With just three weeks to play in this year’s Valley schedule, the race for the league champion is anything but over. Southern Illinois and Creighton, both 10-3 in league play, appear to be the favorites. The two teams will meet this Saturday in Carbondale with first place on the line in what should be a dandy. The Missouri State Bears, currently at 8-5 in Valley play, sit just two games out of first with 5 games to play. The Bears have one game remaining with the Salukis in Springfield and if they want to have any shot at the league title they must win out. Northern Iowa sits a half game behind the Bears and they’ll most likely need to win out as well if they hope to have any shot at the league title.
Realistically, these four teams are the only ones that still have a shot at the league crown, with the winner of this weekend’s Creighton and Southern Illinois game being in control. Bradley rounds out the top five at one game over .500 with a 7-6 record while the resurgent Wichita State Shockers are in sixth at 6-7. The Shockers own numerous quality wins this season and if they can finish the regular season strong and have a good showing in the MVC tournament, their NCAA hopes may regain life. Evansville, Indiana State, Illinois State and Drake round out the Valley and all four teams are likely headed for opening round match ups in the conference tournament the first weekend in March. The only thing these four teams have left to play for is pride and the hope they can put a wrench in the other squads conference title and NCAA Tournament dreams.
The Southern Illinois Salukis became the third Missouri Valley team this season to crack the AP Top 25 coming in at #21 this week. The Salukis joined Creighton and Wichita State as the only Valley members to reach the Top 25 this season and it marked the first time in 24 years that the Valley has had three teams reach the AP Top 25 in the same season. The Salukis also made the USA Today / ESPN Coaches Poll coming in one spot higher than their AP rank at #20. The Creighton Bluejays were the only other Valley school receiving votes in either poll with 19 votes in the AP Poll.
Creighton at Southern Illinois highlights this week’s Valley schedule. Not to be lost in the shuffle is another big time Saturday match up in which Missouri State will travel to Northern Iowa with third place in the MVC on the line. The Valley hopes to get 4 teams in the tournament again this year, but if it is only able to get three teams in the Big Dance, the third place team would have a huge advantage in becoming the last team selected. This magnifies the importance of this games. Following the conclusion of this week’s action the race for the MVC title will be a little clearer.
Game of the Week – Missouri State at Drake, Wed. Jan. 31, Knapp Center, Des Moines, Iowa
On paper this game looked to be a mismatch, but the underdog Drake Bulldogs, playing in front of their home crowd weren’t about the let the Missouri State Bears come into the Knapp Center and walk out with an easy ‘W.” After a back and forth first half, the Bulldogs entered intermission with a 1-point advantage. However, the real fun was yet to begin when it appeared at the opening buzzer of the second half that the Bears left their game in the locker room. Drake stormed out to a 13-0 run to start the second half and pushed their lead to 14 before eventually settling down to a 16 point lead after Klayton Korver was fouled shooting a trey with 13 minutes to go and hit all three free throws. The Bears finally came out of hibernation after trailing 67-55 and closed the gap to 67-64 with just over 4 minutes to play. The Bulldogs had one last run in them as they scored the games next 7 points and took a 10 point lead with just over 2 minutes to play making it appear as if they would end their 7 game losing streak to the Bears. That’s when the Bear magic began. Nathan Bilyeu and Dale Lamberth each hit threes and Tyler Chaney hit two free throws, cutting the Drake lead to 2. Chaney then found Shane Laurie under the hoop for the game tying basket and the Bears stopped Drake as time expired, capping off a remarkable 10-0 run to end the game and setting up overtime. The Bears outscored the Bulldogs 13-8 in the extra frame and won their 8th consecutive game over the Bulldogs while keeping their NCAA Tournament chances alive. Chaney led the Bears with 20 points and Lamberth and Blake Ahearn each had 12 a piece. Ajay Calvin had 22 for the Bulldogs and Nick Grant added 20 as Drake lost their 9th conference game of the year. A loss in this game would have been very damaging to the Bears hopes of an NCAA Tournament berth, and now the Bears have to build on this emotional win, which is the type of win that can propel a team’s regular season journey into post season play. Now, we’ll find out shortly if it will do just that for the Missouri State Bears.
