Parity is the watchword entering the MVC Tournament
The prospect of back-to-back championships sounds like a pretty sweet deal for the No. 23 Missouri State Lady Bears, who enter the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament as the defending champions, as the obvious favorites and armed with their first No. 1 seed since 2012.
But coming in as the top seed doesn’t guarantee much in the MVC, whose tournament tips off Thursday afternoon in Moline, Illinois. Despite the No. 1 team having won 19 of 33 titles, there have only been seven repeat winners in tournament history, most recently Drake in 2017 and 2018. And the lowest seed to win the MVC Tournament? No. 9 Evansville in 2009.
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That absolutely nothing is certain is a testament to the strength of the conference, whose RPI ranks No. 8 in the country and which features five teams in the RPI top 100.
“The national attention and the national recognition that this conference is continuing to get where they’re talking, you know, three teams from our league in the NCAA Tournament, I think is amazing,” said Drake head coach Jennie Baranczyk. “I’m really, really proud of everyone, and just really proud to be part of this conference.”
Those three teams with NCAA Tournament hopes are the No. 2 seed Bulldogs (22-8, 14-4), the top-seeded Lady Bears (26-4, 16-2) and the No. 3 seed Bradley Braves (22-7, 13-5), who notably began conference play 7-0.
Drake, of course, was the MVC’s most recent dynasty. Winners of 47 straight regular-season conference games and last season starting four career 1,000-point scorers, they now boast two 2,000-point scorers in Becca Hittner and Becky Hammon Award finalist Sara Rhine.
Missouri State ended that win streak on Drake’s home court in February 2019; the Bulldogs returned the favor on the Lady Bears’ turf a month later. But then Missouri State earned a 15-point win in the title game, upset DePaul and Iowa State in the NCAA Tournament and played tough against Stanford in a Sweet Sixteen loss.
But that was last year.
And still, that was the bar that Missouri State’s new head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton was expected to meet, if not surpass, when she arrived from Michigan State, where she was associate head coach.
“I exceeded my expectations [this season], to be honest,” said Agugua-Hamilton. “Coming from the Big Ten and a super-competitive conference like that, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But it’s a lot similar, just as far as the competitiveness and the parity between the teams.”
Though the promise of another successful postseason beckons, Agugua-Hamilton has already made her mark as the winningest rookie head coach in MVC history. Missouri State also set a program record for regular-season wins and went a perfect 15-0 at home this season, their first time doing so since 2004. Most recently, it saw three players — Brice Calip, Jasmine Franklin and Alexa Willard — make the All-MVC First Team (with Calip also making the All-Defensive Team), after no Missouri State players made the preseason teams.
Meanwhile, the Lady Bears own the country’s eighth-best RPI, but they’re just barely not in the conversation to host any NCAA Tournament games.
Parity strikes again.
The Lady Bears didn’t lose to Drake this season, nor to Bradley. Instead, their two losses came on the road to No. 4 Illinois State (19-10, 11-7) and No. 7 Southern Illinois (16-13, 8-10). It was SIU’s first win over a ranked opponent since 1991, and Illinois State’s first since 1992.
“We had a target on our back all year,” said Agugua-Hamilton. “But I think that target is even bigger going into the tournament, and flashing red.”
Missouri State could face Illinois State — who earned the No. 4 seed for the second straight season — one more time in the semifinal, should the top seeds win out. After that, if things play out the same way on the other side of the bracket, it would face the winner of another big rubber match between Drake and Bradley.
A three-bid MVC is more of a reach than it once was, say, when the Braves were in first place. But if they can take down the Bulldogs one more time, then regardless of how they perform in the final — lest they win the whole thing — a three-bid MVC may not be out of the question.
After posting school records in both MVC wins and total wins, as well as their best-ever conference finish, the prospect of shocking the conference excites Bradley head coach Andrea Gorski.
“I think we have a lot to prove. I think we also have a lot of doubters,” said Gorski. “And that fuels us, and I love that about our players.”
Since the MVC moved to a neutral-site tournament in 2008, all of the top four seeds have only advanced to the semifinal three times, most recently in 2018. One team outside the top four who’s still out to make a splash in the tournament is No. 5 Northern Iowa (18-11, 10-8).
The Panthers carry the distinction of being the only Iowa-based Division I team this season to beat each of the other three Division I teams in the state: Iowa, Iowa State and Drake. They decisively defeated the Bulldogs last Friday to close out the regular season, but their opening tournament game against Illinois State might pose a tougher challenge, as they went 0-2 against the Redbirds this season.
Truly, the bragging rights are well-earned in the MVC. But just as Drake learned last season as it entered the tournament as the top seed for the third straight year, regular-season bragging rights don’t always translate to key postseason wins. Missouri State hasn’t won both the regular-season and tournament titles since 2001, the last time it went to the Final Four.
“Being the No. 1 seed going in I think is great,” said Agugua-Hamilton. “But at the same time, I just don’t want to see us have any complacency or think that we’re just going to roll through because we finished number one, we got to continue to stay hungry.
“This conference in this historic year … and just how competitive it’s been, I think it’s going to be a super-competitive tournament.”
The MVC Tournament begins Thursday, March 12, with the final taking place on Sunday, March 15 at 2 p.m. CT. All games will be broadcast on ESPN+.
On Wednesday the conference announced that no major changes to the tournament would take place as it relates to COVID-19, but that sections of TaxSlayer Center’s upper bowl will be open to fans who wish to practice social distancing:
For more information about COVID-19 (coronavirus), visit the CDC’s website or the website for your state’s Department of Health.
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