A sampling of Missouri Valley Conference beat writers check in on the league as we near closing stretch of the regular season:
1. How intriguing is the MVC Tournament after Wichita State’s losses to Illinois State and Northern Iowa?
Extremely intriguing. The Shockers’ losses to ISU and UNI has given hope to those playing on Friday that maybe they can steal an invite to the Big Dance. But, on the other end, you would think Wichita State will be laser focused in St. Louis knowing if it doesn’t win the AQ it is giving the NCAA seeding committee a chance to leave them out.
— Jim Benson, The Pantagraph
Wichita State’s recent defeats does not put its regular-season title in immediate jeopardy. It does add intrigue to the MVC Tournament as there obviously is a dent in what once seemed like an air of invincibility that the Shockers had over the rest of the pack. There now does seem a legitimate chance that someone else could prevail in St. Louis. It means that Wichita State no longer is a lead-pipe cinch for an at-large NCAA Tournament bid. There is work for the Shockers to do.
Winning out in the regular season should be enough, even with a semifinal or final loss in St. Louis. But the Shockers — and what appears to be a spotty offense — have little remaining margin for error.
— Lyndal Scranton, Tailgate Guys Radio
I think it’s the most interesting MVC Tournament we’ve seen in quite awhile. The winner should come from the group of Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Evansville and maybe even Illinois State. Even more interesting will be watching to see if any Valley team has done enough to merit an at-large NCAA bid. I’m not sure this is more than a one-bid league. There should be some outstanding Valley teams making postseason appearances outside of the NCAA Tournament.
— Jim Connell, Springfield News-Leader
Wichita State’s two losses add an unfortunate air of desperation from top to bottom. Unfortunate because I hate to see the Valley as a one-bid league. It’s a lot more fun when you know multiple bids are at stake, and there’s a dramatic underline to the weekend as teams either play spoiler or “play their way into the NCAA tournament” by getting to the semis or the final. I’m afraid that element is gone now.
Running the table would have given the Shox a strong bubble case. Now, they have to win the tournament or be very nervous. I think they might still have a fair chance for an at-large if they go 4-0 to finish and then reach the title game, but it’s not the lock it appeared 10 days ago. I think 18-0 would have cinched it. now it appears Wichita faces the same urgency everybody else does: Gotta win to get in.
— Kirk Wessler, Peoria Journal Star
No matter what happens before March 3, Illinois State and Northern Iowa should arrive in St. Louis thinking they can beat Wichita State if they play well. The Shockers appeared invincible in 2013-14 and darn-near in 2015-16. The past week changed that perception, at least a little, even as WSU wins its third straight MVC title.
That makes the tournament much more interesting, especially if Evansville and Southern Illinois also are playing well.
I’m not done on WSU’s at-large possibilities. I think the Shockers can get in without winning the MVC Tournament, as long as they win out in the regular season. WSU will finish strong and be the favorite in St. Louis. The wins by the Panthers and Redbirds add some drama.
— Paul Suellentrop, The Wichita Eagle
2. Is Missouri State’s group of sophomore Chris Kendrix and freshmen Ryan Kreklow, Obediah Church and Jarred Dixon talented enough to make the Bears MVC title contenders in the next two seasons?
Definitely, but the Bears still need another athletic front-court performer to join Church if they want to challenge for the title. Give Paul Lusk plenty of credit this season for getting this team to play hard every night. They might be the most over-achieving team in the league outside of SIU. It would be a shame if Missouri State didn’t keep Lusk around for at least another year.
The Valley is a much better product with Missouri State as one of the better teams. The Bears have one of the nicest arenas in the league and can bring fans to St. Louis when the team is relevant.
Missouri State has the young pieces in place to become a contender in 2016-17, particularly when you factor in the loss of top seniors from this season’s top Valley teams. There is room for upward movement from those in the middle-to-bottom tier this season. For MSU it’s arguably the best young nucleus for the Bears since the Blake Ahearn-Deven Mitchell-Tyler Chaney-Nathan Bilyeu crop of high school recruits in the mid-2000s.
Missouri State also has a nice incoming recruiting class of three, including two talented junior college wing players and prep senior Greg “Boogie” Williams, perhaps the most acclaimed recruit of the Paul Lusk era. All this said, we saw the Bears lose a promising young core, centered around Marcus Marshall, last year. Retaining young talent has become anything but certain in the Valley in recent years with high-majors luring players away.
Those four players need to continue to get stronger and diversify their games. Kreklow can’t just be a shooter and Church needs to be able to do more than be on the receiving end of alley-oops, for example.
A wild card for next season is the arrival of Greg Williams, a 6-foot-6 point guard out of Virginia. He had some high-major offers as a top 100-type player before complications from a ruptured appendix had him hospitalized for the entire AAU season last summer. The other offers largely disappeared, and from all accounts, he’s back to 100 percent. If he’s as good as his advance billing, and joins a backcourt that includes Dequon Miller, Dixon and Kreklow, with a healthy Austin Ruder back, it should accelerate the time frame and expectations for this team.
