The Missouri Valley Conference has forever been one of the best mid-major leagues, and that is no different this year. Although Creighton departed for the Big East, Wichita State is nationally ranked, Illinois State knocked off No. 25 Dayton a few games ago, and Indiana State and Missouri State have both been making some mid-major headlines.
MVC competition begins on New Year’s Day, so here is an update and overview of each team with updated projections for the MVC standings.
Bradley had a hot start to the season with a 4-0 record, but things quickly unraveled after its loss at Illinois on Nov. 17. In their last six games, the Braves have lost five times, and they have a tough trip this weekend with games against Portland and Pacific in Las Vegas.
The Braves have received great production from seniors Walt Lemon Jr. and Tyshon Pickett, and transfers Omari Grier and Auston Barnes, who leads the MVC in rebounding, have also excelled.
Pickett has made the most improvements of anyone on the Bradley roster averaging career-highs of 14.5 points, 7.2 rebounds (No. 2 in the MVC), and 1.2 steals per game. He is also shooting 55.4% from the field, the fifth-best mark in the conference.
“Tyshon Pickett has made a big jump,” head coach Geno Ford said. “He’s playing like an all-league player. He’s expanded his game and is much better than he was a year ago.”
With their final non-conference game coming against South Florida, it is realistic for the Braves to enter MVC play at 5-8 with a six-game losing streak. Their chances of entering their conference opener against at Northern Iowa on Jan. 1 with a winning record are very slim.
Projected finish: 9th
First-year head coach Ray Giacoletti has done a tremendous job with Drake, leading the Bulldogs to a 6-3 record. Despite a lack of quality wins, the Bulldogs nearly beat St. Mary’s on the road and took New Mexico State into overtime.
“I’ve been really pleased with the guys buying in to a new staff and a new way of doing things,” Giacolleti said.
But the Bulldogs will be fighting an uphill battle after losing senior guard Gary Ricks to a season-ending foot injury. (The bright side of that is Ricks should receive a medical redshirt to return next season.)
Without Ricks, Drake will continue to lean heavily on senior guard Richard Carter and Boston College transfer Jordan Daniels.
“We don’t have a whole lot of room for error as far as players on the perimeter,” Giacoletti said.
Carter, who is No. 3 in the MVC in scoring with 20.3 points per game, has struggled his last two times out with 33.3% field-goal shooting. The Bulldogs will need more efficient outings from him as he becomes an even more crucial part of the offense.
Daniels wore a Drake uniform for the first time in the Bulldogs’ loss to New Mexico State on Saturday, and he had a big impact with 18 points, four assists, and four steals. He also made three free throws at the end of regulation to force overtime.
[Daniels] is somebody that can shoot it, [so] we’ll play him off the ball offensively,” Giacoletti said. “As far as his understanding of the game and making simple plays, I was really impressed with that [against New Mexico State].”
Drake will finish its non-conference slate with Western Michigan tonight, Albany on Dec. 23, and at IUPUI on Dec. 29.
Projected finish: 6th
Evansville was hot out of the gate with a 5-0 record, but since then the Aces are only 1-5. Most recently, they suffered their most disappointing non-conference loss in a while at home to Jackson State.
The Aces have been led by the exquisite play of D.J. Balentine, and sophomore Egidijus Mockevicius has been of the league’s most improved players.
Balentine is averaging 22.8 points, the best in the league, and 3.9 assists. Two weeks ago he won MVC Player of the Week.
“D.J. deserves all the credit — he’s put in the work and the effort,” head coach Marty Simmons said. “He’s scoring in transition, he’s scoring out of the halfcourt, he’s got a good mid-range game, he’s getting to the free throw line. He’s just done a terrific job in so many ways for our basketball team.”
Mockevicius, a Lithuania native, is averaging 10 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 1.8 blocks. Against Miami (OH) on Dec. 7, he posted his first career double-double with 17 points and 13 rebounds.
Evansville has also received great contributions from freshman point guard Duane Gibson, who is averaging 8.7 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game. But Gibson also turns the ball over 3.1 times per game, and the Aces will need more efficient point-guard play if they are going to be a factor in this league.
The Aces have a tough game against Butler this weekend, but they should get at least one more non-conference win when they host Grambling on Dec. 28. The Tigers have not won a Division I game since Mar. 3, 2012.
