It’s just about the middle of the college basketball season now, with Missouri Valley Conference competition beginning Wednesday.
Here are thoughts from beat reporters around the league wrapping up non-conference play and answering questions regarding the conference favorite, where the team they cover stacks up and the biggest surprises of the last two months.
Wichita State is still the team to beat, no doubt, but I think Evansville could be closer on the Shockers’ heels than I originally thought.
Bradley has solidified its spot at the bottom of the league with a 2-11 start and only one Division I win. Although the Braves have suffered through five losses of 20 points or more, they have been mostly competitive in the rest. Bradley has some talented freshmen, but they’re not yet ready for this level. They ‘re keeping their heads up, playing hard and improving incrementally, but I’m hard-pressed to find many Valley wins in their immediate future. Most of the freshmen have been forced to play major minutes because there are only two active non-freshmen — sophomore Donte Thomas and senior Ka’Darryl Bell. The numbers are predictably ugly — 17 turnovers per game, 37 percent field-goal shooting, 26 percent 3-point percentage, 23 fouls per game and 57 points per game. That’s against a pretty tough schedule so chances are good they’ll improve those numbers.
I’m one of the few who picked Southern Illinois for 10th behind the Braves. Barry and his boys seem to have proven me wrong although their record is certainly enhanced by a below average schedule. On the flip side, I thought Illinois State would show better than it has.
That’s a tough question. All of the Braves have shown flashes, but none have distinguished themselves on a consistent basis. Hence nobody averaging in double figures. If I had to pick one, it would be Donte Thomas, who has made big improvements over a spotty freshman year. Among the freshmen, Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye has been the best so far, although Luuk van Bree has come on lately and could emerge in a big way during league play.
—Dave Reynolds, Peoria Journal Star
Don’t let the 6-5 record fool you, Wichita State is still the team to beat this season in the Missouri Valley Conference. Injuries, especially to point guard Fred VanVleet, caused the Shockers to plummet out of the rankings and may result in the Valley becoming a one-bid league on Selection Sunday. But we haven’t seen them at their best, yet. Evansville, meanwhile, is living up to preseason expectations with an 11-2 record, but hasn’t really notched a signature win. Drake is progressing a little slower than I thought, due in part to a fairly tough non-conference schedule. A four-game losing streak included defeats in Des Moines by DePaul and Iowa, as well as road trips to Bowling Green and Nevada. The first few weeks of the Valley schedule could be brutal (with games against Wichita State, Illinois State, Northern Iowa and Evansville), but the Bulldogs could still avoid a play-in game when it comes to the conference tournament.
The one preseason pick I would change is Illinois State. I saw them as possible title contenders in the Valley, but they lost six of their first nine games. Their best showing so far might have been a 75-63 loss at Kentucky. DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell is having a nice season (15.5 points, 4.5 rebounds), but no other Redbird is scoring in double digits.
Graham Woodward has been a positive surprise. Not only is he a capable point guard (3.3 assists), but also a reliable scorer, contributing 12.8 points per game and hitting 44.1 percent of his 3-point attempts. Drake’s guard play has been good, but the Bulldogs need more in the paint. They rank 223rdnationally in rebounding, out of 351 NCAA Division I teams. The entire Drake team is shooting 43.2 percent from behind the arc, good for 7th nationally.
Wichita State is still the favorite to win the MVC. The Shockers played a more ambitious schedule than most of the conference — and went through a key stretch without star guard Fred VanVleet — so the 6-5 record entering their final nonconference game is misleading.
Evansville fits right behind Wichita State into a battle for the No. 2 spot with Northern Iowa. The Aces faded down the stretch of the conference race last season, finishing 9-9, but don’t expect that to happen again. This is an experienced group that only had one real dud in the nonconference, an 89-76 loss at Arkansas. UE’s only other defeat was 74-64 to Providence, which has ascended to No. 10 in the AP rankings.
Evansville’s 1-2 punch of senior guard D.J. Balentine and senior center Egidijus Mockevicius hasn’t disappointed. Balentine leads the MVC in scoring (21.7 ppg) and is second in assists (5.0 per game). Mockevicius is putting up the best numbers of anyone in the conference: 18.0 points, 13.8 rebounds (No. 1 in the nation), 2.8 blocks and a 66.9 field-goal percentage.
If I could do it over again, I would give Northern Iowa more respect in my preseason poll. I picked the Panthers fourth behind Wichita State, Illinois State and Evansville. I would swap Illinois State and Northern Iowa.
Also, I would pick UNI guard Wes Washpun to the all-conference team rather than Illinois State’s DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell.
Junior point guard Jaylon Brown has been the biggest surprise on Evansville’s team. He split time with classmate Duane “Boo” Gibson last season, but has been outstanding this year while Gibson has been in and out of the lineup with a knee injury.Brown ranks third on the team in scoring (10.8 ppg) and boasts a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. Arguably the team’s most explosive athlete, the 6-foot, 185-pounder has shown increased confidence in getting through cracks in the defense and finishing around the rim. Brown has averaged 16 points over UE’s last three contests.
