MVC Basketball Notebook

November 28th, 2006

The Missouri Valley continued its very successful early season run improving it’s non-conference record to 33-12 and two Valley teams showed that this conference can play with the “Big Boys.” It wasn’t a good week to be a Top 10 team if you had a MVC team on your schedule as the Missouri State Bears upset 7th ranked Wisconsin and the Shockers of Wichita State surprised 6th ranked LSU on the road. SIU played 3 BCS teams this week and went 2-1, beating Minnesota and Virginia Tech, while falling to Arkansas in overtime. Illinois State and Bradley roughed up the Big East with the Redbirds beating St. Johns and the Braves beating Rutgers. The Valley was an impressive 6-3 this past week in games against BCS teams and of their three losses, two games were decided in overtime and the other was by just 4 points. Creighton also defeated George Mason; one week after the Patriots fell to Wichita State. One year after CBS analyst Billy Packer said the Valley placed too many teams in last year’s Big Dance, its safe to say that this conference should no longer be considered a mid-major.

After beating George Mason and improving to 3-0 on the season Wichita State became the second Valley team to crack the Top 25 rankings this season, making their first appearance in the polls since 1983 at number 24. Creighton, who was ranked in the Top 25 for the first two weeks of the season, fell from the rankings after losing to Nebraska last week. The Shockers moved up to number 17 in this week’s AP poll and entered the ESPN/USA Today poll at 22 after their win at LSU. However, the Bears along with Creighton, Southern Illinois and Bradley are among teams receiving votes in the AP poll. It’s about the time the pollsters are finally taking notice of what the Valley is doing and this won’t be the first time numerous Valley teams are represented in the polls. It might be sooner than later when the Valley has multiple teams ranked at the same time this season in the top 25.

So far, Bradley continues to be the surprise of the league as they just missed winning Chicago Invitational Challenge, falling to Illinois by 4 in the tournament championship game. Bradley won its previous two games in the tournament by an average of 30.5 points and the Braves scored over 100 points in their wins over Florida A&M and Rutgers.

With only a couple big games on this week’s schedule, Valley teams should continue to add to its remarkable early season non-conference record and show the rest of the collegiate basketball world that the Missouri Valley Conference is one of the best the nation has to offer.

Game of the Week – Missouri State v. #7 Wisconsin – South Padre Invitational Semifinals

When the Bears took the court Friday in South Padre there was a little bit more on the line than just a basketball game. The Bears, still feeling the effects of being snubbed from last year’s tournament, were playing with a chip on their shoulder and something to prove. When the buzzer sounded and the Bears had just pulled out the biggest upset in school history, all the players could do was smile. The Bears proved to the nation they belong playing aside the top schools and this win against the Top 10 ranked Badgers will be very handy come March. Using hot shooting and a huge first half from Blake Ahearn, the Bears improved to 4-0 on the season and advanced to the tournament championship game. The Bears led by as many as 19 points in the first half, but the Badgers stormed back and took a five-point lead with just under 4 minutes to play. The Bears however, were able to whether the storm and hold on for the two-point win when Alando Tucker’s three-point attempt rimmed out at the buzzer. To go along with Ahearn’s 25 points, Deven Mitchell added 13 points and 10 rebounds and Spencer Laurie had 9 points and 6 assists. The difference in the game was the Bear’s three-point shooting as they hit 6-of-13 shots (46%) while the Badgers only hit 2-of-15 attempts (13%). Missouri State improved to 2-0 all-time verses the Badgers. The Bears received 37 votes in this week’s AP poll good for a number 30 rank following their impressive showing in South Padre. The Bears went down to South Padre with more than just sitting on the beach and enjoying the sun on their mind. Now they’ll return home to Springfield with a marquee win that could shape their season into something very special.

Game of the Upcoming Week – # 17 Wichita State at #15 Syracuse.

The Shockers will look to beat their second consecutive Top 25 opponent on the road when they travel to the Carrier Dome to play the Orange on Saturday. Although the Shockers will likely be underdogs once again, they have shown the ability necessary to beat the Big East power. Wichita State got the confidence they needed when they upset LSU last week and they’ll be looking for another win over a ranked opponent to add to a resume that will be very impressive when the NCAA selection committee sits down in March.

