The Missouri Valley Conference tournament gets underway on Thursday with three teams poised to challenge for the Arch Madness title.
Loyola took the regular-season title and is the favorite, Drake was the front-runner for much of the season until injuries took their toll and Missouri State is the league's most dangerous offensive team.
The first round and quarterfinals will be aired on MVC TV while the semifinals are on CBS Sports Network with the final on CBS. All games will be played at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. All game times are Central.
Southern Illinois/Bradley vs #1 Loyola Chicago, 11AM
Illinois State/Northern Iowa vs #2 Drake, 5PM
Semifinal #1: top half of the bracket, 12PM
Semifinal #2: bottom half of the bracket, 3PM
Semifinal winners, 1PM
Loyola has won three of the last four regular-season titles in the Valley and are the best defensive team in the country. While no one individual player stands out, senior Cameron Krutwig is the team leader, averaging 15 points and 6.5 rebounds per game.
The Ramblers allow just 55.7 points per contest and are the top field goal defense in the conference, holding opponents to just 40.7 percent from the field.
Drake was nationally ranked before injuries took a hit. ShanQuan Hemphill, the Bulldogs leading scorer and Roman Penn, the top point guard in the Valley, have both recently missed time. Hemphill (14.1 ppg) could return in St. Louis while Penn has been ruled out.
The Bulldogs rank second in the league in defense and hold opponents to just 30.5 percent from three-point range. Darian DeVries has compiled a .716 winning percentage in his first three years at Drake and looks to cap off this season in the NCAA Tournament.
While Indiana State may have get one of the Valley's best scorers in Tyreke Key (17.4 ppg) back, there's too much of an unknown factor to consider the Sycamores a legitimate threat to the top two.
The team that is would be Missouri State. The Bears possess the league's leading scorer in Isiaih Mosley (20.0 ppg) as well as Gaige Prim, third on the scoring charts at 16.6 a contest. He also is tops in rebounds (9.0 ppg) and shooting percentage (62.9).
After a four-game losing streakin late January to Drake and Loyola, Missouri State changed up their rotations and come to St. Louis having won seven of the previous eight games.
Who will win the tournament?
For much of the season, the Valley was a lock to receive two bids, but Drake's recent losses and injuries to Hemphill and Penn mean they likely have to win the tournament to reach the field of 68.
Loyola looks to be in March Madness whether they cut down the nets or not. While the Ramblers are clearly the best team in the conference, they have history going against them: only once in the 10-year history of Arch Madness has the top seed won.
Missouri State is a team that can get hot simply because they have the offensive firepower to match up with the top two. The worry is that when they've gotten close in the past, they don't always close the deal, but perhaps being a dark horse will benefit them.
There are no easy games in this league, long one of the finest mid-majors in the country and Drake's recent issues cost all of us a chance to watch two quality teams in the NCAA Tournament.
What's worse is the Bulldogs may not even make it to Sunday with a potential semifinal against Missouri State waiting, Loyola will benefit from having the easier of the two semifinals and should defy the odds to bring home the title.
Prediction: Loyola def. Missouri State