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Sports Illustrated
Sports Illustrated
Pat Forde

With Indiana State and Drake, the MVC Deserves to Be a Two-Bid League in NCAA Men’s Tournament

Before the NCAA men’s tournament dilutes itself in the near future (like next year) with additional expansion aimed at placating the power conferences, the current selection committee can take one last stand for deserving mid-major programs. The most obvious and easiest stand is to put both Missouri Valley Conference tourney finalists in the Big Dance.

The Indiana State Sycamores and Drake Bulldogs both deserve to be in the field of 68 no matter what happens when they meet in the Arch Madness final Sunday. They’re good enough. They have been all season. The loser shouldn’t be left twisting on Selection Sunday next week, but that’s inevitable.

The Sycamores are 28–5, with one of those losses to Drake in Des Moines. The Bulldogs are 27–6, with one of those losses to Indiana State in Terre Haute. Indiana State entered play Saturday No. 29 in the NCAA’s own NET ratings, while Drake was 46th—well within at-large tournament range. And both should be higher come Sunday.

If the committee watched Indiana State on Saturday, it saw an elite offensive team that has the potential to shoot any opponent out of the gym. The Sycamores rained down 15 three-pointers on the Northern Iowa Panthers and scored 94 points—the most that veteran Panthers coach Ben Jacobson has ever allowed in a regulation game.

Indiana State center Robbie Avila drives to the basket as Northern Iowa forward Cole Henry defends during the Missouri Valley Conference tournament semifinals.

Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports

Jacobson, an old tempo master, has been doing this for 18 seasons. He’s taken one Northern Iowa team to the NCAA Sweet 16 and two others to the round of 32. And his defense has never—repeat, never—been shredded like that.

“That was as well as we’ve played all year,” Indiana State coach Josh Schertz said.

The lead shredder for the Sycamores was cult-hero center Robbie Avila, whose fame is spreading like March wildfire. His goggles, slight paunch and lack of athleticism have spawned a number of nicknames—Larry Blurred and Larry Nerd are both popular callbacks to the greatest player in school history—but his game is legit. Avila started the bombardment of UNI by swishing his first four threes of the game, all in the first five minutes, pulling the trigger on the last one from about 26 feet.

Related: Reviving Indiana State Men’s Basketball Through A Cult Hero and Former D-II Coach

That made the score 17-8, and the game was effectively over. Indiana State pumped the lead to 19 in the first half and 30 in the second before coasting in for a 94-72 rout. Avila finished with 21 points and made 5 of 6 threes—committee members, you want to keep that viewer-friendly guy out of your tournament?

“We better be in the tournament win or lose [Sunday],” Schertz said. “But that’s neither here nor there, we came here to win three.”

And if the committee stuck around for the second game, a street fight between Drake and the Bradley Braves with everything on the line, it saw a high-quality team find a way to survive a major challenge. The Braves are a good team, too—they finished the season 22–11, with five of those losses to Drake and Indiana State—and they played with their hair on fire in taking a 14-point first-half lead. But behind Tucker DeVries, son of head coach Darian DeVries, the Bulldogs battled back to claim a tense duel, 72-67.

“I think this league deserves two teams in,” Darian DeVries said. “This league is a really good basketball league. I’ve been a part of a lot of NCAA tournament teams as a head coach and an assistant [at Creighton], and I think this league has two teams who deserve to be in right now.”

The high-major snobs will take shots at Indiana State’s Quad 1 record of 1–3. All three of the losses were on the road, to the Alabama Crimson Tide, Michigan State Spartans and Drake. (The Quad 1 win was at Bradley.) But here’s the thing: The Sycamores don’t get as many opportunities to play Quad 1 opponents, and they had zero of those opportunities at home.

A .333 winning percentage in Quad 1 games is better than NCAA locks Auburn Tigers (.125) and TCU Horned Frogs (.250). It’s the same percentage as locks or bubble teams Oklahoma Sooners, Virginia Cavaliers and New Mexico Lobos. The Sycamores also have a 4–1 record in Quad 2 games.

They also played more road games than any other team in the NET Top 50 as of Saturday.

Drake forward Darnell Brodie and guard Conor Enright celebrate after the Bulldogs defeated Bradley in the Missouri Valley Conference tournament semifinals.

Jeff Curry/USA TODAY Sports

As for Drake: The Bulldogs have a sneaky-solid résumé, with a 3–1 Quad 1 record in the NET as of Saturday. The key that could get them over the top is a neutral-floor win in the Las Vegas area over a Nevada Wolf Pack team that most assume will make the field. Drake has a couple of Quad 3 losses—the Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks on a neutral floor in November and a double-overtime road loss to the Missouri State Bears—that could be an issue. But the Missouri State loss is part of the double standard that high-major teams enjoy: Road losses are almost never considered bad losses.

If you believe the mock bracketologists, Drake is further on the outside of the bubble than Indiana State as an at-large candidate. So the ideal result Sunday for the Valley would be a Drake victory in another high-level game.

But it shouldn’t matter who wins or loses, at least when it comes to getting in the 68-team bracket. The selection committee should invite two from the Missouri Valley—for the good of the tournament before it expands for no good reason and because Drake and Indiana State deserve it.

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