As we reach the halfway point in the Missouri Valley schedule, teams have begun to separate themselves. UNI bounced back from 2 losses the previous week and won both their games, regaining sole possession of first place with a 6-2 record. SIU picked up a huge one-point win over Creighton Saturday to force a tie for second place between the two schools, both with 6-3 records. The Missouri State Bears took a step back as they lost at home to UNI before falling on the road at Evansville. Bradley, at 5-4, is still in the hunt while Indiana State, after entering the week at 4-2, fell to 4-4. Wichita State’s troubles continued as they dropped to 3-6 in league action and will need a miracle if they expect to have any chance of repeating as Valley champs. Evansville, Illinois State and Drake all continue to be at the bottom of the conference standings but all three continue to give the contenders fits. The Aces beat Missouri State and SIU while Drake defeated Indiana State and the Shockers fell to the Redbirds. If the first half of the season is any indication as to how unpredictable the second half is going to be, then the fans of the Valley are going to be in for a special treat.
The Northern Iowa Panthers enter this week’s action as the most respected MVC team in either of the two major polls. The Panthers received 46 votes in the AP Poll and 19 votes in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches Poll, good for a number 30 ranking in both surveys. The Salukis of SIU were the only other team to receive votes this week as Creighton and Missouri State both fell from the rankings. Despite only having two teams receiving votes in the national polls, the Valley, along with the SEC, are the only two conferences in America with all league members playing over .500.
With every team having played nine conference games with the exception of UNI and Indiana State, the conference portion of the schedule has reached the midway point. As teams begin to prepare for the stretch run and look to put themselves into position to contend for a conference championship and a post-season berth, numerous key factors will come into play. Here’s a look at four variables that will determine who will sit at the top of the standings once the second half of the Missouri Valley Conference schedule concludes.
• Which seniors will emerge and carry their team.
The Valley was fortunate this year to have a high number of players return from last year’s remarkably successful season. Now it’s up to the seniors who have played in the league for four years to step up and lead their teams. Which senior guard, Jamal Tatum, Nate Funk or Blake Ahearn, who’ve all had marvelous careers, will take his game to the next level? Or will it be big man Grant Stout of UNI? Seniors provide experience and leadership and this year’s Valley champion will need to rely on its seniors to get them through the final stretch of a brutal 18 game league schedule.
• Protect your home floor.
Losing games at home is not an ingredient in winning any college sport championship. The team that can avoid the home loss this year will put themselves in a primary position to win the MVC. Southern Illinois has yet to fall at home and Creighton, UNI and Missouri State, each a prime contender for the same crown, have only lost once on their home court. Missouri State wasted an opportunity last Thursday when they fell to conference leader UNI on their home floor. SIU will look to continue its solid play at home when UNI visits Tuesday. Losing two or more games at home will almost certainly put a damper on any teams title hopes.
• Steal a win or two on the road.
The Valley has proven week and in week out that it’s solid from top to bottom and winning on the road has been a challenge for numerous teams. Whichever team is able to come away with the very tough road win will have a better opportunity to contend for the Valley crown as the season winds down. UNI went on the road and won at Wichita State and Missouri State while SIU was able to win on the road at Creighton but fell to Evansville. Both SIU and UNI look to be the front-runners this year as they have shown the ability to win on the road in big game settings. Missouri State has lost 3 conference games on the road and has dug itself a hole in the conference title race as of late. It’s tough to win on the road in any league and whichever team can find the right formula away from home will be in good shape.
• Avoid the prolonged losing streak.
A bad stretch of basketball can be the Achilles heel of any team looking to win the conference championship. Avoiding losing streaks and bouncing back from losses will separate the contenders from the pretenders. After winning 4 consecutive games to start conference play, UNI dropped their next two contests, but bounced back and won their next two games ending their losing skid. The Missouri State Bears and Wichita State Shockers haven’t been as lucky as both teams appeared to be front-runners for the league title before league play began. The Bears have lost 3 of 4 with a difficult stretch ahead while the Shockers started league play 1-4. The ability to get over a loss and avoid losing streaks will be key in which team emerges on top in the always competitive MVC.
This week the teams will begin to prepare for the stretch run and one game stands out above the rest as it could have huge title implications. Tuesday night UNI will look to pick up the very important road win over Southern Illinois. The Salukis will look to avenge a loss to the Panthers earlier this year and the winner will be in the driver’s seat for the Valley crown. Other notable games feature Creighton at Missouri State, Bradley at Missouri State and Indiana State at Creighton. The action is bound to heat up this week as teams will look to separate themselves from the pack. Keep your headset tuned to the MVC as the last six weeks of conference play will prove to be filled with hard fought battles and highly entertaining basketball action.