Projected finish: 8th
Illinois State (5-5)
Illinois State has had an up and down year so far.
Playing a tough schedule with almost a completely new roster, the Redbirds lost four of their first five games. They then rattled off four straight wins, capped off by an upset of No. 25 Dayton, but on Monday night they lost to Oakland by 15 points.
“We took a step back with our defensive intensity,” head coach Dan Muller said of the Oakland game. “But we’ve gotten better overall the last three or four weeks.”
Illinois State has primarily used a four-guard lineup, and it has worked out for the most part. Although they do not get many offensive rebounds, they Redbirds have not been too overmatched on the defensive glass.
“It’s helped us offensively,” Muller said of the lineup. “It puts a little bit of pressure on our shooting, a lot of pressure on our boxing out.”
Ever since the last week of November, Illinois State has been without junior forward Michael Middlebrooks, who was shooting 71.4% from the field and averaging 9.8 boards per game before he got suspended.
Muller said Middlebrooks is still suspended indefinitely, but he did travel with the team to Oakland.
The Redbirds wrap up non-conference play with home games against Tennessee State and DePaul this week, and then they open MVC play at Missouri State.
Projected finish: 5th
Indiana State (7-2)
Indiana State has spent nearly all of its non-conference slate on the road, but the Sycamores performed well overall, ranking No. 66 on KenPom.
“We haven’t been in the Hulman Center for over a month,” head coach Greg Lansing said. “We’re 7-2 with playing two home games, so I guess that’s a positive.”
Their only blemishes are one-point losses to Belmont and Tulsa, and they had an impressive win at Notre Dame on Nov. 17.
Belmont is one of the top mid-majors in the country, and at the time the Bruins had the longest home winning streak in Division I.
The Tulsa loss at the Great Alaska Shootout was a bit concerning, but since then the Sycamores have won four games in a row.
“We suffered through that disappointment and beat two good basketball teams [at the Great Alaska Shootout] after that,” Lansing said.
Indiana State has been unbelievable on the perimeter this season, shooting 44.8% from beyond the arc. Manny Arop and Dawon Cummings are the Sycamores’ highest-volume three-point shooters, but Justin Gant and Khristian Smith have made large improvements to their shooting.
The key to this Indiana State team is Jake Odum, who started as a freshman on the Sycamores’ NCAA Tournament team. This season, Odum is averaging 13.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 4.6 assists. The 6’4″ point guard will be a MVC Player of the Year contender.
The Sycamores have their toughest non-conference matchup of the year at Saint Louis tonight, and then they return home for IUPUI and a rematch with Belmont to wrap up 2013.
Projected finish: 2nd
Loyola Chicago (5-5)
In its first year in the MVC, Loyola could contend for a spot in the middle of the pack. The Ramblers had a few bad losses early in the season, but they have looked much better in December.
They lost at Mississippi State by only one point in overtime, and then they knocked off UIC and Campbell.
Milton Doyle is one of the contenders for MVC Freshman of the Year, and his success and development will determine just how good Loyola is this season. The former Kansas guard is averaging 16.5 points and shooting 45.5% from the field and 36.6% on three-pointers.
In his last three games, Doyle is averaging 24 points on 62.9% shooting. His 32-point performance against Campbell last Friday, a freshman record for Loyola, earned him the most recent MVC Player of the Week and Newcomer of the Week awards.
In the last three games, Doyle is also averaging 10.3 free-throw attempts.
“When you start to drive, you’ve got to turn that corner and drop the shoulder, and [Doyle] gets that,” head coach Porter Moser said. “His development is a key to us, him learning and getting experience.”
The Ramblers start a pair of juniors, which is the most experience you will find because Moser rarely puts any of his three seniors on the floor.
Junior forward Christian Thomas is averaging 14 points and 6.7 rebounds, but he is undersized at 6’5″; junior guard Joe Crisman does not always fill the stat sheet, but he has good intangibles and leadership skills.
Sophomore Nick Osborne has the potential to be a competent big man in this league, but he has been plagued with foul trouble in almost every game this season.
The Ramblers wrap up non-conference play with games against Northern Illinois and Fordham, and then they play their first-ever MVC game at Indiana State on Jan. 1.
