Arch Madness is savoring a silver showing in St. Louis this weekend.
The annual Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball tournament is playing out for the 25th consecutive year in the city.
St. Louis serves as headquarters to the 10-team Valley but doesn’t have a dog in the single-elimination fight that ends Sunday. Yet the Greater Alton area features a couple of well-known representatives.
Deion Lavender, a Marquette Catholic High graduate, is playing for Southern Illinois University Carbondale, which defeated Missouri State, 55-48 on Thursday in one of two play-in games. The 12-20 Salukis, ninth in the Valley standings, reached Friday's quarterfinals and aim to work some upset magic.
The 6-foot-2 Lavender, a freshman guard, scored a team-best 12 points and snared five rebounds in the win over 11-20 Missouri State. He converted on all six of his free throws, including four in the final 45 seconds, to ensure the victory.
"We have a lot of confidence in Deion," SIUC coach Barry Hinson said.
Teammate Jalen Pendleton added, "We knew Deion was going to make those free throws near the end of the game We have a lot of confidence in him and he can score better than a lot of players in the league. He plays with a lot of confidence."
Lavender has been starting for the struggling Salukis much of the second half of the season and he's trying to supply them with much-needed point punch. Lavender, averaging 6.5 points per game, logged seven points Saturday in a 63-56 victory over Drake. Teammate Anthony Beane is the top gun at 16.2 points.
“It has been an adjustment playing for a new coach with a new philosophy. But I don’t worry about it. I just play,” said Lavender, who played in games at Saint Louis University and SIUE this season. “It was just a matter of time before I got comfortable and was able to slow the game down for myself.”
Then there’s Kavon Lacey, an Alton High grad and the director of operations for the University of Evansville. Lacey will be on the bench as an assistant coach for Marty Simmons on Friday afternoon when the fifth-seeded Purple Aces out of southern Indiana make their tournament debut.
Their goal is to win and advance, but they’ll have to spring a surprise or two if they want to reach the NCAA Tournament. Sunday’s champion automatically qualifies, but it appears that defending tourney champ Wichita State and Northern Iowa, both 27-3, are earmarked for the Big Dance.
Then again, you never know for sure. That’s why they play the games.
Lacey, the all-time AHS leading scorer with 1,499 points, has played in the tournament at St. Louis and helped coach the Aces at Scottrade Center. So he knows what it takes to be successful.
“The tournament is really a big deal because you have a chance to go to the NCAA Tournament,” Lacey said. He played in it for four years and has coached in it for just as long.
Lacey added, “It’s always great to come to St. Louis because it’s like a homecoming for me. I’ll have family and friends there at the tournament. So it’s my favorite time of the season — absolutely.”
Simmons, previously the head coach at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville for five years (2002-07), also knows the routine. He realizes the 19-9 Purple Aces are cast as underdogs.
“It seems like Wichita State and Northern Iowa have been in the Top 20 the entire season and both have terrific résumés,” he said. “I would think both would be in the NCAA Tournament.
“We have a lot of work to do.”
Wes Washpun of Northern Iowa, Shawn Roundtree of Missouri State and C.J. Rivers of Drake are three more players to eye in the four-day tournament. Washpun, a 6-foot-1 junior guard and the son of former Alton High standout Troy Washpun, is averaging 8.5 ppg for Northern Iowa, league runner-up to Wichita State.
It was Troy Washpun teaming with John “Main” Smith on the 1979-’80 Redbirds’ team that went 23-3 and was the last one to win the undisputed Southwestern Conference title. Smith still attends AHS games and Washpun, a collegiate player at Wyoming, figures to be back in St. Louis.
That ’79-80 Alton team reached the East St. Louis Sectional before bowing to East St. Louis Lincoln, which was just beginning its torrid state run. Lincoln’s sectional championship team that season lost to Effingham in the Class 2A Carbondale Super-Sectional. However, the Tigers claimed IHSA tournament titles in 1982, 1987, 1988 and 1989. It was truly the Land of Lincoln that decade.
As for the Missouri Valley, it has deep roots in college basketball, including Illinois. The league dates to 1907, making it the second-oldest conference to the Big Ten, which began in 1895. It has included Saint Louis University, Creighton, Tulsa, Cincinnati and Louisville, among others.
Curiously, when SLU departed in 1974, it paved the way for SIUC to join the next season. Loyola of Chicago is the newest member, replacing Creighton in 2013.
Local players have dotted MVC rosters for years and that figures to continue. Edwardsville High product Armon Fletcher is a redshirt freshman at SIUC and will team with Lavender next season.
“The Missouri Valley does a good job of recruiting players in our (St. Louis) area,” Lacey said.
Lacey may become a head coach someday, perhaps in the storied league. Collinsville All-Stater Kevin Stallings, a Meadowbrook native, coached at Illinois State and Trenton Wesclin High star Paul Lusk is currently at Missouri State.
There’s a certain appeal to the league for Southwestern Illinois hoopsters. I doubt if that will change.
It hasn’t in 108 years.
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