Game of the Week – Southern Illinois at Creighton, Sat. Jan. 20, Quest Center, Omaha, Nebraska
The Creighton Bluejays entered Saturday’s game with Southern Illinois with a 1-game lead on the Salukis for second place in the Missouri Valley Conference. Following their 1-point win, the Salukis forced a tie with the Bluejays as both teams are currently 6-3 in Valley play. SIU got a layup from Bryan Mullins with 4.1 seconds left and Nate Funk’s 25-foot bank shot went in and out at the buzzer and SIU held on for the 58-57 victory. The Salukis held the Bluejays scoreless for the first 5 minutes of the game and Creighton didn’t reach double figures until 5 minutes to play in the first half after they went on another stretch were they were scoreless for 6 consecutive minutes. Despite their inability to score, the Bluejays still only trailed by 5 at the half. However, the Bluejays caught fire in the second half and used a 14-3 run to build a 50-43 advantage. The Salukis then battled back to tie the game at 55 with just over a minute to play and Jamal Tatum gave the Salukis a 1-point lead as he hit a free throw with 49 seconds remaining. Nick Porter put the Jays back in front by 1 after he made two free throws with 18 seconds left to play setting the stage for Mullins game winning shot with 4.1 seconds to go. Randal Falker led SIU with 21 points, 15 in the second half, along with 6 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. Funk led CU with 18 points and Anthony Tolliver added 17 points. The Bluejays hit just 1 of 8 three-point attempts while SIU hit 6 of 14. 17, 459 fans watched SIU beat Creighton for the seventh consecutive time and the loss marked the Bluejays first at the Quest Center in Omaha this season. The two teams will meet again in Carbondale on Feb. 10th and the Bluejays will look to return the favor and beat the Salukis on their own home floor, a place they have been almost unbeatable. Their second meeting could have huge implications on the Valley championship and if SIU can beat the Bluejays for the second time, they will be in very good shape. A win at SIU Arena next month is a must if the Bluejays want to have any chance at the Valley crown.
Game of the Upcoming Week – Northern Iowa at Southern Illinois, Tue. Jan. 23, SIU Arena, Carbondale, Illinois
The Northern Iowa Panthers find themselves sitting atop the Valley standings with a record of 6-2. The Southern Illinois Salukis sit right behind them at 6-3. First place in the Valley will be on the line when these two teams collide in Carbondale at SIU Arena Tuesday night. The Panthers beat the Salukis 66-61 on Jan. 6th in Cedar Falls and the Panthers will look to pick up their second win over SIU and take a commanding lead in the race for the Valley championship. The Salukis have been almost unbeatable at SIU Arena over the past few years and they have yet to lose at home this year. UNI has shown this year that they can win on the road as they handed Missouri State their first home loss last week. The Panthers are 2-1 on the road this year in the Valley and with 6 of their last 10 games on the road this game is very important. The inside game of Eric Coleman and Grant Stout will be tough for the Salukis to stop but the edge in guard play goes to SIU with Jamal Tatum. Both teams play great defense and this game will be very close as these two teams look to inch even closer to a Valley title and an NCAA berth. Look for the home court advantage to help greatly as SIU will pull away from the Panthers and pull out a very close win and surpass UNI in the Valley standings.
Prediction – Southern Illinois 67 - 61
Player of the Week – Kyle Wilson, Sr., F – Wichita State
The Shockers have been reeling as of late but the play of senior forward Kyle Wilson this past week was exceptional. Wilson scored a career-high 25 points in the Shockers win over Creighton Monday night. The Plano, Texas native also sunk two key free throws with just under 10 seconds to play to seal the victory. Wilson’s career-high of 25 points didn’t last long as he set a new career-high 3 days later as he poured in 27 points against Illinois State. Wilson then just missed a double double Saturday night as he had 15 points and 8 rebounds in the Shockers loss at Bradley. Wilson, the Shockers leading scorer with 14.4 points per game, shot the ball lights out during the week with 62 percent from the field while showing good range by hitting 9 of 11 three-point attempts. He also shot 84 percent from the charity stripe, with 16 of 19 attempts passing through the net. If the Shockers look to get back on track and make a run at an NCAA tourney bid, something that seemed to be a lock a month ago, Wilson’s senior leadership prevail and his play on the court must be maintained at a very high level.
