ST. LOUIS (AP) — Missouri State executed a quick two-year turnaround to win its first Missouri Valley Conference title, rising from the 10th seed to No. 1 in this season’s conference tournament.
Forward Kyle Weems, picked as the league’s player of the year this week, confidently said if his team matches the defensive intensity of its clinching, five-point victory over Wichita State in the regular-season finale, it could beat anybody in the country.
The Bears (23-7, 15-3 MVC) had better keep grinding, though, in their drive for a first NCAA tourney bid since 1999. The top seed has received an NCAA berth the last 17 years, but for the fourth straight year the Missouri Valley is unlikely to get more than one team into the tournament.
“All our teams understand if they want to maximize their postseason chances, they need to play their best,” conference commissioner Doug Elgin said in an interview. “We don’t have a lock at this point.”
The conference is ranked 12th in the RPI, stuck in an extended down cycle, yet hanging its hat on being dangerous in March. Northern Iowa made the lone bid count last year with an upset over top overall seed Kansas and an appearance in the final 16. The league totaled three final 16 teams in 2006 and ‘07, too.
Missouri State has the league’s best RPI at 42 with runner-up Wichita State (23-7, 14-4) at 52, well separated from the other eight schools. The best chance to sneak two teams in is for both schools to play well in St. Louis, with the tourney opening with a pair of lead-in games on Thursday and the nationally televised final on Sunday.
Bears coach Cuonzo Martin, who grew up in East St. Louis and starred at Purdue, doesn’t mind players wondering about being on the NCAA bubble.
“That’s what I did when I was a player and coach (Gene) Keady said it’s just human nature, you can’t control it,” Martin said. “The thing we talk about with our players is let’s concentrate on winning this next game.”
Missouri State is the top seed for the first time in its 21 seasons in the league and is the last of the current membership to get the No. 1 seed for the conference tournament. The Bears open Friday against either No. 8 Southern Illinois or No. 9 Illinois State.
As usual, the league is a week ahead of most of the country with its conference tournament, and this weekend will top one million fans since the event moved to the neutral site in St. Louis in 1991. Hopeful schools must sweat out next week and hope there are no major upsets in other league tournaments, worsening their chances for an at-large bid.
“If we have a great tournament and our better teams advance as they usually do on a neutral floor, I think we can see a scenario where we can get two teams in,” Elgin said. “This is the best week of the year for Missouri Valley fans and next week is the worst week.”
An 11-win team two seasons ago in Martin’s debut, Missouri State won the CIT championship last year.
“As a competitor you doubt yourself,” Martin said. “When things are looking bleak — ‘Did I make the right decision?’ You have to be consistent, and here we are.”
Weems, the lone league player to rank in the top five in scoring, rebounding, field goal percentage, steals and free throw percentage, said the conference-clinching victory over Wichita State last weekend was “the best day of my life.”
“I think it’s given us a little bit more confidence,” Weems said. “Just letting us know ‘Hey, we earned the right to be No. 1 in this tournament.’”
Wichita State opens Friday night against the winner of another play-in game, No. 7 Drake vs. No. 10 Bradley. Indiana State (17-13, 12-6) is the No. 3 seed and two-time defending tourney champion Northern Iowa (19-12, 10-8) is No. 4.
Creighton vs. Northern Iowa in the quarterfinals Friday as well as Drake vs. Bradley are repeat matchups from the regular-season finales. Bradley has had that scenario three of the last four years.
“I think there’s a lot of teams feeling good about themselves and their chances,” Bradley coach Jim Les said. “It’s all about getting hot at the right time.”