At the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, it’s the tradition unlike any other: the winner of the first round game between the eighth and ninth seeds annually goes on to be a real pest to top seeds in the quarterfinals.
Arch Madness is not designed with teams seeded eighth or ninth in mind. Every year, the winner of the tourney’s first game at 6 p.m. Central time on a Thursday gets a miniscule amount of time to recover, playing at noon the next day, and against the event’s top seed.
An easy argument could be made that it’s better to come into Arch Madness as a 10 seed than No. 8-at least the winner of Thursday night’s second game at 8:30 between the 7 and 10 seeds gets closer to a full 24 hours before playing in the third quarterfinal on Friday at 6 p.m.
Despite the less-than ideal conditions, the winners of those 8/9 games almost without fail have given the league champion fits on Fridays. Never a winner-1 seeds came into this year 20-0 in quarterfinal games against play-in teams-but often in the ballpark, the script has been eerily predictable: lower seed hangs around and hangs around, well into the second half before tiring and fading late.
Sure enough, top-seeded Wichita State was put on its heels early Friday, as Loyola Chicago scored on two dunks right off the bat, took an early 7-2 lead and hung close for 15 minutes. Slowly, though, the Shockers took control, built a nine-point halftime lead and looked on their way to another of their customary blowouts this year.
Then, Loyola flipped the script, and almost flipped Wichita State’s postseason fate up in the air with it.
Loyola drew closer. Then it took the lead. The Ramblers went ahead by seven on two separate occasions, the second with under six minutes left. They still were ahead 55-51 with less than four minutes left.
It took pool shark-like shotmaking by Ron Baker, pressure defense and Shaq Morris roaming the lane swatting shots, but the Shockers finally emerged with a 66-58 win to advance to the tourney semifinals.
“Just glad these guys made the plays that allowed us to survive, that’s all I’m going to say,” an understandably relieved Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said afterwards in short and sweet fashion.
This one bore little resemblance to the teams’ first two meetings this year. WSU ripped Loyola by 26 and 22 points in the regular season, the latter coming in Chicago just nine days earlier.
The Shockers dealt with some foul trouble early with Morris, Fred VanVleet and Evan Wessel all drawing two fouls in the first 12 1/2 minutes, perhaps a stroke of bad luck on a day when officials’ whistles were few and far between. Still, Baker scored 10 in the first half, Wichita State’s trademark depth did its job and the team was right where many would’ve expected at halftime.
Credit Loyola, a veteran team that advanced to the semis of this event and later won the CBI tourney last year and was better than it showed early this year when it got off to a 7-10 start. The Ramblers were a generally poor-shooting group all year, but were shooting better than 50% while also outrebounding the Shockers in the second half before missing seven of their final eight shots.
As the clock wound down, the anxiety of Shocker fans went up, and the tension in the Scottrade Center was thick as all in attendance started to recognize that perhaps one of the biggest upsets in MVC tourney history was a possibility.
It was Baker to the rescue, with three three-pointers in the final 5:34, the final one putting WSU ahead for good with 1:54 left. The senior finished with a game-high 25 points, and also blocked a pair of shots. Morris also swatted two more-and six for the game-as part of a pressuring defense that the Ramblers did not adjust to well in the final minutes.
“What happened was they denied so far out,” said Loyola coach Porter Moser. “All of a sudden, they picked up their pressure and they denied 28 feet from the basket. They really denied and extended…and we were really having trouble getting catches with that.”
The win should’ve brought a mega sigh of relief for the Shockers and all of their fans. A loss may or may not have been fatal to their NCAA Tournament hopes; WSU is low on quality wins, but other metrics clearly impressed with their dominant victory margin might already have them in good shape. Might. Most likely, Wichita State is in-they do have to pick 68 teams, after all-but just that the question needs to be asked shows that this was an important escape.
“For sure, for sure,” said Moser when asked about the Shockers’ at-large chances. “To do what they do, to go in the Valley and win 16 games in the Valley and to do it when everybody-they attract the biggest crowd everywhere they go. They attract the road crowd. There’s no question they should be in. To me, it’s not even a question.”
It bears watching the rest of the tourney to see which Wichita State team is on display. Is it the one that was on average nearly 20 points per game better than Valley foes? Or the one that is ‘only’ 2-2 in games decided by single digits in league play? Are such games a potential soft spot in this otherwise rock-solid squad, or did the Shockers just happen to get a clunker out of the way before hitting their stride?
“That’s the plan. Yeah, we hope so,” said Marshall. “We haven’t had a whole lot of close games this year, and that was certainly a close one. Guys made plays at the end, big shots. So you’ve just got to overcome, got to overcome whatever is thrown in front of you.”