A sampling of Missouri Valley Conference beat writers check in on the league as conference play begins Wednesday.
If you made your MVC picks now, which team moves up the most and which team drops the most?
Jim Benson, The Pantagraph, of Bloomington-Normal, Ill.
Definitely would have to move Loyola up a couple spots. I believe I had the Ramblers seventh or eighth. Just wasn’t sure about Milton Doyle’s ability to lead a team and too many other question marks.
But Doyle has been spectacular, while Clayton Custer has given a steady hand at the point. Aundre Jackson might be the biggest surprise of any Valley newcomer. Really didn’t hear much about him, but he’s given the Ramblers an inside presence even though he’s only 6-5. I would probably put Loyola fourth right now behind Shockers, Illinois State and UNI.
The team I would drop the most would be Indiana State. I had the Sycamores fifth. They had the league’s best non-con win against Butler, but losing T.J. Bell is going to hurt and the consistency from game to game doesn’t seem to be there.
Jesse Kramer, thecatchandshoot.com
Evansville has to be the team I’d move up the most. I had the Aces ninth preseason, and while I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Aces still finish as low as 8th, I could also see them competing for as good as a fourth-place finish. Evansville is currently No. 115 in KenPom, and if the Aces keep that up in Valley play, you have to strongly consider Marty Simmons for MVC Coach of the Year after losing two all-conference players.
The team I would drop the most is Southern Illinois. I had the Salukis sixth but would currently re-rank them as eighth. With the way Bradley has improved, I wouldn’t be shocked if the Braves can steal enough games to finish ahead of the Salukis this season, although I’d still give Barry Hinson’s club a slight edge.
Todd Golden, Terre Haute Tribune Star
Certainly, it’s hard to ignore the progress Loyola has made. I don’t recall where I had them … seventh probably? The Ramblers’ 10-3 record and much improved offensive output certainly marks them as the surprise team of non-conference play.
I don’t know if any team would drop much. I don’t think any team is wildly under-performing from expectation.
Maybe Northern Iowa is? I think UNI was picked high on reputation by many with the caveat that it had a lot of question marks entering the season. The Panthers also played the toughest non-conference schedule too.
Paul Suellentrop, The Wichita Eagle
I picked Loyola sixth. With the Ramblers 10-3, including a win over San Diego State and a two-point loss at North Carolina State, they deserve a second look. I think Loyola could push into the top four, perhaps the top three.
While the strength of schedule (No. 234) is poor, the Ramblers have a chance to move into the top 100 of the RPI.
Honorable mention to Evansville, which is 9-4 and recovering better than I expected from the loss of Big Mock, Balentine, Wing and Brzoja, plus Blake Simmons to injury. While their best win is over No. 117 Boise State, I expected more struggles.
I picked Drake 10th. The Bulldogs are 2-10 with a win over Mississippi Valley State, a non-Division I win and four sub-200 losses. If I could pick Drake lower, I would.
Loyola is the MVC’s most pleasant surprise. Why are the Ramblers playing so well?
Doyle always has been one of the Valley’s best talents, but injuries have haunted him and he just appeared to play disinterested at times. He seems to be locked in this season and that makes the Ramblers dangerous every night.
Adding Aundre Jackson and Clayton Custer was huge for the Ramblers for many reasons.
Not only is each player highly skilled, but they fit perfectly in Porter Moser’s system. Moser loves his undersized power forwards/centers. He had Stan Blackmon at Little Rock, Lorenzo Gordon at Illinois State and Christian Thomas at Loyola just a couple of years ago.
Custer can score and run the point, which fits perfectly in Loyola’s system of having no point guard and several point guards at the same time. Loyola has no true point guard, but between Custer, Milton Doyle, Ben Richardson and even Bruno Skokna, the Ramblers have four guys who can be effective running the offense or moving off the ball.
The Ramblers finally appear to have some inside-outside balance, something they really haven’t consistently had since they joined the league. The Ramblers aren’t turning the ball over either. As I write this, they top the MVC in assist-to-turnover ratio.
We’ll see though. The jury is still very much out. Loyola’s schedule strength was poor, ranked 267th, second-worst in the MVC by every rating site I’ve seen.
