2020 Missouri Valley Conference tournament: Northern Iowa looks to finish the job at March Madness
Photo: Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen

The Missouri Valley Conference tournament begins on Thursday with a pair of first round games. The top six teams, including regular-season champion Northern Iowahave byes to Friday's quarterfinals. The Panthers look to complete the double at Arch Madness, after having won the regular-season title.

Tournament schedule (all times Central)

All games will be played at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.

First round

March 4

#9 Illinois State vs #8 Drake6:05, MVC Network

#10 Evansville vs #7 Valparaiso8:35, MVC Network

Quarterfinals

March 5

Illinois State/Drake vs #1 Northern Iowa, 12:05, MVC Network

#5 Bradley vs #4 Southern Illinois2:35, MVC Network

Evansville/Valparaiso vs #2 Loyola-Chicago6:05, MVC Network

#6 Missouri State vs #3 Indiana State8:35, MVC Network

Semifinals

March 6

Game 3 winner vs Game 4 winner, 2:35, CBS Sports Network

Game 5 winner vs Game 6 winner, 5:05, CBS Sports Network

Final

March 7

Game 7 winner vs Game 8 winner, 1:10, CBS

The favorites

Top seed Northern Iowa closed the season with three straight wins to claim the regular season title. The Panthers are led by MVC Player of the Year A.J. Green, who led the conference in scoring (19.7), three pointers per game (2.9) and free throw percentage (91.7%). Trae Berhow was the Valley's best three-point shooter (45.2%) while first-team performer Austin Phyfe its best rebounder (8.3).

Second seed Loyola-Chicago is looking to recapture the magic that took them to the tournament title in 2018 on their way to the Final Four. Helping the Ramblers finish just one game behind Northern Iowa was Cameron Krutwig, a freshman on that Final Four team. Now a junior, he finished fourth in the Valley in scoring (15.3), rebounding (8.0), assists (4.2) and field goal percentage (56.9).

The darkhorses

Third seed Indiana State ended the season with five consecutive wins and are paced by Tyreke Key (15.3 ppg). Jordan Barnes is a veteran presence, averaging 13.0 points and 3.7 assists per game. Freshman Jake LaRavia was fourth in the Valley in rebounding during conference play (7.4) as the Sycamores chase their first tournament title since 2011.

Defending champion Bradley is deep and the Braves, seeded fourth, have possibly the best one-two punch in the league in Darrell Brown and Elijah Childs. Brown averages 14.8 points per game while Childs checks in with 14.8 points, 8.7 rebounds per game on 50.9 percent shooting as Bradley seeks to become the first repeat champion since Northern Iowa in 2015-16.

Who will win the tournament?

Northern Iowa has had an outstanding season, are brilliantly coached by Ben Jacobsen, are the top scoring, three-point shooting and free throw shooting team in the Valley. If they continue on this offensive pace, they will be almost impossible to beat with the way they play defense.

Bradley may have the best chance of knocking the Panthers off. They did it in last year's final, rallying from a huge deficit to claim the Valley's automatic bid and are the conference leaders in rebounds and blocks per game. A semifinal rematch with UNI will likely determine who gets into the field of 68.

Loyola and Indiana State have a chance. The Ramblers finished just one game behind Northern Iowa and Krutwig is maybe the best player in the conference behind Green. Indiana State has a very balanced team and will benefit from flying under the radar as the other three teams mentioned get more attention.

In the end, Northern Iowa should get it done. They've made the final in three of the last five years and will want to finish what they didn't last year against Bradley. The Braves will give them a good go as will Loyola, but the Panthers are just too good to lose this time around.

Prediction: Northern Iowa def. Loyola-Chicago

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