PEORIA — Much is at stake at 7 p.m. Wednesday night at Carver Arena when Bradley hosts Valparaiso on senior night for five BU players.
Bradley sits at 8-8 in the MVC standings, and the Braves are locked in a three-way tie for fifth place with Illinois State and Southern Illinois. Valparaiso is at 7-9 and alone in eighth place. Both teams are hopeful of avoiding next Thursday’s play-in round of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament in St. Louis.
Since the format began in 1997, no team from the Thursday night session has reached the Sunday championship game and a shot at the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. It’s difficult enough to win the Valley event from a middle-of-the-pack seed (fourth through sixth) where both of these teams aspire to finish.
Only three times in the 42 league tournaments has a seed worse than a No. 3 won the title: No. 4 Creighton in 2000, No. 5 Indiana State in 2001 and No. 4 UNI in 2016.
Although a 9-9 league mark is usually good enough to finish in the top six, there have been two occasions when it hasn’t — the 1998 Braves and the 2012 Drake Bulldogs. That BU team remains the only MVC squad to reach the Saturday semifinals from the play-in round.
Bradley and Valparaiso have been streaking in opposite directions over the past month. BU has won eight of 11, while Valpo has lost eight of 10. The Braves’ turnaround began 12 days after an abysmal showing in the first meeting with the Crusaders, losing 61-50 while shooting a season-low .309 from the field.
“They’re a very good defensive team,” said BU coach Brian Wardle. “Their physicality and toughness is always a concern of how you’re going to get clean looks. We’ll have to do a better job than we did the first time of executing and moving the ball better. Defensively, we need to protect the paint and not let them attack the rim in transition or in the half-court.”
Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich’s team has been riddled with injuries, beginning that night vs. Bradley when 3-point leader Ryan Fazekas hurt his ankle. Fazekas has only recently returned, but other key Crusaders such as Markus Golder and John Kiser have also missed time with injuries.
“We’re starting to turn the corner here from a health component,” said Lottich, who has everyone available Wednesday. “Bradley was picked near the top of the league and is very talented. (At the beginning of the league season) they lost a bit of their confidence. They seem to be playing with a lot more confidence and gotten back to what made them a great team. They’re guarding very well and hitting shots, which they had a hard time doing early in the year.”
During pre-game senior night festivities, Bradley will honor its four seniors — Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye, Luuk van Bree, Luqman Lundy and Peter Hanley — as well as redshirt junior Antoine Pittman. Although no announcement has been made regarding Pittman’s status for next season, it appears unlikely he will return to BU for his final year of eligibility.
Minus Lundy, who came to BU as a junior college transfer last year, the others are what remain from a 10-man freshman class in Wardle’s first season on the Hilltop in 2015.
“They have helped us build this program and made it competitive in a lot more ways than just on the floor,” Wardle said. “Off the floor, they’ve left a legacy of being good leaders, being great in the community and the classroom. All the things we had to improve on off the floor they’ve helped build quickly.”
Dave Reynolds can be reached at 686-3210 or at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at davereynolds2.