The Bears need some help. I like their young guys a lot, and they could certainly form the core of a contender. But they need depth, and they also need one of these guys to step up and be the star on offense.
Either that, or hope they find one in the next two recruiting classes. The changes in the rules — notably the shot clock and the freedom-of-movement fouls — already have resulted in a substantial scoring spike. That’s going to continue, because the NCAA rules bosses view this season as simply a first step in the right direction of increasing tempo and scoring. As teams go zone and pack-line to take away the drive, the perimeter opens and creates a premium on perimeter shooting.
Other than Ryan Kreklow, the Bears haven’t shown a lot there. I just looked at their conference stats, and they’re averaging only 67.4 ppg while giving up 71.6. I know there’s a lot more to consider with the analytics for tempo and efficiency, etc., but those are still significant numbers. Opponents are scoring about 3 points under the national average, so that’s not bad. But they have to score more in this changing era. And it’s more than points; their shooting percentages — overall and three-point — are also worse than opponents’. Those who know me think I’ve become a heretic. I’ve always been a proponent of great defense. I still believe you must play great defense, but the metrics that define that have changed because of the rules.
The game has changed, and you have to adjust. You’re not going to win this league scoring less than 70 points per game.
Those four appear to be a good core of players. Church’s physical skills are a rare asset in the MVC. I hope he spends the spring and summer shooting foul shots, because he should get to the line often and he’s leaving a lot of points to waste shooting 43 percent. Ryan Kreklow and Jarred Dixon impressed me with their confidence in games against WSU. They didn’t play like most freshmen.
The key for coach Paul Lusk is to keep adding talent around them and keeping those players in maroon. The Valley is better when the Bears are winning.
3. You are MVC commissioner for a day, with unlimited power. What changes do you make?
Mandatory starting times no later than 7 pm on weekdays and 8 on weekends.
Yes, this is from a purely selfish standpoint from writing under ridiculous deadlines, but also from a standpoint of fans with younger children who have to attend school during the week and also on weekends when they don’t want to get home around 11 or later. Yes, TV dictates late starting times. We all get that. But at some point, isn’t it better to have more people in the seats?
It creates a better atmosphere for the players which usually improves the quality of the games.
Doug Elgin does a fine job and does not need my help. That said, the time might be right to be proactive in exploring expansion possibilities. It’s troubling that the Valley has slipped in the RPI to 13th as a league – especially with the senior talent base. Getting programs like Bradley, Missouri State and Drake to improve, along with Southern Illinois’ continued improvement, should help.
But I’d like to see the league at least think about new blood (Oral Roberts, Belmont anyone?). Convincing Saint Louis to return to its long-ago conference home, which would be a basketball home run. And I think ORU, should it get a shot at joining the Valley, would raise its level along with getting the Valley a much-needed western addition to better balance it geographically.
The biggest one would be to eliminate any monitor reviews. Officials seem to bes eeking out any reason to go to the replays, and it puts a halt to any flow the game may be enjoying. It’s rare to see a monitor review yield any meaningful change, anyway.
I would mandate a minimum strength-of-schedule, and it would be fairly demanding. When the Valley was at its strongest in the multi-bid era — the mid-2000s — there was a direct correlation between success and strong schedules throughout the league. That came about because the league as a whole bought into the concept.
Then within a very short span, most of the presidents and ADs and coaches turned over, and the majority of them, unfortunately, went limp. Look, I realize scheduling isn’t easy, but it’s not mission impossible to have a legitimately strong schedule, and it doesn’t have to include a bunch of Power-5 conference brands, either. It just takes guts. I firmly believe that to be the best, you have to be truly willing to play the best, even in adverse circumstances. Anybody, anytime, anyplace.
I’d penalize schools financially for every non-conference game played against a team 250 or lower on the RPI, with a sliding scale that increases the fine at 275 and 300. I’d use some of the league’s NCAA payoff to provide financial incentives for non-conference games played against teams in the top 100, increasing for top 50s and top 25s. Everybody in the league benefits from strong non-conference schedules, just as everybody in the league suffers from weak ones.
My first call will be to Indiana State’s new athletic director to convince that person to drop football.
Indiana State should go all in on basketball (and baseball) and use its limited resources on those sports. The school is the smallest of the MVC’s public schools and its boosters are spread too thin. Unlike schools such as Southern Illinois and Illinois State, it hasn’t invested heavily in a new stadium. Attendance averaged 5,060 last season and the Sycamores aren’t a traditional winner.
The Sycamores should brand themselves as the school where basketball, baseball and soccer are important and fund them well enough to be more successful. Give basketball the money to pay better salaries, travel better and play guarantee games at home.
Sure, it will be painful for a few seasons. The payoff should be more success in basketball and a stronger MVC.