(CBS Chicago)- The Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, lovingly nicknamed "Arch Madness," tipped off last night in St. Louis with its first round of games, before continuing today with some matinee action featuring the top seed Loyola-Chicago Ramblers taking on the Southern Illinois Salukis. The Ramblers took care of business, advancing to the semifinals 73-49.
As they await their next opponent, the Ramblers already appear to be firmly in the NCAA Tournament thanks to a resume that plants them firmly among the tournament field. Not only that, but CBS' Gary Parrish says that this year's version of the Ramblers, can reasonably be considered the best that Porter Moser has ever had.
"This team is safe to make the field, they're only playing for a seed right now, and they're going to be tough for somebody, because when you get into that bracket in a 40-minute game and you have a team that has a chip on its shoulder because its been dismissed for too long. And you have an undersized but incredibly crafty and experienced big in Cameron Krutwig, it can be a nightmare for an opponent. You can reasonably describe it as the best one Porter Moser has ever coached, and he has coached one to the Final Four."
There are several reasons for that, but it starts with the defense. Loyola-Chicago is first in the nation in defensive efficiency as measured by Ken Pomeroy. The hold their opponents to an average of just 55.7 points per game and allow them to hit just 32% of their threes. Add in the experience of center Cameron Krutwig, who was a freshman on the Final Four team, and you have a team that makes for a tough out come tournament time.
They have a guy I certainly will vote as probably a second-team All American in Cameron Krutwig. The analytics aren't everything, the computers aren't the end all be all, but it's undeniable that according to the computers, this Loyola-Chicago team is better than the Final Four team," Parrish said. "Doesn't mean they will go as far as the Final Four team. The bracket doesn't always work that way, but this is a legitimately good NCAA Tournament team."
Whether or not the bracket will fall in the Ramblers favor remains to be seen on Sunday, March 14 when the full field is revealed on CBS. For now, they're looked at as the favorites to take the MVC crown and make life miserable for some team that comes across them in Indianapolis.
The Ramblers aren't the only MVC team with tournament hopes however. The Drake Bulldogs drew some national attention for their 18-0 start to the season but things have gone sideways since, as they lost guard Roman Penn for the season with a broken foot and leading scorer ShanQuan Hemphill is recovering from his own foot injury. That leaves the Bulldogs not looking like the same team they were at the beginning of February, and their tournament hopes likely rest on needing to make the MVC title game.
"That's a nightmare for that program, because they start the season in a way that was generating real national attention. To go from that to probably needing to make the title game and only can afford a loss to Loyola-Chicago to make the NCAA Tournament seems unfair, particularly given that I don't think they'd be in this position if not for injuries," said Parrish. "If they go to the title game and lose a competitive game to Loyola-Chicago, they won't sleep well all week but I would bet on them getting into the tournament."
Drake is currently in the Last Four In spot in CBS Sports bracketologist Jerry Palm's latest predictions, so there is little room for error. While the Bulldogs seem like a safe bet to make the conference title game, the three seed, Missouri State, could throw a wrench into those plans. Parrish doesn't believe it likely that anyone other than Loyola-Chicago or Drake comes out of the conference tournament with the win. But, the Bears, he says, clearly separated themselves as the third-best team in the conference this season and could upset this version of the Bulldogs.
"When Drake was rocking and rolling and undefeated and getting votes in the AP poll and all of that, they had a roster that just does not exist at this point. They're missing two of the best three players from that team," Parrish said. "So that makes them real vulnerable to almost anybody. But we could get in a situation where, we're in the MVC semifinals and it's 2-seed Drake and 3-seed Missouri State. And given that Roman Penn is out and Shaquan Hemphill almost certainly isn't going to be there, will Missouri State beating Drake in those circumstances even be an upset? I'm not sure."
We'll see how things play out in St. Louis. The semifinals of the MVC Tournament will be played on CBS Sports Network on Saturday March 6. The final set to be played on CBS Sunday March 7, with tip set for 2:10 p.m. ET.
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