Game of the Upcoming Week – Creighton at #20 Southern Illinois, Sat. Feb. 10, SIU Arena, Carbondale, Illinois
First place in the Missouri Valley will be on the line when the Creighton Bluejays visit the Southern Illinois Salukis Saturday in Carbondale. Assuming both CU and SIU win their respective games earlier in the week both will enter this match up with identical 11-3 conference records. The Salukis, however, currently hold the advantage over the Bluejays since they beat Creighton 58-57 earlier this year in Omaha when Bryan Mullins hit a lay up with 4 seconds to go. This game is a must win for the Bluejays if they hope to win the MVC regular season title. A win by SIU and the Salukis will be in control of their own destiny with a 1 game lead and 4 to play. The Salukis defense, which they live and die by, was the difference in their first meeting and it will once again be the difference especially on their home floor at SIU Arena. SIU held CU to just 36 percent shooting from the floor in their first meeting and the Bluejays, who are a solid three point shooting team, only shot 12 percent from downtown. Randal Falker was huge for SIU with 21 points and he will once again have to play big in the middle. The Bluejays will need more out of Anthony Tolliver who only had 2 rebounds in the first meeting. Senior leadership will be key as this will be the last regular season meeting between two of the top guards in the MVC, Nate Funk and Jamal Tatum. With SIU playing at home, where they have yet to lose this year, Tatum will have the better game. The Salukis will push their winning streak over Creighton to 8 games and take sole possession of first place in the Missouri Valley Conference.
Prediction – Southern Illinois – 60 - 54
Player of the Week – Eric Coleman, Jr., F/C – Northern Iowa
If the Northern Iowa Panthers look to get back to the NCAA Tournament this season, Eric Coleman will need to continue to put up solid numbers. This past week, Coleman was a force to be reckoned with as he recorded double doubles in both of the Panthers games. In the Panthers 6 point loss Tuesday night against Wichita State, Coleman had 19 points on 8-of-17 shooting and he pulled down 10 rebounds while playing a team-high 37 minutes and nearly helping the Panthers to a come from behind victory. Coleman was at his best again Saturday as he led the Panthers with 16 points while ripping down a game-high 12 rebounds as the Panthers snapped their three game losing streak as they defeated Evansville. Coleman was solid from the free throw stripe hitting 12-of-16 attempts. If Coleman can continue to put up numbers like these he might as well change his name to “Mr. Double-Double,” as he is capable of putting one up each night out. Coleman leads the Panthers in both points per game with 13.6 and rebounds per game with 9.5. Coleman is just a rebound or two away from averaging a double double per game this season. Coleman has the ability to change games on both the offensive and defensive end of the floor and he will be a vital piece to the Panther puzzle if they look to make a return trip to the Big Dance.
1. Southern Illinois (19-5, 10-3) Last Week: 1st
The Salukis have asserted themselves as the team to beat in the MVC over the past couple of weeks and this past week was no exception as SIU continued to dominate, going 2-0 and pushing their winning streak to 5 games. The Salukis opened the week by beating an under matched Indiana State team 61-48 at SIU Arena. Randal Falker, the Missouri Valley Player of the Week, had 19 points and 14 rebounds as the Salukis jumped all over the Sycamores in the first half and led 35-19 at the break. Jamal Tatum added 15 points as SIU improved to 9-3 in league play and continued to protect their home court where they have yet to lose this year. The Salukis then traveled to Wichita State to take on a resurgent Shocker team and the Salukis completed the season sweep of Wichita State with a 54-46 victory. The SIU defense was at its best Saturday afternoon as they held the Shockers to just six baskets over the first 30 minutes of the game. The Salukis also held the Shockers to their lowest point output of the season as they improved to 19-5 overall. SIU shot 49 percent from the floor while holding the Shockers to just 27 percent shooting. Tatum had 18 points and Matt Shaw and Falker each added 13. It will be a very important week for the Salukis if they look to stay at the top of the Valley. SIU will host Bradley Wednesday night before playing Creighton Saturday in a game that could likely decide who will win this year’s Valley regular season championship. Look for SIU to continue to be dominating at home, winning both games and jumping into the driver’s seat for the conference title.
2. Creighton (16-7, 10-3) Last Week: 2nd
The Creighton Bluejays went on the road for both their games this week and they came back to Omaha with two more wins, helping them keep pace with SIU and staying in a tie for first place. The Bluejays opened up the week Wednesday night taking on the Bradley Braves and the Bluejays had no trouble at all winning this game. Dane Watts and Nate Funk each scored 18 points while MVC Newcomer of the Week Isaac Miles had 15 points in 23 minutes and the Bluejays coasted to an 82-71 victory. The Jays shot 51 percent from the floor and 42 percent from three while holding the Braves to just 42 percent and out rebounding them by 10. CU then found themselves in a dogfight Saturday night in Des Moines when they took on the Drake Bulldogs. After trailing by two at the half, the Bluejays stormed ahead before Drake tied the game with less than 2 minutes to go. It was then time for Funk to shine as he hit another game winning shot as the Bluejays beat the Bulldogs 67-62 and improving to 10-3 in MVC action. Funk had 21 points and Watts added 16 as the Bluejays beat Drake for the second time this season. The Bluejays will welcome the Evansville Purple Aces Wednesday night to the Quest Center. Creighton will then travel to Southern Illinois for a game that will most likely decide who will win this years Valley Championship. The Bluejays, although tied with SIU, will need to win this game since they lost their first meeting last month. A Bluejay loss and the Salukis will take a one game lead and hold the tiebreaker. The Bluejays will beat the Aces before losing to SIU Saturday.