1. Northern Iowa (15-4, 6-2) Last Week: 4th
After starting MVC play 4-0 the Panthers had a little setback last week as they dropped two straight to fall to 4-2, but after two wins this week, UNI is now 6-2 in the Valley and alone in first place at the half way point. The Panthers traveled to Springfield Thursday night to take on the Bears in front of a sold out Hammons Student Center crowd. The hostile crowd didn’t bother the Panthers as they jumped out to a 13-point lead late in the second half. The Bears stormed back and tied the game with 3 minutes to go but the Panthers shook off the late rally and held on for the 75-65 win and handed the Bears their first home loss of the year. Grant Stout had 15 points and 12 rebounds and Eric Coleman had 10 points and 10 rebounds for the Panthers who shot 65 percent from three-point distance. The Panthers then returned home and beat Indiana State Saturday night 74-64 behind 23 points and 12 rebounds from Stout. The Panthers once again were deadly from three-point land hitting 10 of 24 shots. Coleman had 10 points and 9 rebounds, just missing another double. The combo of Stout and Coleman has been a key force for the Panthers this year and if they both keep recording double doubles night in and night, look out, the Panthers are going to be hard to stop. The Panthers will hit the road this week for two games, with the first being against SIU at SIU Arena in Carbondale. The winner of this game takes a huge step in trying to distance itself from the rest of the league. UNI will then travel to Drake on Saturday. A win at Drake is a sure thing but the Panthers will fall at the hands of the Salukis.
2. Southern Illinois (15-5, 6-3) Last Week: 2nd
Southern Illinois entered this past week’s action at 4-2 and right in the thick of things in the MVC. The Salukis had no trouble with Drake Monday night beating the Bulldogs 72-62 behind 16 points from Josh Young. The Salukis then had a chance to take sole possession of first place in the conference but they suffered a loss Wednesday night that could quite possibly come back and haunt them later on in the season and may even end up costing them the Valley title when they traveled to Evansville Wednesday night and fell to the Aces 75-68. The Salukis, despite 29 points from Jamal Tatum, lost to an Ace team they had no business losing to. SIU committed 31 fouls and the Aces had 30 points off those fouls, which turned out to be the difference in the game. SIU also let the Aces hit 7 of 11 three point shot attempts. The Salukis however, bounced back from that damaging loss by beating the Valley preseason favorite Creighton 58-57 Saturday night. SIU got 21 points from Randal Falker and Bryan Mullins hit a layup with 4.1 seconds to go to give SIU their sixth conference win. SIU will take on Valley leader Northern Iowa Tuesday night, a game they must win on their home floor after losing to UNI earlier this year. The Salukis will then welcome Illinois State Saturday for a game they should win convincingly. If SIU can go 2-0 and improve to 8-3 in conference, they’ll put themselves in the driver’s seat in the Valley.
3. Creighton (12-7, 6-3) Last Week: 1st
The Creighton Bluejays knew this was going to be a tough week for them and one that could make or break their season. Despite going 1-2 last week, the Bluejays are just a half game behind league leader UNI. Had the Bluejays been able to win one or both of the games they lost, they would have put themselves in the driver’s seat for the Valley title. The Bluejays fell to Wichita State Monday 62-59 after Nate Funk had a three point attempt blocked at the buzzer. Funk led the Bluejays with 15 points and Nick Porter had 14 as Creighton saw their 3 game winning streak come to an end. CU got back on the winning track however, beating Bradley 65-54 Thursday night in Omaha. Funk led the Jays with 25 points and Anthony Tolliver had 10 points and 13 rebounds as Creighton stayed in a first place tie in with UNI in the MVC. The Bluejays, however, would only be in a tie atop the standings for less than 24 hours as they lost Saturday night 58-57 to Southern Illinois falling into a second place tie with SIU. Funk once again led the way for the Jays with 18 points but SIU beat the Bluejays for the seventh consecutive time. Funk had a chance to win the game but missed a bank shot at the buzzer. Tolliver added 17 points and Porter had 13. The Bluejays will travel to Missouri State Wednesday to play a very solid Bears team who will be desperate for a win after losing two straight. Creighton will return to Omaha to take on Indiana State Saturday a game they should have no trouble winning. The Bluejays will go 1-1 this week and keep themselves near the top of the MVC standings.
