February 26, 2008 12:55 pm ET by Kyle Whelliston
Southern Illinois at Bradley (Missouri Valley)
Carver Arena - Peoria, IL
7:00 PM EST
Drake's Des Moines miracle notwithstanding, it's been a tough year for the 101-year-old Valley. Five new coaches, half the returning starters lost, and a lack of the signature nonconference wins that marked the last few mega-seasons for the ol' MVC. But with this weekend's 5-0 BracketBusters sweep of the televised games and a solid placement of young whippersnapper conferences like the Horizon League in their place, there's a little of that old feeling again. Ah, sweet youth.
Southern Illinois (16-12, 10-6) has certainly revitalized itself as well -- after following up a Sweet 16 appearance by starting the season 10-10 (5-4 MVC), SIU has rediscovered the winning ways that went elsewhere, winning seven of nine and four straight. But the margin of error for its weak offense had disappeared, and SIU has struggled on the road (2-9) and given up more points per game overall over last year (60.1 to 56.2). But the offense has come through lately, as the Maroon Dawgs have scored at least 65 in their past five wins. And they've been winning weird: on Saturday in a 74-49 BracketBuster blowout against Nevada, the Salukis managed one of the oddest splits of the season: outrebounded by a whopping 13, but winning on the strength of 21 forced turnovers.
We've already done our monthly moralizing about Bradley's off-court issues today (like a real opinion columnist!), but the upshot basketball-wise is that senior guard Daniel Ruffin is suspended after Peoria police booked and jailed him on a battery charge over the weekend. But the Braves were able to win convincingly without Ruffin at Wisconsin-Milwaukee on Saturday, as fellow starting guard Jeremy Crouch led the team in points (24) and rebounds (eight) in a 12-point win. The 6-5 senior leads the team overall in points with 14.9 ppg and is the Valley's third-leading scorer behind Drake's Josh Young and Illinois State's Osiris Eldridge. Watch him and the remaining Braves on ESPN2 tonight -- it's a battle of recent Sweet 16 teams that just might use their experience to string a few wins together in St. Louis, and ultimately steal the autobid from Drake.
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