3. Missouri State (17-7, 8-5) Last Week: 4th
The Missouri State Bears appear to be peaking at just the right time as they won both their games this past week and have won three straight games moving into sole possession of third place in the Valley. It wasn’t an easy trip for the Bears Wednesday night as they traveled to Drake to take on the Bulldogs. After falling behind by 16 in the second half the Bears closed out regulation on a 10-0 run and forced the game to go to overtime. The Bears then showed they are the better team, beating the Bulldogs 87-82 in overtime. This victory could help propel the Bears season and ultimately lead them to an NCAA Tournament berth for the first time under coach Barry Hinson. Tyler Chaney led the Bears comeback with 20 points and Blake Ahearn added 12 points as the Bears three point shooting made the comeback possible with a 48 percent success rate from beyond the arc. The Bears then traveled to Indiana State Saturday and completed the season sweep of the Sycamores by beating ISU 71-42. Missouri State may have played their best game on defense all year as they held the Sycamores to just 9 baskets and 17 percent shooting from the floor. The Bears out rebounded ISU 42-29 while Ahearn led the Bears with 14 points. The Bears seem to have bounced back from their road woes early in the season as they have now won back-to-back road games for the first time this season. The Bears will push their winning streak to four games Tuesday when they host Illinois State a team they have already beaten this year. The Bears will then look to avenge a home loss to Northern Iowa when they travel to UNI for a must win game against the Panthers. A Bears win over UNI and the Bears will be in good shape to make the Big Dance.
4. Northern Iowa (16-7, 7-5) Last Week: 3rd
Just a few weeks ago the Northern Iowa Panthers were leading the MVC and were receiving votes to be in the Top 25, but after the Panthers lost 4 of 6 games they have fallen all the way down to 4th place in the conference. UNI saw their losing streak reach 3 games this past week as they fell at home to the Wichita State Shockers Tuesday night 67-61. The Panthers fell behind early and trailed at the break 41-26. In the second half UNI made a run but couldn’t dig themselves out of the hole they dug in the first half, falling by 6. Grant Stout had a huge game with 22 points and pulled down 13 rebounds while Eric Coleman also had a double double with 19 points and 10 rebounds. The Panthers allowed the Shockers to shoot 60 percent from three while they only managed 23 percent from downtown. The Panthers traveled to Evansville Saturday and finally found themselves on the winning end of the scoreboard as they beat the Aces 79-71. Despite the fact that the Aces made more shots and more threes, the Panthers held the edge at the free throw line, making 34 free throws compared to EU’s 19. All five Panther starters reached double figures, led by Coleman’s 16 points and 12 rebounds. The Panthers need to carry over the success they had in this game if they look to make the NCAA Tournament again this season. The Panthers will have a busy week this week, as they have three games on the schedule over 6 days. First up is a trip to Indiana State in a game they should win. UNI will then look to return the favor and beat Drake after the Bulldogs beat the Panthers a week ago when Drake comes to the McLeod Center Thursday night. The biggest game of the week comes Saturday when third place in the Valley will be up for grabs when the Panthers host Missouri State. The Panthers could come out of this week 3-0 but 2-1 is more likely as they’ll fall to the Missouri State for the second year in a row at home.
5. Bradley (16-9, 7-6) Last Week: 5th
The Bradley Braves had a chance this past week to close the gap between themselves and the league leaders but they were unable to do so. The Braves hosted league leading Creighton Wednesday and with a Brave win, Bradley would have only been 2 games behind the league lead and 1 game behind second place. However, it just wasn’t meant to be as the Braves struggled all night long against a solid Bluejay team. The Braves fell behind 40-28 at the half after they hit only 9-of-25 shots in the first half. The Bluejays expanded on their lead in the second half, leading by as many as 19 points and held on to beat the Braves 82-71. Daniel Ruffin led the Braves with 17 points and Matt Salley had 15. The Braves shot just 47 percent (9-of-19) from the free throw stripe while Creighton hit 31-of-40 (78 percent) free throw attempts which turned out to be the difference. The Braves bounced back Saturday night and ended their two game losing skid by beating instate rival Illinois State on the road 80-72. The Braves forced 15 Redbird turnovers and turned them into 21 points and. despite being out rebounded and out shot, were able to hold on for their 7th conference win. Zach Andrews and Salley each had 15 points and Danny Adams came off the bench scoring 14 points while hitting 4-of-6 three-point attempts. The Braves travel to Southern Illinois Wednesday night in a game they have to win to keep their slim tournament hopes alive. The Braves then welcome Drake Saturday afternoon. The Braves will beat the Bulldogs after falling to SIU on the road.