Player of the Week – Blake Ahearn, Sr., G – Missouri State

When Blake Ahearn is on, he is one of the most deadly shooters in the MVC and on Friday he showed why he’ll challenge for league MVP honors. Ahearn scored a season-high 25 points in the Bears 66-64 upset win over 7th ranked Wisconsin in the semifinals of the South Padre Invitational. Ahearn was on fire in the first half hitting his first three three-point shots and ended with 19 first half points. Following a Badgers temporary comeback, Ahearn showed why he is the most valuable player for the Bears, hitting clutch shot after clutch shot and leading the Bears to victory. For the game, Ahearn was 8-of-13 from the field and 6-of-7 in free throw attempts. In the Bears overtime loss to Oklahoma State on Saturday, Ahearn’s 11 points nearly helped the Bears capture the championship trophy. For the week, Ahearn hit 8-of-13 three-point attempts and went 9-of-11 from the foul line. Ahearn currently is 4th in the MVC in scoring while shooting 58 percent from beyond the arc. Ahearn will need to continue to have big games for the Bears if he plans leading them to their first NCAA tournament appearance under head coach Barry Hinson.

Team Capsules

1. Wichita State (4-0, 0-0) Last Week: 1st

The headlines read, “Wichita State Shocks LSU,” but the folks around the Valley and particularly in Wichita wouldn’t consider the Shockers win at LSU that much of a surprise. Wichita State’s balanced scoring effort, which saw five players reach double digits was led by Ryan Martin’s 12-point effort to pull off the 57-53 upset. Playing their first game in the AP Top 25, their first ranking in over 20 years, the Shockers improved to 2-0 over teams that made last year’s Final Four. The lone undefeated team in the Valley, the Shockers already appear to be the best team in the conference and they will look to improve their record when they travel to 15th ranked Syracuse Saturday after they play a terrible Missouri Kansas City squad Wednesday in Wichita. The Shockers no doubt will continue to climb in the polls and right now they are the class of the Valley.

2. Missouri State (4-1, 0-0) Last Week: 2nd

Springfield was abuzz Friday night after the Bears pulled off the biggest upset in the school’s 21 year Division I history beating 7th ranked Wisconsin 66-64. After beating Lincoln, an under matched Division II team on Tuesday night 88-56, the Bears traveled to South Padre to take on the Badgers. The Bears proved they are not only one of the most underrated teams in the Valley but also in the nation when they looked dominating at times against the Badgers. The Bears jumped out to a 19-point first half lead and held on to beat the Badgers by 2. The Bears, however, then fell to Oklahoma State 73-70 in overtime in the tournament’s championship game. Missouri State showed they are as good as advertised and that they may be on the verge of their first ever MVC regular season championship. The Bears will play host to the Price Cutter Classic this weekend in Springfield with games against Alabama State and Santa Clara.

3. Bradley (5-1, 0-0) Last Week: 5th

So far this season the Bradley Braves have been almost unstoppable from behind the arc. The Braves hit a school record 20 three-point shots in their 107-75 win Tuesday night over Florida A&M and then hit 14 three-point shots in a 101-72 win over Rutgers in the Chicago Invitational Challenge. The Braves then nearly beat Illinois in the tournament championship game, losing by 4. The Braves twice held leads of more than 10 points but in the end the Illini were able to come from behind and hand Bradley their first loss of the season. This loss snapped the Braves 10-game regular season winning streak, but the Braves have nothing to be ashamed off. Jeremy Crouch has been the go-to guy so far this season for the Braves, averaging 18 points a game, while Zach Andrews has been a force down low averaging 13 points and 9 rebounds a game. This young team has shown it has the heart and talent to compete at a high level and come March it may find itself back in the Sweet 16.

4. Southern Illinois (4-1, 0-0) Last Week: 6th

When most people go to Orlando their destination is Disney World; however, Southern Illinois spent Thanksgiving competing in the Old Spice Classic and giving basketball fans a new Orlando attraction to visit. The Salukis went 2-1 in their stay in Orlando and picked up two big wins over teams from major conferences. After losing to Arkansas in overtime on Turkey Day, the Salukis bounced back and beat Minnesota and Virginia Tech. Jamal Tatum showed why he is one of the top guards in the conference scoring 17 points in the loss to Arkansas. Tatum also had 16 points against Virginia Tech including the go-ahead three pointer to give SIU the victory on Sunday. After being held to single digits in the first game, Matt Shaw came alive and scored 26 against the Gophers and 17 against the Hokies. Shaw was named MVC Player of the Week after he averaged 16.7 points and 5.3 rebounds per game. It won’t be long before the Salukis join the Shockers in the Top 25.

