known by Valley fans as Arch Madness because of its St. Louis location — will be especially intriguing this season. As one of the only mid-major leagues with a legitimate chance to get two teams into the 2017 NCAA tournament the Missouri Valley Conference tournament will have a lot of eyeballs on it this week.

Casual college basketball fans are surely familiar with Wichita State after their recent successes but Illinois State was another important story during the conference season. The Redbirds enter this week as the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament as they tied the Shockers with a 17-1 mark in conference play (with Wichita State and Illinois State splitting the regular-season series).

Outside of Illinois State and Wichita State the rest of the Valley has seen a down year — which is part of the reason the Redbirds and Shockers are hovering near the bubble.

Can Illinois State and Wichita State both get in the field if they meet for the title?

The Bracket

When: March 2-5

Where: Scottrade Center; St. Louis, Missouri

Final: Sunday, March 5, 2 p.m. EST, CBS

Favorite: Wichita State

The Shockers come in as the No. 2 seed but they are throttling opponents lately during a 12-game winning streak. Wichita State owns a scoring margin of 19.5 this season — second only to Gonzaga — and every win on the current streak has come by at least 15 points. One of the most balanced teams in the country, this year’s Shockers might not have future pros like Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet, but they go 10 deep and wear opponents down over the course of a game.

And if they lose?: Illinois State

Illinois State is the No. 1 seed in this tournament as they feature a tough and experienced roster that is also riding a six-game winning streak. Not nearly as dominant as Wichita State when it comes to margin of victory, the Redbirds had to sneak by to win some games the last few weeks as they’ve managed to stay 17-1 in conference play. Illinois State loves to slow down the tempo (308th in adjusted tempo on KenPom) and rely on its No. 10 overall defense (per KenPom) to do most of its damage. The Redbirds have a suffocating defense led by senior point guard Paris Lee and his Valley-leading 2.0 steals per game as they rank fourth in the country in field goal defense as opponents are only shooting 37.7 percent against them.

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Other Contenders:

  • Northern Iowa: Just like last season, Northern Iowa is one of the most confusing teams in the country. The Panthers lost five straight to start conference play, rallied by winning nine of 10 and then lost the final three games to close out conference play. Northern Iowa is talented enough to make noise as the No. 3 seed but they’re wildly inconsistent.
  • Southern Illinois: The Salukis only finished .500 in conference play but they’re sitting at the No. 4 seed thanks to a weak year in the Valley. Southern Illinois might not be as competitive as a typical four seed in this event but they do have some steady seniors in guard Mike Rodriguez and forward Sean O’Brien. Talented sophomore guard Armon Fletcher is also showing signs of breaking out of a recent slump after netting the go-ahead three to beat Loyola last week.

Sleeper: Loyola

Revenge will be on Loyola’s mind this week as they get a crack at Southern Illinois in the quarterfinals before potentially playing Illinois State in the semifinals. The significance of those two in-state games for the Ramblers? Loyola lost to both teams, on the road, by two points each, during the last two weekends of conference play.

In fact, Loyola has seen eight of its 13 losses get decided by four points or less this season. Loyola has to be tired of falling in close games and they get one more chance to make a run here.

The Bubble Dwellers: 2

  • Wichita State: If Wichita State wants to help its computer numbers then they should hope to play Bradley, Northern Iowa and then Illinois State to fully enhance their resume. The Shockers have a gaudy record but only six top-100 games all season (2-4 record), so a title-game rubber match against a top-50 team like Illinois State should help computer numbers — regardless of the outcome.
  • Illinois State: If Illinois State hopes to enhance its NCAA tournament profile in the best way possible they should hope for Evansville, Southern Illinois and Wichita State as opponents during Arch Madness. The Redbirds are slightly higher than Wichita State in current RPI but they’ve played even fewer top-100 opponents (2-3 record). As explained above, it likely helps Illinois State if they play Wichita State in the championship game — win or lose — because it gives both teams an additional top-50 opponent.
FILE - In this Feb. 9, 2016, file photo, Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall directs his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against Drake, in Des Moines, Iowa. At this time of year college basketball coaches often sound like political candidates looking for votes as they tout their teams' NCAA tournament worthiness. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)
Wichita State head coach Gregg Marshall (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

