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Illinois State guard Madison Williams, right, ties up Loyola's Clayton Custer during their game Saturday, Feb. 24, 2018 at Gentile Arena in Chicago.

DAVID PROEBER, THE PANTAGRAPH

ST. LOUIS — For once, the possibility of teams participating in the Missouri Valley Conference Basketball Tournament's play-in round sticking around at least until Saturday (and maybe Sunday) doesn't seem so far-fetched.

While Loyola is the No. 1 seed after winning the regular-season title by four games, the Ramblers (25-5) aren't viewing Friday's quarterfinal game as a warmup for the semifinals the next day.

Second-seeded Southern Illinois (19-12) definitely isn't.

The MVC Tournament, affectionately known as Arch Madness, kicks off its four-day run Thursday with the play-in round at Scottrade Center.

Eighth-seeded Evansville (17-14) meets No. 9 Northern Iowa (15-15) at 6 p.m., with No. 7 Missouri State (17-14) facing No. 10 Valparaiso (15-16) at 8:30 p.m.

Play-in winners are a combined 1-41 in quarterfinal games since 1997 when all 10 league teams started coming to St. Louis. The only survivor was seventh-seeded Bradley, which knocked off No. 2 Creighton in a 1998 quarterfinal.

But with the preseason Nos. 1 (Missouri State) and 2 (UNI) teams playing on Thursday this year — and big, bad Wichita State not around anymore — this could be the most topsy-turvy MVC tourney anyone has ever seen.

"There's not much separation. There really isn't," said Loyola coach Porter Moser. "You think about a team like Valpo, and it came right down to the wire a couple weeks ago with them (an 80-71 Loyola win). We're going into this like we have every game with an amazing amount of respect for every team."

The possibility of playing Evansville or UNI in the quarterfinals is something Moser isn't looking forward to.

"There's nothing you could wish for. Every team has an opportunity this weekend," said Moser. "You really have to have your focus on because you've got to really grind it to put a couple games together." 

SIU gets the Missouri State-Valpo winner at 6 p.m. Friday. The Salukis are coming off their worst week of the season, losing to Loyola and Evansville by a combined 50 points.

"We have a basketball team right now that doesn't have a lot of confidence and we're worn down physically and mentally," said Salukis coach Barry Hinson. "Our biggest opponent right now is between our ears. We're trying to get that corrected before Friday's game." 

This is only the third time in the MVC's 113-year history that all teams have reached at least 13 wins.

If sixth-seeded Indiana State (13-17) beats No. 3 Illinois State (16-14) in Friday's 8:30 p.m. quarterfinal game, it will be the first time every league team has reached 14 wins. 

And, for the first time since 2007, no league team will have 20 or more losses. The Valley is ranked No. 8 in the RPI for the first time since 2013.

"There are more good teams this year than there have been," said Dan Muller ahead of his sixth MVC tournament as ISU's coach. "Probably every team is going down there with the expectation they have a chance to win it. But it's who makes shots, who stays out of foul trouble, who handles the pressure of the games and moments are the teams that are going to win."

As the Redbirds found out last season, capturing the regular-season title (which ISU shared with Wichita State at 17-1) doesn't mean an automatic spot in the NCAA field.

ISU got to the championship game before losing to Wichita State. After a nervous week of waiting, the Redbirds didn't hear their name called on Selection Sunday and settled for an NIT bid.

Loyola knows the only sure way to get into the Big Dance for the first time since 1985 is winning the MVC Tournament. The Ramblers have advanced to the semifinals only once (2015) since joining the league for the 2013-14 season.

Two years ago, Loyola threw a scare into top-seeded Wichita State in the quarterfinals. The eighth-seeded Ramblers led by seven with nine minutes left before the Shockers rallied to claim a 66-58 victory. 

With UNI, which has won four MVC Tournament titles in the last nine years under coach Ben Jacobson, possibly getting a chance to face Loyola on Friday if it gets past Evansville, this could turn into a wild weekend real quickly. 

"The years that we've won we've gone down there with some momentum, confidence and a good bounce in our step," said Jacobson, whose team has won four of its last six games.

Follow Jim Benson on Twitter: @Pg_Benson

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Sports Writer

Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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