Milton Doyle has talent around him with Clayton Custer, Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson. Jackson is one of the nation’s most efficient scorers and leads the MVC by making 72.6 percent of his shots.
The Ramblers lead the MVC in shooting accuracy (51.5 percent), three-point shooting (38.5) and turnover margin (plus 4.15). Even if those numbers are somewhat inflated by poor opponents, that combination will make the Ramblers tough to beat.
What’s the early MVC game that is most interesting?
Going with opening night and Missouri State at UNI. The Bears seem much improved from last season, but they have played a really weak schedule and haven’t beaten any team of consequence. If Missouri State can go to UNI and win, that would make a huge statement. On the other side, UNI played a brutally tough non-con schedule. Ben Jacobson will have the Panthers ready in the Valley. Don’t count them out just yet.
Jim mentions Missouri State at Northern Iowa as a big game, and I agree as that will be a big test for the mostly unchallenged Bears.
Another big one is Evansville at Illinois State. The Aces have played a tougher schedule than Missouri State, but not by much. They have a solid win over Boise State and played UNC Wilmington and Middle Tennessee competitively in neutral site losses. But the Aces’ only two true road games so far are against Louisville — a national title contender — and Austin Peay — one of the worst teams in the OVC.
It will be interesting to see how the Aces compete in a more evenly matched road game. In my opinion, they don’t have to beat the Redbirds to prove they are legit, but they need to be able to keep the game close into the final four minutes.
Missouri State’s trip to Northern Iowa and Wichita State’s trip to Indiana State on Dec. 28 are both intriguing. How good are the Bears, who played the worst nonconference schedule? Can UNI right its ship? Which Sycamores will show up when the Shockers show up in Terre Haute?
Opening night is a big one on Wednesday. It could give us a sense who’s serious about staying in the conversation for the top three.
If Indiana State is capable of beating Butler at home, it’s capable of pushing the Shockers.
Missouri State coach Paul Lusk is 0-5 at McLeod Center. The Bears should arrive with some confidence after a 1-1 showing in Las Vegas. Props to the Panthers for playing a brutal schedule. Did it crush their confidence or toughen them?
4. Northern Iowa’s Jeremy Morgan was the preseason MVC Player of the Year. Anybody else emerging as a strong candidate?
Illinois State’s Paris Lee seems to have taken over for Fred VanVleet as the league’s best leader at point guard. Lee has been spectacular the last six games. He’s shooting unbelievably from 3-point range (56.5 percent, fifth best in nation) and also pacing the Valley with 6.0 assists to go with 15.7 points.
If he continues to play at this level, the veteran Redbirds will give Wichita State a fight for the top. Other contenders besides Morgan and Lee for POY would have to be Doyle, Evansville’s Jaylon Brown and Indiana State’s Brenton Scott.
Paris Lee has been terrific, as has Jaylon Brown. You could also argue for either Doyle or Jackson from Loyola. While Doyle is second on the Ramblers in scoring, third in rebounding and first in assists, Jackson is leading the team in scoring and leads the MVC in offensive rating for players with at least a 24 percent usage rate, per KenPom.
Illinois State point guard Paris Lee certainly leaps to mind. He’s averaging 15.7 points, six assists and is shooting 56.5 percent from three-point range.
Not sure how Loyola’s Aundre Jackson can be ignored with an incredible 72.6 percent shooting percentage. Among those in the MVC top 12, he also has more shot attempts, which makes his percentage even more amazing.
Morgan has obviously had his moments. Evansville’s Jaylon Brown is putting up points and is an impressive player, but Marty Simmons’ offenses always have one guy who piles up points. Indiana State’s Brenton Scott has also been very impressive at times and very frustrating for ISU at other times, but he certainly has the talent.
Morgan is carrying the Panthers against a strong schedule, so while he hasn’t done anything to diminish his status, others emerged in November and December.
Lee is fulfilling his promise as the MVC’s top point guard. Jackson’s numbers are impressive. Brown plays 35.5 minutes a game and does everything well. As a freshman, he made 2 of 10 threes. Last season, he made 16 of 52 (30.8 percent). This season, he is 17 of 37 (45.9 percent).
Wichita State’s top All-MVC candidate is junior forward Darral Willis. If voting was today, the Shockers might not put a player on the first team.