—Daniel Allar, Evansville Courier & Press
Illinois State (6-7)
The Redbirds suffered through an up-and-down nonconference season, with more downs than ups. ISU’s best games came against the nation’s then top two-ranked teams, No. 1 Kentucky and No. 2 Maryland, within a week in late November. The Redbirds lost both, but showed they could compete with the best teams in the country.
However, ISU had some dreary performances against teams it could beat. When Saint Joseph’s used a 53-20 run last Saturday during a blowout win, ISU coach Dan Muller had seen enough. He yanked leading scorers DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and Paris Lee from the starting lineup. The message came through loud and clear. ISU had sharper ball movement and fewer defensive lapses in a 66-55 victory over Tennessee State to finish the nonconference at a disappointing 6-7.
Lee, the only true point guard on the ISU roster outside of seldom-used freshman Keyshawn Evans, played three minutes against Tennessee State after starting 79 of his first 81 games as a Redbird (he missed one last year with a knee injury). Tony Wills filled in at the point, but the Redbirds need Lee to find his mojo to finish in the upper half of the MVC race. While most opposing coaches laud ISU’s athleticism, the Redbirds are not a very good shooting team (.406 field goal, .297 three-point field goal, .611 free throw percentage) and their offensive woes have carried over to the defensive side way too much. Two freshmen, forward Roland Griffin and 7-footer Daouda “David” Ndiaye, figure to be in the rotation to start MVC play on Dec. 30 at home against Missouri State.
How long it takes Lee to get out of Muller’s doghouse remains to be seen. Knowing Lee’s character and resolve, it shouldn’t be long.
- Wichita State is still the overwhelming choice to capture its third straight MVC regular-season championship. It’s really hard to fathom the Shockers losing more than two league games. They’re that much better than everyone else. Illinois State is right in the pack behind Wichita State, UNI and Evansville, meaning the Redbirds could finish anywhere from fourth to ninth. The best guess is ISU has enough talent and will figure things out to finish at least fifth.
- I’m pretty sure I ranked Southern Illinois either eighth or ninth in the preseason. The Salukis have plugged in some holes nicely around Anthony Beane and right now are the leaders to finish fourth. Good for Barry Hinson. The league needs him to be relevant (his postgame pressers are the best) and also for the Salukis to be competitive again.
- Hard to say any player on Illinois State has been a surprise. If I had to pick one, it would be Griffin. He’s a hard-nosed 6-6 forward who showed in the opener at San Diego State he wasn’t afraid of the big stage, scoring 13 points. Then he went to Rupp Arena and scored 14 against Kentucky. No stage gets bigger than that. Griffin has the strength to take it inside and can make shots outside the arc, although his form is a little unusual. He started against Tennessee State and it would be surprising if he isn’t in the starting lineup for the foreseeable future.
—Jim Benson, The Pantagraph
Indiana State (6-6)
1. Wichita State is still the favorite. At full strength, or as close to full strength as they’re going to get, they’ve demonstrated that they would likely beat most other Valley teams on a night-to-night basis.
Indiana State had its typical maddening nonconference season. Finished 6-6 (5-6 against Division I teams) though it did play better in its final three nonconference games to get back to .500.
The Sycamores are the prototypical beat-anyone-on-their-night and get-beaten-by-anyone-on-an-
2. If only I could remember how I picked ’em …
I don’t feel terribly bad about any of my picks. I suppose Southern Illinois might be the majority choice here. I had SIU eighth if memory serves. The Salukis had a nice nonconference season against the expectations they came in with, but with a nonconference strength of schedule of 315 (per Basketball State), I still need to be convinced they’re bona fide.
3. An emerging talent for Indiana State is 6-foot-9 center Emondre Rickman. He’s a true freshman from Collinsville, Ill.
He’s raw and isn’t great at grasping half-court offense or defense yet, but he has excellent rim protection instincts and shows signs of being a good finisher in the paint. His stats (2.6 ppg) won’t jump out at you because Greg Lansing has limited his time, but Lansing is gradually easing the reins and he’s been valuable for ISU in most of his stints.
He reminds me of former ISU center Isiah Martin in some respects though he’s better than Martin was offensively.
Before the Diamond Head Classic, I would have said Northern Iowa is the slight favorite. After that tournament exposed the Panthers’ lack of depth in the backcourt, I’m going back to Wichita State. Since Fred VanVleet returned, the Shockers have very good wins against UNLV and Utah. They missed a chance for an impressive road win at Seton Hall, but it would be surprising if this team loses more than three games in the Valley. And that’s a worst-case scenario.
Loyola has slightly underachieved so far, but so has Illinois State. So that puts Loyola in more or less the same spot relative to the rest of the league. The Ramblers are very clearly behind Wichita State, Evansville and Northern Iowa. They are in the middle-of-the-pack cluster with Southern Illinois, Illinois State and Indiana State. At this point, Loyola could reasonably finish as high as fourth place and as low as seventh.
