CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- One month from Tuesday, the NCAA Basketball tournament begins. And given the struggles of Northwestern, DePaul, and Illinois this year, if any team from the Land of Lincoln is going to take part, it's likely one that plays in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Consider: with four games to play, Loyola, Southern Illinois and Illinois State sit 1, 2, and 3. And Bradley is in fifth. The Valley has never had a tournament champion come from outside the top-five seeds - so on math alone, if nothing changes, the state's in pretty good shape.
And, odds are 21-and-5 Loyola will be the ones slipping on dance shoes.
"They've been lights out all year," said Niko Medved, whose Drake side swallowed a 15-point loss to the Ramblers last week. "They're the whole package. They can score inside, outside, they've got guys who've played together, they're terrific defensively, they don't turn the ball over...they just don't really have any holes."
"[Porter Moser] has done a phenomenal job," said Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson of the Loyola head man. "Not only do the stats prove it, but every time you read a Missouri Valley notebook they've broken another record."
Loyola has five players averaging double-digit points, led by junior Clayton Custer's 14. He and senior Donte Ingram have both been named Valley player of the week at times this year, and guard Marques Townes and freshman center Cameron Krutwig have both earned Newcomer of the Week honors.
"I think we're really deep," Moser said, "and I think the players...they're playing together and playing hard."
Where Loyola is the best team, second place Southern Illinois has a claim as the toughest.
"I saw something at Illinois State I've never seen before," Hinson said, referring to SIU's overtime loss to the Redbirds last week. "We had four guys that played 44, 42, and 40 minutes in a basketball game. That just showed to me, they're giving me everything they've got."
Injuries so decimated Southern that Hinson had to add a football player to its roster just to be able to hold a scrimmage.
"I even played point guard," he said. "It's funny how much I was open. They weren't guarding me very much."
Yet the Salukis have won six of seven anyway.
"You know, Barry's done a phenomenal job, and he always has," Moser said. "He can really coach, and he's always had his team playing hard, and so it's no surprise that Barry's team, that Southern is right there knocking at the door."
The Salukis are two games back, Illinois State is three behind the Ramblers and had won four in a row before a letdown against Valparaiso. And Bradley, sitting in fourth, nearly beat Loyola in Peoria at the end of January; so there are challengers to the throne.
But this is Loyola's title to lose, and the Valley knows it.
"They've done a terrific job," Medved said. "They've built that thing the right way, and no one can argue they're playing the best basketball in our league and they're the team to beat here going down the stretch."
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