ST. LOUIS -- Welcome to Arch Madness, where the fifth bid to the NCAA tournament will go to either Northern Iowa or Wichita State this afternoon as champion of the Missouri Valley Conference tourney.
The game will either mark an arrival of Gregg Marshall as a Valley coaching force after a two-year struggle, or further validation of a Northern Iowa team that won this tourney last year and has dominated the league all season.
Marshall came to Wichita from Winthrop, where he built a Big South powerhouse that played in seven NCAA tournaments. He replaced Mark Turgeon at Wichita and could not come close to duplicating that success, going 11-20 his first year and 17-17 last season. This season has been a breakthrough, with a 25-8 mark and a No. 2 seed in this tourney, but the Shockers are outside the NCAA bubble and must win today to go dancing. Wichita hasn't won this tournament since 1987.
At 27-4 and owning the regular-season title, Northern Iowa is almost certainly in the dance at this point -- just making the final probably iced that. But it would be a surprise to see a veteran team let down at this point. The deep and balanced Panthers undoubtedly want to remove even a hint of doubt about their tourney resume.
Watch the tempo. Northern Iowa prefers the pace to be glacial and is averaging 56 points per game in the Valley tournament while surrendering just 40. Wichita, while not exactly a run-and-gun outfit, has averaged 69 points in its two games here.