For the first time since Barry Hinson got to Southern Illinois, his basketball team is as good as his sound bites. The Salukis did not play a tough non-conference schedule, but 11-2 is impressive nonetheless. And they got a very good win against Oakland, albeit at home, in late November. This team won’t challenge for a top-three spot, but fourth place and a lower-level postseason appearance is in SIU’s grasp.
The biggest surprise for Loyola isn’t a particular player, but rather the team’s dip in offensive production. This goes to show how people around the league, including myself, undervalued 6-foot-5 forward Christian Thomas, who graduated last season.
In some areas, Loyola’s offensive numbers have not changed. The Ramblers still turn the ball over in more than 20 percent of their possessions. They’re shooting the lights out from three at 39.3 percent. They’ve even improved their free-throw shooting to 73.3 percent, good enough for the nation’s top 50.
However, Loyola is shooting only 44.3 percent on two-pointers, compared to 50.6 percent last season. Taking away Thomas’ 56.8 percent shooting on two’s has staggered this Loyola offense, and the Ramblers are yet to recover.
—Jesse Kramer, thecatchandshoot.com
Missouri State (4-8)
Until somebody beats Wichita State, you still have to consider the Shockers the favorite. With Fred VanVleet back and the team getting valuable experience against a brutal nonconference schedule, I’d expect them to be back at top form from the start of the Valley season. Northern Iowa obviously opened some eyes with its marquee nonconference wins, but they had some stumbles when they didn’t play up to potential. The two WSU-UNI games should be wars.
Missouri State fits in exactly where people expected the Bears to, as a lock for the Valley play-in round. They seemed to turn a corner with a victory at Oklahoma State and a resounding win over a good Oral Roberts team before Christmas. They then had a couple of no-show effort games at Valparaiso and losing to an 0-10 Southeast Missouri State team in an embarrassing showing at home.
Picking Southern Illinois ninth in the Valley, though I’m still not convinced they are a ton better than that. The 11-2 record is impressive, but with a No. 285 strength of schedule and a loss to SIU-Edwardsville, it may not mean a whole lot.
Freshman guard Ryan Kreklow has gone from a walk-on over the summer to a probable redshirt to a key player in the Missouri State rotation. The younger brother of former Mizzou/Cal/Creighton guard Ricky Kreklow has reached double figures twice in seven games and is averaging 6.1 points and 3.1 rebounds per game. The coaches love the way he goes “game speed” in every practice drill, and he has replaced struggling Chris Kendrix in the starting lineup. When a true freshman who wasn’t even on scholarship six months ago is on the floor during end-of-game situations, replacing more-experienced teammates, it tells you how much of an impact he is making.
—Jim Connell, Springfield News-Leader
Northern Iowa (8-5)
Southern Illinois (11-2)
Wichita State is still the favorite because it has the best two players, guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, and can defend at a high level. The Shockers’ experience also puts them over the top in what should be a closer race than in years past.
SIU could very well fit in the top half of the Valley in a year where there don’t appear to be a lot of dominant, consistent teams. The Salukis are scoring nearly 20 more points a game than last season and are older than they’ve been in years. They appear to be tougher, both physically and mentally, than in years past, which has gotten them three wins in games decided by three points or less. SIU is also 4-0 on the road after winning only two true road games all of last season.
Picking SIU ninth, or eighth, wherever I picked them below seventh place. Regardless of what you think about their schedule or their defense, they can score with a lot of different guys, and should challenge even the best teams in the Valley.
Point guard Mike Rodriguez, one of SIU’s eight new players. His scoring average hasn’t been surprising (10.9 points per game), because he averaged over 21 a game last season in a good junior college league, but his 48 assists and 17 turnovers in 13 games has been astounding. Last season his assist-to-turnover ratio was closer to 1-to-1 than his current 2.82-to-1. His defensive ability and 3-point shooting (34.4 percent) has also been a bit better than I thought.
—Todd Hefferman, The Southern Illinoisan
Wichita State (6-5)
Wichita State remains the favorite after an injury-plagued start. The Shockers have some young players who need to prove they can win on the road, so that may open them to a loss or two. As long as Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker stay healthy, WSU is the team best suited to winning the 18-game schedule. It might not go as smoothly as in the past two seasons, especially if post players Shaq Morris and Anton Grady can’t provide consistent scoring.
I put Illinois State’s DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and Loyola’s Milton Doyle on my All-MVC team. Redbirds coach Dan Muller pulled Akoon-Purcell from the starting lineup in their previous game. He is shooting 22.2 percent from three-point range and has more turnovers than assists. Doyle is also struggling with turnovers. Either Anthony Beane of SIU or D.J. Balentine of Evansville would have been better picks.
Freshman forward Markis McDuffie didn’t play in Wichita State’s loss to Tulsa and barely registered against Emporia State. Then he scored 14 points against Southern California and Alabama. McDuffie’s talent always registered. His move from struggling freshman to significant rotation player came swiftly. He added 13 points in a win over Utah and is averaging 7.2 points and shooting 42.9 percent from the field. While his defensive positioning and understanding of WSU’s system is imperfect, McDuffie’s skills and athletic ability make him one of the MVC’s top freshmen.
—Paul Suellentrop, Wichita Eagle