Projected finish: 7th
Missouri State (8-2)
Missouri State picked up a non-conference win against Texas A&M, and its only two losses are to Louisville and Virginia.
The Bears also played a bunch of games early in the season with seniors Nathan Scheer and Keith Pickens and sophomore Marcus Marshall out with injuries. This allowed for other, less experienced players to step up and gain valuable playing time that will be beneficial during the grueling conference season.
“It was a positive thing from the standpoint that they were not season-ending injuries, yet we had those guys out early in the season,” head coach Paul Lusk said.” We were able to survive through that stretch.”
Senior forward Jarmar Gulley has been a consistent force for Missouri State all season, leading the team with 13.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game.
Since returning from his injury, Marshall has also played very well with 12.5 points per game.
The Bears will finish non-conference play with home games against Alabama A&M and Southeast Missouri State.
Projected finish: 3rd
Northern Iowa (5-5)
Northern Iowa started slowly this season, but things have been picking up during the last few weeks. The Panthers took Iowa State into overtime in a loss on Dec. 7, and last Saturday they defeated Virginia Commonwealth.
“I’ve liked the ability of our guys to make some individual plays,” head coach Ben Jacobson said. “I’ve liked the ability of our guys in terms of their competitiveness – it’s allowed us to be in some games when we haven’t necessarily done everything correctly.”
Northern Iowa has one of the MVC’s best frontcourts with juniors Nate Buss and Seth Tuttle.
Buss is having a breakout season in his increased role after averaging only 8.9 minutes per game last year. The 6’9″ forward is averaging 11.5 points on 65.7% shooting.
Tuttle, though averaging 12.7 points and a team-best 6.8 rebounds, is having his worst year as a Panther. His field-goal percentage is down to 46.5%, and his rebounding rates have decreased as well.
Junior guard Deon Mitchell gives Northern Iowa its biggest scoring punch with 13.5 points per game.
The Panthers have benefitted from the addition of Virginia transfer Paul Jesperson, although he is not eligible until next fall in accordance with NCAA rules.
“One of the things I really like about him is he’s added some maturity to our team, and he’s added some leadership to that scout team for helping us get prepared for opponents,” Jacobson said of Jesperson. “The biggest thing that Paul has done is help our younger guys.”
Northern Iowa will face Virginia this weekend and then host Iona, one of the favorites in the MAAC, next Saturday before heading into conference play.
Projected finish: 4th
Southern Illinois (2-8)
Southern Illinois was not supposed to be anything special this season, but the Salukis have not done anything to make them look like even a middle-of-the-pack team in the MVC.
Through 10 games, their only wins are against Division II Missouri S&T and on a neutral site against Stetson, which was 0-6 then and only 2-10 now.
The Salukis have also lost games to Chicago State and Austin Peay.
With four straight losses, it could be time to start worrying about how to find a way out of last place in the MVC this season.
“Our biggest opponent right now is ourselves,” head coach Barry Hinson said.
Southern Illinois should be able to steal a few wins in conference play by virtue of having a great scorer like senior Desmar Jackson. Jackson is second in the league in scoring with 21.1 points per game, and in his last four outings he is averaging 22 points.
The Salukis still have three non-conference games remaining: Ball State, SIU-Edwardsville, and @ Miami (OH).
Projected finish: 10th
Wichita State (11-0)
Wichita State is off to the best start in program history at 11-0. Despite losing a some key pieces from last year’s Final Four team, the Shockers are ranked No. 11 in both the AP Top 25 and The Catch and Shoot Top 25.
The Shockers are the clear-cut favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference, and it would not be totally surprising to see them finish 18-0 in league play.
If that were to happen, the Shockers would likely enter the postseason undefeated, as they will be heavy favorites in their final non-conference games at home against North Carolina Central and Davidson.
Senior forward Cleanthony Early is one of the favorites for MVC Player of the Year, averaging 15.3 points and 5.9 rebounds.
The Shockers’ backcourt of Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, and Tekele Cotton is easily the best in the conference.
Baker leads the trio Shockers in scoring with 14 points per game in addition to 4.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, and 1.7 steals.
VanVleet is No. 2 in the MVC with 5.1 assists per game, and he also scores 11.3 points.
Cotton is a lockdown defender who has also proved he can score this season with 11.3 points on 48.2% field-goal shooting.
Projected finish: 1st