Missouri Valley Player of the Year: Paris Lee, Illinois State

The senior guard won a tight race over a handful of others as Lee separated himself from the group with another stellar defensive season. The NCAA’s active leader in career steals, Lee led the Valley in assists and steals per game this season as he averaged 13.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 3.8 rebounds and 2.0 steals per game. Improving dramatically on the offensive end, Lee upped his shooting percentages across the board, including a staggering rise from 31 percent to 41 percent as a three-point shooter.

Missouri Valley Coach of the Year: Dan Muller, Illinois State

You could make a strong case for Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall but Muller gets the slight edge for this award. Illinois State captured its first Missouri Valley Conference regular season title since 1998 and the Redbirds were able to do so despite missing senior MiKyle McIntosh for five games in the middle of conference play. Muller is now hoping to break another drought started in 1998 by taking his alma mater back to the NCAA tournament.

First-Team All-Missouri Valley:

  • Paris Lee, Illinois State (POY)
  • Landry Shamet, Wichita State: Only the fourth Valley freshman to ever grab first-team all-conference honors, Shamet averaged 11.4 points, 3.4 assists and 2.7 rebounds per game while shooting very efficiently (49% FG, 45% 3PT, 81% FT).
  • Milton Doyle, Loyola: Motivated to finish strong after a disappointing junior season, the 6-foot-4 Doyle came through in a big way for the Ramblers as he put up 15.5 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.5 assists per game.
  • Jeremy Morgan, Northern Iowa: Although his junior season was more efficient shooting the ball, Morgan was asked to do it all for the Panthers this season as he led the team in minutes, points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
  • Alize Johnson, Missouri State: One of 20 Division I players averaging a double-double this season, Johnson put up 14.5 points and 10.5 rebounds per game while shooting 39 percent from three-point range. The junior is starting to generate some pro buzz.

Second Team All-Missouri Valley:

  • Jaylon Brown, Evansville
  • Markis McDuffie, Wichita State
  • Deontae Hawkins, Illinois State
  • MiKyle McIntosh, Illinois State
  • Sean O’Brien, Southern Illinois

Defining moment of the season: When Wichita State’s Daishon Smith dunked on Oklahoma’s Kristian Doolittle back in December, it signified that the Shockers would be just fine playing bigger opponents without Baker and Van Vleet. This is one of the better poster dunks of the year.

CBT Prediction: Wichita State over Illinois State (but both teams get in the NCAA tournament)

2018 NCAA Tournament: Azubuike’s presence huge as No. 1 Kansas holds off No. 8 Seton Hall

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It turns out Kansas is a whole heck of a lot better when Udoka Azubuike is in the floor.

Who knew?

The sophomore center returned Saturday for extended minutes after being limited with a knee injury to help the No. 1 Jayhawks to a 83-79 win over No. 8 Seton Hall to earn a spot in the Sweet 16.

Azubuike had 10 points, seven rebounds and two blocks, but the strongest stat in his column was his plus-minus. When he was on the floor, Kansas bested the Pirates by 21 points. When he was off, the Jayhawks got outscored by 17, and there is noise in that number as Seton Hall continued to put them on the foul line in the last minute with Azubuike on the bench.

The 7-footer’s importance to Kansas has been apparent all season, but it was even starker against the Pirates, whose Angel Delgado feasted when Azubuike wasn’t on the floor.  Seton Hall’s double-double machine finished with 24 points and 23 rebounds, but it wasn’t enough to power the Pirates into next week. Neither was Khadeen Carrington’s 28 points, all but two of which came after halftime.