4. Missouri State (14-6, 5-4) Last Week: 3rd
The Bears entered the week 4-2 and in a first place tie in the Valley standings. Following a 1-2 week, the Bears find themselves just 1 game over .500 in MVC play and two games behind first place. The Bears opened the week with a hard fought win over Illinois State. The Bears beat the Redbirds 75-66 behind 17 points from Blake Ahearn. The Bears then had a golden opportunity to take control in the Valley as they hosted UNI in Springfield. Missouri State fell behind by 13 points in the second half but made a big run and tied the game with less than 3 minutes to play, but UNI hit consecutive shots and the Bears fell by 10. Nathan Bilyeu had 12 points and 9 rebounds for the Bears who suffered their first home loss of the season. The key to the game was three-point shooting as they Bears hit just 30 percent of their threes while UNI hit 65 percent of theirs. What a difference 12 days makes, as the Bears, after beating Evansville on Jan. 9th by 52 points, fell to the Aces Sunday 63-56 and in the process lost consecutive games for the first time this season. The Bears got 20 points and 8 rebounds from Deven Mitchell and Tyler Chaney added 14 points as the Bears fell to 5-4 in conference play. Ahearn, he Bears leading scorer, who was pulled from the starting lineup for the first time this season, was held to just 2 points. The Bears have two very tough games this week on the Bear’s home floor at Hammons Student Center and both are must win games. The Bears will look to end their current two game-losing streak when they take on Creighton Wednesday night. The Bradley Braves will then make their way to Springfield on Saturday. The Bears have been tough at home and after losing for the first time at home this season last week, look for Missouri State to win both games, helping them stay alive for their first Valley championship.
5. Bradley (14-7, 5-4) Last Week: 6th
The Bradley Braves saw their three game winning streak come to an end as they opened the week with a loss to Creighton Thursday night 65-54. The Braves got 18 points from Matt Salley and Daniel Ruffin had 12 points and 6 assists. The Braves entered the game leading the nation in three-point shooting percentage but hit just 5 of 23 three-point attempts for a miserable 22 percent. The Braves forced the Bluejays into committing 21 turnovers but they shot just 37 percent from the floor while Creighton hit 48 percent of their shots. The Braves were also out rebounded 39-27. Bradley got back on track however, as they beat Wichita State Saturday night 78-63 avenging a 21-point loss to the Shockers earlier this year. Zach Andrews led the Braves with 21 points and 10 rebounds as the Braves opened up a 19-point halftime lead and never looked back. The Braves found the three-point shot again, something they missed dearly in their loss to Creighton, as they hit 9 of 21 three-point attempts. Will Franklin and Ruffin each had 17 points as the Braves improved to 5-4 in conference play and still kept themselves alive in the title hunt. The Braves will play a very winnable game Wednesday night at home against Illinois State. If Bradley hopes to have any shot at the Valley crown they must win Saturday night at Missouri State, a place where only UNI has won this year. A 1-1 record is likely for the Braves this week.
6. Indiana State (11-7, 4-4) Last Week: 5th
Entering the week at 4-2 in conference play, the Indiana State Sycamores were one of the surprises of the league but after two losses this week, ISU have fallen to two games behind conference leader UNI. The Sycamores traveled to Des Moines Thursday night for a date with the Drake and they came away with a 74-68 loss at the hands of the Bulldogs. Marcio Stinson had 14 points while Jay Tunnell added 13 more as Indiana State fell after giving up a three to Josh Young with just under 2 minutes to play. ISU shot 40 percent from downtown but they were out rebounded 35-25. Indiana State then had a chance to pick up a game on the Northern Iowa Panthers and show the rest of the league it was ready to be a title contender, but the Sycamores fell by 10, 74-64. Trent Wurtz had 21 points and Stinson and Gabe Moore both had 11, but the Sycamores shot just 40 percent from the field while UNI shot over 50 percent. It will be a huge week for ISU if the Sycamores still want to be a player in the crowded Valley Championship race. The Sycamores will host Evansville Wednesday night before playing a must win game at Creighton Saturday. Look for ISU to beat Evansville at home before losing to Creighton and all but ending their hopes of a conference championship
7. Wichita State (12-8, 3-6) Last Week: 7th
The Shockers free fall continued last week as Wichita State dropped 2 consecutive games on the road, after picking up a huge win over Creighton Monday night, to fall to 3-6 in league play. Wichita State hosted the Bluejays Monday night and the Shockers won their second consecutive conference game beating CU by 3, 62-59. Kyle Wilson had 25 points and PJ Couisnard blocked Nate Funk’s three-pointer at the buzzer to seal the win. It was the first time the Shockers had won consecutive games since starting the season 9-0. Wichita State looked to gain some momentum by beating the Bluejays but they took to the road for their next two games and returned home with two more conference loses. Wilson set a new career high with 27 points Thursday night but the Shockers lost on the road at Illinois State 83-75. The Shockers shot just 35 percent from the field while allowing the Redbirds to shoot 54 percent. Wichita State then went to Peoria to take on the Bradley Braves Saturday night and the Braves handed the Shockers their sixth conference loss, a 78-63 setback. Cold shooting once again did in the Shockers as they shot 35 percent from the field, including 10 percent from three while the Braves shot 58 percent from the field and 42 percent from 3. Wilson led the Shockers with 15 points and 8 rebounds while Couisnard and Ryan Martin added 14 points. If the Shockers can play at the level they played earlier this season when they rose all the way to #8 in the national rankings they should be able to pick up two wins this week. Wichita State hosts Drake on Wednesday before traveling to Evansville on Saturday to play a Purple Ace team who is playing solid basketball at home. The Shockers will have no trouble with Drake and beat Evansville in a very close contest.
