Thursday, March 09, 2006

Falker, Salukis, MVC Looking To Match The Hype

"Why are you all recruiting me?"

Thanks to my man BF Hoodrich from the Frog for forwarding me this article on the Missouri Valley Conference basketball teams. Unfortunatley, it's subscriber only, so I'll just paste the entire thing. My favorite parts are highlighted in black...

THROUGHOUT the week, the theme of the Missouri Valley Conference tournament was guessing how many teams it would send to the N.C.A.A. tournament next week.

The answer is, Who knows? The Valley deserves five invitations, but will probably receive a conference-record four.

Yesterday, Chris Lowery's young Southern Illinois team won the conference championship game by defeating Bradley, the Valley's hottest team, with a suffocating defensive effort. The 59-46 victory secured an automatic berth to the N.C.A.A. tournament for Southern Illinois. Bradley probably earned its way in with a sensational run at the end of the regular season.

Now the conference has to deliver. As Lowery said yesterday, and as other coaches repeated during the tournament, the conference needs deeds, not words.

"We've got to promote as many as we can promote, but we can't just be happy about getting in, because when you get complacent and happy about getting in, you're done in the first round," Lowery said. "Obviously if we want to validate what our league is about — if we're a six-R.P.I. league — we'd better have somebody get past the first weekend."

I like Southern Illinois's chances, and I like Lowery, who was referring to the Ratings Percentage Index. In so many ways, he epitomizes what this conference represents, beyond its obsession with sending teams to the N.C.A.A. tournament. This is a league with solid coaches, rich legacies and fierce rivalries. Many of the coaches here played in the Valley. Lowery grew up in Evansville, Ind., and played for Southern Illinois. He played in two M.V.C. championship games — in 1993 and 1994 — and won both. Yesterday he became the first person to win an M.V.C. title as a player and a coach.

He used his experience playing in the tournament in a motivational speech at halftime. "I've never talked to our guys about it until today," he said. "I talked about playing in the tournament and what it's like, and to be able to sit back for a week and see your name and have everybody talk about you and where you're seeded and how great you are for a week."

That's much better than "sitting on pins and needles, wondering what seed you're going be," he said. He added, "Now we can relax."

That is the beauty of this intercollegiate tapestry. Granted, there are warts and blemishes; someone is always trying to beat the system. The majors, the midmajors and the less-than-major conferences give players an opportunity to blossom — some under a large spotlight, like the Big East and the Atlantic Coast Conferences, but the vast majority in places like the Missouri Valley and even smaller conferences.

That's why I pull for Lowery's Salukis and the Bradley Braves, the Grambling State Tigers and the Winthrop Eagles. It's why I pull for players like Southern Illinois's Randal Falker, the M.V.C. tournament's most valuable player.

Falker is a 6-foot-7 sophomore forward and the Salukis' free sprit. He was born in St. Louis and attended Gateway Tech High School, where he made the all-state team. But Falker said that coming out of high school, he never in his wildest dreams would have imagined being the M.V.P. of a conference tournament.

"I didn't think I was that good," he said yesterday. "I sort of wondered why they recruited me sometimes. But they said I could rebound."

He was recruited by other Missouri Valley teams and other so-called midmajors, but he said he doubted that he could compete. "Especially my first year, I came down here, I got beat up on," he said. "They worked us so hard, you wonder why. Then, you're standing right here and it's like 'Thank you for running me so hard.' "

Asked about Falker after yesterday's game, Lowery smiled. "Randal's a kid — we thought he was really goofy, he was gangly, he'd fall down," he said. "He's telling the truth. On his visit, he goes, 'Why are you all recruiting me?' I was like, "Well, we think you got potential.' He said, 'Well, I don't see it.' That's Randal being how he is."

Falker redshirted his first season at Southern Illinois. "That was huge for him to come find out that he could play college basketball," Lowery said. "To see him develop was huge. That's the beauty of it. Jamaal Tatum could have gone higher and Bryan Mullins could have gone other places, but they came here and they trusted us to get them into the N.C.A.A. tournament."

On Sunday, Falker outplayed Patrick O'Bryant, Bradley's 7-foot sophomore center who had drawn a number of N.B.A. scouts to St. Louis. O'Bryant scored 13 point in the first half, but only 3 in the second.

At halftime, Lowery tore into Falker for being soft on O'Bryant. "A lot of expletives," Falker said. "He just told me I had to finish my plays. He said I'm not finishing, I'm not attacking, not going to the rim, not playing good competitive basketball; not fighting him hard enough. I had zero fouls in the first half."

Whatever Lowery said had an effect. Falker scored 13 of his 17 points and grabbed 12 of his 16 rebounds in the second half.

All week long, the theme of this tournament was quantity — how many Valley teams would make the N.C.A.A. tournament. That's important, but the conference, for its athletes' sake, should never lose sight of the quality of the experience.


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