Azubuike’s critical role for Kansas is three-fold. First, he’s very talented. Second, he makes the four-out offense possible. Third, the drop-off behind him – apologies to Mitch Lightfoot and Silvio De Sousa – is rather significant.

Kansas, which got 28 points from Malik Newman, has to play a very specific way offensively with guard-heavy roster. The Jayhawks have to get up a ton of 3s, and they’ve got to make a bunch of them. Without Azubuike in the middle drawing attention and making it difficult for defenders to stay hugged-up on shooters on the perimeter, the architecture of the offense can crumble in on itself.

Azubuike certainly isn’t a perfect or dominant player, but he rebounds well, blocks shots and makes about three-quarters of his shots. Which, of course, means he fits his role perfectly for maybe the most vulnerable Kansas team in Bill Self’s tenure. The Jayhawks’ margin for error, at least at this juncture against the competition they’re going to see in Omaha, is pretty small. Deviate from the plan and things can get away from them quickly. Duke and Michigan State, Kansas’ presumptive opponents in the Elite Eight, will punish them for any missteps or holes in their gameplan.

Azubuike is the linchpin. When he’s in place, things hold together. When he’s not, there’s trouble.

No. 11-seed Loyola-Chicago beats No. 3 Tennessee to advance to Sweet 16

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Cinderella is headed to the Sweet 16!

For the second time in this tournament, trailing 62-61 on the final possession of the game, Loyola-Chicago has won.

On Thursday, the Ramblers got the benefit of a missed Lonnie Walker free throw and a game-winning three from Donte Ingram to beat No. 6-seed Miami, 64-62.

On Saturday, the situation was almost the same — the Ramblers had the ball with 10.5 seconds left on the clock — but the execution was different.

Clayton Custer hit a jumper with 3.6 seconds left to answer Grant Williams’ and-one and send Loyola-Chicago to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament.

In the immortal words of Gus Johnson, the slipper still fits:

Loyola was in control of this game for the majority of the second half and led by eight points at the under-four time out, but a pair of threes from Tennessee set up Williams’ and-one on Tennessee’s final possession. Jordan Bone had a shot to win the game at the buzzer that bounced off the back of the rim.

Aundre Jackson led the Ramblers 16 points off the bench as No. 11-seed Loyola landed their second upset of the weekend, beating No. 3-seed Tennessee, 63-62, in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Those 16 points that Jackson scored were the most that any Loyola player scored in either of their games this weekend. The 10 shots that Jackson took in the first round win over No. 3-seed Miami was the only time in those two games that a Rambler player had double-digit field goal attempts. They held Miami and Tennessee to a combined 116 points.

I say all that to say this: Loyola is not a typical Cinderella team. They don’t have some superstar scorer that carried them to this point in the tournament, like a Jairus Lyles from UMBC or a Jon Elmore from Marshall. They’re not a high-scoring team or a team that just-so-happened to catch fire from three at the right time. What they are is a smart, tough and extremely well-coached group that is everything you think of when you picture Missouri Valley basketball.

They aren’t going to give up penetration defensively. They are going to pound the defensive glass. They aren’t going to commit silly turnovers or take dumb shots. They’ll run their offense and trust that whatever their coach calls is going to get them the shot they need to get.

They will not beat themselves, and if you are going to beat them, you’re going to work for every possession.

And it’s worked.

