It ranks as probably the best gem the legendary George Wilson dropped on me during my years covering his College of the Ozarks Lady ‘Cats:
“It’s hard to beat a team three times in one season…then again, sometimes it’s not.”
Let it sink in for a second, then note this: If Wichita State or Missouri State are going to cut down the nets at Scottrade Center March 6 and accept the Missouri Valley Conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, they’re going to have to beat as many as two teams for the third time this season. It’s not as easy as it sounds.
Or is it?
Let’s take a look:
Adam Leonard - Missouri State
To the victor go the spoils, and for Missouri State that means a bracket that includes two of the three worst teams in the league, a No. 4 seed that is fading after the loss of a key player, and a No. 5 seed that hasn’t won a game away from home in two months.
But there are some that feel this is the harder of the two brackets, specifically because of that No. 5 seed, Creighton. The Jays went just 5-5 down the stretch (5-4 in Valley games), but they lost at Wichita on a buzzer beater and clipped UNI in the regular season finale. Greg McDermott is a quality head coach and his boy, Doug, is a legit weapon as a freshman. They also played Missouri State tough in Springfield, leading the whole way – by double digits at some points – before fading down the stretch and losing on a last-second layup by Valley Player of the Year Kyle Weems. Can a team that’s 3-10 on the road and 3-7 in games decided by 5 or fewer points really make a title run?
The bigger question, though, is can Missouri State beat them three times in one season?
Creighton might be better equipped than No. 4 Northern Iowa, who has suffered since losing 6-foot-9 brute and weird-beard aficionado Lucas O’Rear to a broken ankle back on Feb. 2. The Panthers are 1-6 since then, winning by 10 at Bradley Feb. 15. They had won 8 in a row – including at both MSU and WSU – before the injury. They, too, seem like a long-shot to pull an upset (but don’t tell that to ESPN).
Missouri State has some added incentive to beat UNI – the Panthers stole a 60-59 decision from the Bears on a late rebound foul…a play Weems and the Bears have not forgotten. MSU and UNI split their season series, but that was at full strength.
No. 8 Southern Illinois and No. 9 Bradley round up the northern half of the bracket. Missouri State swept both of those teams in the regular season, though it wasn’t always easy. The Bears fared better on the road both times.
David Kyles - Wichita State
Wichita State, meanwhile, will have to wrap up two sweeps and avoid getting swept if they want to win the Valley tournament for the first time since 1987. The second-seeded Shockers are 8-0 against their side of the bracket. They’ll open with either No. 7 Drake or No. 10 Bradley, a pair of teams I’m glad are on the other side of the bracket. Drake is a puzzler. The Bulldogs went 5-5 down the stretch, scaring the bejeesus out of MSU and beating both Creighton and Northern Iowa. But they also got housed by Bradley, 90-64, in the regular season finale. Which Drake team shows up is anyone’s guess. Bradley, meanwhile, features the league’s top scorer, in Andrew Warren. The Braves – like the Bulldogs – split their last 10, with Drake and CU being the only wins of note.
If the Shockers finish up a sweep of either of DU or BU, it’s on to a more challenging foe: No. 3 Indiana State or No. 6 Evansville. ISU figures to be a dangerous team. The Sycamores were red-hot to open league play, winning 7 of their first 8 Valley games, and are perhaps the pound-for-pound hardest working team in the league. But the Sycamores dropped a 93-83 triple overtime decision at Wichita State on Jan. 22, a loss that seemed to – pardon the expression – shake the Trees. Indiana State is just 5-5 since that loss. They dropped the rematch with WSU 70-54 and lost to Evansville 66-63, both on their home floor. ISU, it seems, is in the opposite position of WSU. The Sycamores were swept by both teams they’ll need to beat in order to advance to the finals.
Evansville is 2-0 against Indiana State this season, winning 64-59 at home. The Aces have been hard to figure this season, going 1-4 to open league play, then winning 7 of their next 9 – including a 77-65 triumph over Missouri State. But just when the Aces seemed to have it going on, they went 2-5 down the stretch, managing to beat only wounded Northern Iowa and ninth-place Illinois State.
If the good Aces show up, it’ll be hard for Wichita State to beat them three times in one season. But,then again, if the good Aces show up…
So let’s say both Missouri State and Wichita State survive and advance. Then we have another sweep/no-sweep scenario on our hands, and this is a case – unlike some in the earlier rounds – where it’s gonna be a whale of a lot harder to beat a team three times in one season. The Bears and Shockers have played a pair of classics this season, with Missouri State besting Wichita both times. Adam Leonard hit go-ahead 3-pointers in both games, one with 3:37 to play at Wichita and one with 49 seconds to play in Springfield. Wichita led or was tied with MSU in the final four minutes of both games, but never could find a way to bury the Bears.
Given a third look at them, odds are Wichita State will finally pull it off because it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season…but, then again, sometimes it’s not.