5. Northern Iowa (3-1, 0-0) Last Week: 3rd

The Panthers had no trouble in their contest this week beating South Dakota State 69-56 to improve to 3-1 on the season. UNI, led by Eric Coleman’s 16 point, 8 rebound effort, had four players in double figures including 11 points from Grant Stout and 10 points each for Brooks McKowen and Adam Viet. The Panthers will look to continue the Valley’s success against teams from BCS conferences when they entertain Iowa State Wednesday night. UNI will then travel to Bucknell Saturday in a rematch from last year’s Bracketbuster Saturday event where UNI beat then ranked Bucknell in double overtime. We will know a lot more about this year’s Panther squad after this weekend.

6. Creighton (2-1, 0-0) Last Week: 4th

It’s hard to get a good read on the Bluejays since they have only played three games thus far but Creighton is still one of the better teams in the Valley. In their only game this past week, the Bluejays beat George Mason 58-56. Dane Watts hit two free throws with less than 8 seconds to play to give the Bluejays the victory. Watts had a career high 19 points and Anthony Tolliver added 12 points and 8 rebounds for the Bluejays who showed they can still win even if Nate Funk has a poor performance. Funk was held to just 4 points on 2-of-9 shooting one week after he had 28 points against Nebraska. The Bluejays only game this week is a Wednesday match up against Arkansas Pine Bluff, a team that should present little trouble.

7. Indiana State (3-1, 0-0) Last Week: 7th

The Sycamores are off to a 3-1 start after they beat Tulane 59-47 in their only game last week. Gabriel Moore led ISU with 15 points and Trent Wurtz had a team high 12 rebounds. Moore and Wurtz have quietly become two of the more consistent players in the league and they’ll need to continue their solid play if the Sycamores look to make noise in the conference. Indiana State has a busy upcoming week with three games on slate. The Sycamores will take on Oakland City on Monday in Terre Haute and then travel to Middle Tennessee State on Wednesday and Ball State on Sunday. The Sycamores should have a shot to win all three of these games this week and improve to 6-1, although it won’t be easy.

8. Illinois State (3-2, 0-0) Last Week: 9th

A team without a real good identity at the beginning of the season is coming into it’s own in the early going. Two junior college transfers have been the story so far for the Redbirds who are off to a 3-2 start after beating CSU Northridge 66-44 and St. Johns 78-65. First year guards Dom Johnson and Boo Richardson, this week’s MVC Newcomer of the Week, are leading the way for Redbirds both averaging over 14 points per game. The Redbirds should extend their current 2-game winning streak to four games this week with two winnable games against Sacramento State and Texas Arlington.

9. Evansville (3-2, 0-0) Last Week: 8th

The Aces sat idle all last week but will hit the court for three games this week. First up is a home game with Southeast Missouri State, a team the Aces should beat. Evansville will travel to Tennessee-Martin for a Wednesday match up and will close out the week traveling to Columbia, Mo, to battle the Missouri Tigers on Sunday. Not much is know about the Aces so far this season but if they can 3-0 this week with a win at Mizzou, Evansville could make a statement that they are ready to make that jump to the upper half of the MVC standings.

10. Drake (2-2, 0-0) Last Week: 10th

In the Bulldogs only game this past week they dominated Waldorf, an NAIA Division II team in the Drake home opener. Drake cruised to an 11-0 lead and rolled to a 104-51 victory behind the scorching 62.9 percent shooting from the floor. Senior Ajay Calvin, who may be the most underrated player in the league, earned his first career double double with 20 points and 12 rebounds. Calvin is averaging 18.8 points per game this season, tops in the MVC. The Bulldogs out rebounded Waldorf 65-21 and the Bulldogs had 27 offensive rebounds, which was more than Waldorf’s entire rebound total. Things won’t be as easy for the Bulldogs this week as travel to Ames, Iowa to take on the Iowa State Cyclones.