Loyola will advance to Atlanta where they will face the winner of Sunday’s game between No. 2 Cincinnati and No. 7 Nevada. With Buffalo losing and either No. 10-seed Butler or No. 11-seed Syracuse counting as anything close to a mid-major, Loyola, Marshall and UMBC are the only true Cinderella teams left in the tournament. The 16th-seeded UMBC Retrievers, who became the first No. 16 seed to get to the second round of the tournament after a Friday night win over top overall seed Virginia, take on No. 9-seed Kansas State on Sunday while No. 13-seed Marshall gets a date with in-state an rival, No. 5 West Virginia.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander paces No. 5 Kentucky past No. 13 Buffalo

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Its deficit cut to five, Buffalo zipped down the floor in transition. The ball found Jeremy Harris, who stepped into his 3-point shot attempt and let it fly as the crowd in Boise was ready to blow the roof off Taco Bell Arena, hopeful they’d have the chance to will the Bulls to an upset of Kentucky. The shot barrelled toward the basket, carrying Buffalo’s Sweet 16 dreams with it.

The ball, along with control of the game, clanged off the rim and bounced into Kentucky’s hands.

The No. 5 Wildcats turned away No. 13 Buffalo, 95-75, on Saturday to advance to the NCAA tournament’s second weekend.

Buffalo got 26 points from Wes Clark and 18 from CJ Massinburg, and made the Wildcats sweat deep into the second round until things spiraled away from them. Making just 7 of 31 shots from 3-point range and your opponent shooting 56.3 percent from the floor is no recipe for an upset.

Even with a rough shooting day, Buffalo threatened Kentucky time and again, but at every turn, the Wildcats had Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.

The 6-foot-6 freshman was simply spectacular, scoring 27 points on 10 of 12 shooting. He added six rebounds and six assists for good measure.

Gilgeous-Alexander was an unsolvable problem for Buffalo. The Bulls were never able to find a way to corral or deny him. He just got what he wanted when he wanted it, and what he wanted was buckets. Lots of them.

Inconsistency has been the pock on Gilgeous-Alexander’s rookie campaign, but in recent weeks he’s found his groove. He’s scored in double-digits in nine-straight games. He’s either made shots or gotten to the free-throw line. Sometimes both.

For a Kentucky team without a dominant player, Gilgeous-Alexander’s emergence as a go-to and consistent scorer is huge. The Wildcats are going to have an athletic advantage in almost every game they play. If they’ve got a guy other than Kevin Knox they can count on for 15-plus, that’s going to take a lot of pressure off an offense that doesn’t have the benefit of much in the way of shooting.

The path for Kentucky to the Elite 8 looks incredibly navigable after Virginia’s stunning and historic loss Friday to UMBC. The Wildcats will have to beat a nine or 16 seed to be just 40 minutes from another Final Four.

If Gilgeous-Alexander can continue to be the offensive weapon he’s turned into over the last month, San Antonio may very well be hosting Big Blue Nation in April.

VIDEO: Buffalo’s Nick Perkins posterizes Kevin Knox

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Buffalo and Kentucky are locked in an entertaining battle on Saturday afternoon, and while Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been completely dominant, the play of the day comes courtesy of the Bulls.

After Kentucky pushed their lead to 10 points with less than nine minutes left, Nick Perkins — who is known for as a three-point shooter than anything else — dunked on Kentucky’s soon-to-be lottery pick, Kevin Knox, emphatically:

Bettor wins $16,000 on UMBC wager

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The whole country became UMBC fans throughout Saturday night as the Retrievers attempted – and ultimately pulled off – the first-ever 16-over-1 upset in the NCAA tournament against Virginia.

There may have been one person at The Venetian in Las Vegas cheering a little more than most, though. They had a little more on the line. The moneyline, to be exact. 

One bettor won $16,000 on a $800 wager that UMBC would beat the Cavaliers, which is exactly what they did, 74-54, in Charlotte.

While the bet paid off this time and it makes for an all-time story, it’s probably best not to make this your betting strategy. If you would have bet 800 bucks on every 16 seed every year, you would have been $108,000 in the hole before getting your Retriever payout and riding a rough 135-bet losing streak. Can’t win without buying a ticket, though, right?

And it’s not like that the person who just cashed a $16,000 check cares about that at the moment. Also no word on how they’re betting UMBC against Kansas State, either. The Wildcats are 10.5-point favorites, if you were wondering.