In some ways, a top seed in the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament might be as much curse as blessing for this year.
On the plus side, the Redbirds get the prestige of the pole position, as well as the ego boost that comes from beating out vaunted Wichita State for that spot (even as the teams tied for the regular season crown and split their two meetings). On the other hand, tradition says being the No. 1 seed at Arch Madness is rarely a comfortable existence.
That is virtually assured to be the case this year, for as far as eight seeds go in conference tournaments -at least in normal-sized conferences, you know, ones with 10 teams instead of 16-there won’t be many scarier ones this year than Evansville.
Coming oh-so-close to winning last year’s MVC tourney before a crushing two-point loss at the buzzer to Northern Iowa, the Purple Aces have experience winning in St. Louis in the past. They also have experience winning here already this year after an 83-72 win over ninth-seeded Indiana State in the opening game of the 2017 edition of Arch Madness.
Evansville got off to a hot start in every way in jumping on the Sycamores in impressive fashion. The Aces hit 10 of its first 16 shots, held ISU to three makes in its first 13 attempts, and also piled up a 14-3 rebounding advantage-all in the first 10 minutes. The lead was 25-9 by the second TV timeout, and never dropped below double digits until the final minutes.
“I thought we got some stops early, got our hands on some loose balls,” said Evansville head coach Marty Simmons. “We were able to get out in transition and get some easy baskets. I think that really helped us, gave us a lot of confidence right out of the gate…I just felt like our guys, they were ready to play. They were excited in the locker room, and it carried over to the start of the game.”
It was a rematch of a semifinal matchup in last year’s tourney. For 35 minutes, it might’ve appeared to be a 1 seed against a 16 seed if one didn’t know better. Like last year, Evansville dominated ISU, leading for all but 43 seconds of this game and building the lead as large as 26 points.
The Purple Aces did put it on cruise control in the final minutes, and it came close to costing them. Major credit goes to Indiana State, which kept battling and cut an 18-point deficit with 4:53 remaining down to six in the final minute.
“We knew it, we were telling out guys timeout after timeout that we had to tighten things up because they would never quit,” said Simmons. “They made a lot of big shots, made a run. But I like the way our guys hung in there, and we were able to finish it off.”
Jaylon Brown scored 27 and added eight rebounds, while Duane Gibson added 20 points, seven rebounds and four assists, as well as terrific defense on Indiana State leader Brenton Scott, who finished with 17 points but was just 5-for-19 from the field.
“I was just focused. I was locked in on Scott,” said Gibson. “I knew he was going to come out and be aggressive, so I had to be mentally prepared and match his intensity.”
The Purple Aces evened their record at 16-16 overall in a year where the record tells the story. There’s been some good, some bad, and UE has been competitive more than not, but lost seven games by seven points or less. That led to their being near the bottom of a gaggle of teams making up positions 3-through-10 in the Valley standings, a group of eight teams separated by a combined four games.
Experience isn’t so much a story of this year’s team-Brown is the only player on this team who played significant minutes a year ago. What does make this team a threat to advance is offense. Specifically, Brown, Gibson and fellow guard Ryan Taylor all can get the Purple Aces 20 points, and they helped the team shoot 53.3% in the first half and a solid 47.3% for the game
Though a low-scoring team by typical Simmons squad standards (averaging 68.9 points per game), the Aces have hit 83 or more in three of their last five games, including 83 against Wichita State less than two weeks ago. And while Simmons’s motion offense features few three-pointers (just 3.9 made per game in the regular season, last in NCAA Division I), it does generate plenty of good looks in the mid-range. And if the team can induce an opponent into misses, UE is good enough to clear the glass (46-37 rebounding advantage over Indiana State) and get out into transition, where Brown especially is dangerous.
Now, Evansville has about a 16-hour break before it plays Illinois State in the first MVC quarterfinal on Friday. Though a daunting task, history says don’t count out the Aces.
Lower seeds pushing the top seed in the quarterfinals is an MVC Tournament tradition almost as ingrained as St. Louis itself. Typically the script goes like this: 8/9 game winner throws a royal scare into the top seed with a valiant first half effort, maybe even leading into the second half. Of course, the other half of the story is that those lower seeds typically fade about midway through the second half, as fatigue, the excellence of the champion-or both-take their toll.
Last year, 8 seed Loyola (Ill.) led top-seeded Wichita State by seven late in the second half and still had a two-possession lead with less than four minutes left before the Shockers rallied. In fact, play-in teams are 0-for-20 all-time in the MVC tourney against top seeds in the quarterfinals.
Seldom has one of those eight seeds brought credentials like Evansville, though. If Illinois State is tight at all on Friday in its first game in the favorite’s role, the Aces are certainly capable of making some history.