8. Evansville (11-9, 4-5) Last Week: 8th
The Purple Aces showed just how solid the Missouri Valley Conference is from top to bottom as they went 2-0 this week beating MVC title contenders Southern Illinois and Missouri State and improving to 4-5 on the year in the Valley. The Aces ended a 5 game conference-losing streak Wednesday night as they handed the Southern Illinois Salukis their third conference loss of the season with a 75-68 victory. The Aces got 19 points and 5 rebounds from Matt Webster along with 17 points from Kyle Anslinger as Evansville turned 31 SIU fouls into 30 points. After leading by 5 at the break the Aces opened up the second half with a 10-2 run and never trailed again. The Aces kept their momentum going from their win over the Salukis as they beat the Missouri State Bears 63-56 Sunday afternoon. What makes this win even more shocking is just over a week ago the Bears had beaten the Aces by 52 points in Springfield. Despite being out rebounded, out scored in the paint and allowing the Bears to score 17 points off turnovers the Aces, behind 16 points from Jason Holsinger, handed the Bears their second consecutive defeat. The difference in the game came at the line as they Aces made 21 free throws while the Bears made just 6 of 9 attempts. Evansville will look to build on these two very solid wins as they travel to Indiana State Wednesday before hosting Wichita State Saturday. If the Aces play as well as they did this past week, don’t be surprised if they win both games, but on the flip side this team could get blown out in both games as well.
9. Illinois State (11-9, 3-6) Last Week: 9th
It was a very solid week for the Illinois Sate Redbirds as they went 2-1 and dug themselves out of the cellar in the Valley conference standings. The week didn’t start out with a bang as the Redbirds fell to the Missouri State Bears Monday night 75-66 in a game that wasn’t decided until the final minutes. Levi Dyer, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Week, had 23 points and Greg Dilligard added 13 points in a loss in which ISU allowed the Bears to shoot 66 percent from the floor. The Redbirds bounced back and ended their 2 game losing streak by beating the Wichita State Shockers Thursday night when they benefited from 20 points by Dyer, who hit all 4 of his three point attempts. The Redbirds then won their second consecutive conference game beating Drake 80-65 Sunday afternoon. Dyer once again led the Redbirds with 27 points after he hit 5 three-point attempts and the Redbirds, as a team, hit 51 percent from beyond the arc. Boo Richardson added 16 points and Anthony Slack, the MVC Newcomer of the Week, had 14 points as the Redbirds improved to 3-6 in MVC action. Going on the road in the Valley isn’t easy and the Redbirds will likely find themselves on the wrong end of the scoreboard this week as they play both of their games away from Redbird Arena. ISU plays at Bradley Wednesday night before taking on the Salukis Saturday in Carbondale.
10. Drake (11-9, 2-7) Last Week: 10th
It was a strange week for the Drake Bulldogs. After they beat Indiana State Thursday night 74-68 they lost to the same Illinois State Redbirds squad they had beat just over a week ago on Sunday 80-65. The Bulldogs avenged an 11-point loss against Indiana State earlier this season behind a season-high 19 points from Al Stewart. With the game tied 68-68 with just under a minute and a half to play, Josh Young hit a three pointer for the Bulldogs and they hit their free throws down the stretch to win their second MVC game of the season. Drake then traveled to Normal to take on the Redbirds of Illinois State and it wasn’t pretty if you were wearing a Bulldog uniform or waving their pennant. After falling behind by 10 points at halftime, the Bulldogs couldn’t overcome the slow start and lost by 15 points, despite getting a double double from Ajay Calvin. Calvin had 15 points and 10 rebounds while Jonathon Cox came of the bench to score 14 points. Drake currently sits alone in last place the conference at 2-7 after starting the season 9-2 and looking to be one of the biggest surprises in the conference in the early going. The Bulldogs will likely be headed for two more defeats this week. Drake will travel to Wichita Wednesday night to take on the Shockers before returning home to take on the Northern Iowa Panthers.