A sampling of the Missouri Valley beat writers got together once again to discuss this week’s conference tournament in St. Louis and the end of the season.
Which team has the best shot to knock off top-seeded Wichita State?
I would say Illinois State for two reasons: 1) The Redbirds have the athleticism and size on the wing to play with the Shockers more than any team in the league; 2) The Redbirds are in the opposite bracket and a really good team is always more vulnerable in a third game in three days.
— Jim Benson, The Pantagraph
Northern Iowa. The Panthers have won nine of their last 10 games, including a victory at Wichita State. They have enough shooters to loosen up WSU’s smothering defense and are comfortable playing a grinding style, which is useful against the Shockers. And with uber-athletic Wes Washpun handling the ball, UNI can create decent shots out of nowhere late in the shot clock.
— Daniel Allar, Evansville Courier & Press
I will go with Illinois State by a very slim margin over UNI. The Redbirds are quicker and more athletic than the Panthers. I like what Paris Lee has done. And if [Justin] McCloud shoots as well off the bench vs. WSU as he did against UNI, that would be huge.
With UNI, it can defend well enough to beat anyone. The Panthers’ problem is creating their shots in key situations. They’ve endured a few long scoring droughts this season. That can’t happen against the Shockers in the title game.
— Jim Sullivan, Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier
Honestly, I don’t think any team in this conference can beat WSU twice in the same season, so that rules out Illinois State and Northern Iowa. Evansville? Possible on its best day, but the Aces traditionally do little in St. Louis, so until they shake that rep, I can’t buy that either.
— Todd Golden, Terre Haute Tribune Star
Which game (or potential game on Saturday or Sunday) intrigues you the most?
UNI-Wichita State semifinal. The Panthers have veterans from last season who know what it takes. They also have the confidence from beating Wichita State in Koch Arena three weeks earlier. That can’t be underestimated.
Northern Iowa-Wichita State, for the reasons mentioned above. We could have a pair of good semifinal games if Evansville and Illinois State advance on the other side of the bracket.
UNI-Wichita State. Round two was a defensive heavyweight title fight. It’s hard to believe that both [Ron] Baker and [Fred] VanVleet will struggle shooting as much as they did against the Panthers at Koch Arena. At the same time, UNI might be playing even better overall than it was a few weeks ago. [Klint] Carlson’s been a difference-maker off the bench, to name one example. Washpun has been outstanding at both ends of the court.
I guess it would be WSU-UNI in the semis, but that’s only for potential upset reasons. Unfortunately, it appears injuries could alter some interesting matchups, including UNI’s quarterfinal matchup with Southern Illinois.
If healthy, I thought Missouri State could give Evansville a run in the 2-7-10 game, but the Bears have some serious backcourt injury problems. A shame.
The best game I covered this season was…
Illinois State and Wichita State on Feb. 6 in Normal. The Redbirds were down 16 early in the second half before going to a zone that seemed to faze the Shockers and hand them their first league loss. Of course, the Shockers adjusted and three weeks later handled the same zone with ease in routing ISU.
The most dramatic, and best, game I covered this season was Evansville’s win at Southern Illinois. The Aces were behind almost the entire game before D.J. Balentine hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to force overtime. UE pulled away for the win behind 25 points from Balentine and a career-high 25 points from Mislav Brzoja.
A close second is Evansville’s three-point loss at Wichita State. At the time, Evansville was considered WSU’s biggest challenger in the conference. The game lived up to the billing and came down to the final possessions.
UNI-Wichita State. As I said, it was a great defensive battle in a tremendous atmosphere. And history was made, or unmade if you will, when UNI broke WSU’s home winning streak. In the non-conference category, UNI-North Carolina is at the top of the list.
ISU’s most exciting MVC game was its double overtime loss at Loyola, but it’s most exciting win occurred in the nonconference season.
At the Paradise Jam in St. Thomas, ISU led Hofstra by 17 points in the second half in the third-place game, only to blow the lead and trail by seven late. ISU threw a press at Hofstra with two minutes left, and the Pride just wilted. ISU wiped out the deficit and won 67-66 via a pair of free throws by Devonte Brown, who had been vilified by fans for his season struggles up to that point.
It turned out to be ISU’s best win by RPI of the season as Hofstra (60th RPI) is CAA co-champs.