6. Wichita State (15-9, 6-7) Last Week: 6th
During the past couple of weeks, the Wichita State Shockers have begun playing like they were earlier this season when they rose to #8 in the national polls. The Shockers won their 3rd consecutive conference game Tuesday night when the beat Northern Iowa 67-61 in Cedar Falls. The win was huge for the Shockers as they look to add to their resume and make a late season push for an at-large bid in the Big Dance. WSU was on their game Tuesday night as they shot 47 percent from the field and hit 60 percent of their three point attempts while holding the Panthers to 36 percent shooting and 23 percent from downtown. Kyle Wilson led the Shockers with 24 points and 8 rebounds and Matt Braeuer added 10 points. The Shockers then had another chance to add a marquee win to their resume and inch over .500 in league play when they hosted league leading Southern Illinois Saturday afternoon. After a hot shooting performance Tuesday night, the Shockers came out cold against SIU’s smothering defense and made only six baskets over the games first 30 minutes. The Shockers trailed 32-19 at the break but closed the gap to 4 with just under a minute to play but they were unable to get over the hump as they saw their three game winning streak come to an end. Wilson led WSU with 11 points and PJ Couisnard had 10 points, as the Shockers let would have been a key win slip away. The Shockers will have no trouble this week picking up two more wins as they welcome Indiana State Thursday and Illinois State Sunday. The Shockers should roll in both games while resurrecting their late season push.
7. Evansville (12-12, 5-8) Last Week: 7th
After starting the conference season with wins over SIU and Missouri State, the Aces were the surprise of the league and many wondered if they had what it took to crack the upper echelon of the league standings. But with 2 more losses this week the Aces fell to 5-8 in MVC play and in doing so showed they still had work to do to become a contender in the always-solid Missouri Valley Conference. The Aces traveled to Illinois State Wednesday night and built a 10 point second half lead before they fell to the Redbirds 65-61. The Aces had a three-point lead with just under a minute left but the Redbirds went on an 8-4 run to end the game. Jason Holsinger led the Aces with 24 points while making 6-of-10 three point attempts and Matt Webster added 18 points as the Aces got out rebounded by 10. Evansville then saw their losing streak reach 3 games when they fell to UNI 79-71Satuday night in Evansville. The Aces trailed by 8 at the break and then went on a 6-0 run to pull within 2 to open the second half but UNI pushed its lead back to 10 and the Aces couldn’t close the gap, falling to the Panthers by 8. Webster led the Aces with 16 points and Holsinger added 14 points while making 4-of-5 three-point attempts. The Aces travel to Creighton Wednesday night to play a game they have no shot at winning; they just have to hope they don’t get run off the court. Evansville will then welcome Indiana State Sunday. This game will be close throughout but the Aces will pull away ending their 4 game conference losing streak.
8. Indiana State (11-11, 4-8) Last Week: 8th
The Indiana State free fall continued last week as the Sycamores dropped both their games and saw their losing streak reach seven games while quite possibly demonstrating the worst shooting performance a team has ever had in one week. ISU traveled to Southern Illinois Wednesday night and they fell behind early, trailing 35-19 at the half after opening the game shooting 5-of-16. ISU improved in the second half and outscored SIU by 3 but it wasn’t enough to make up for their poor first half effort as they fell 61-48. Cole Holmstrom led the Sycamores with 10 points as they shot just 37 percent from the field and just over 50 percent from the free throw line. Things then got downright ugly for Indiana State Saturday afternoon as they welcomed Missouri State. The Sycamores appeared to be shooting with blindfolds on as they hit just 9-of-51 shots for the game, a miserable 17 percent shooting from the floor. Luckily for ISU they hit 20-of-29 free throws or this game could have been much worse. The Bears beat ISU for the second time this season 71-42, as ISU didn’t have a single player reach double figures in scoring. Holmstrom had 9 points as the Sycamores lost for the 7th consecutive time in a game they will probably want to forget. Indiana State’s losing streak will likely reach 10 games this week as they host Northern Iowa Monday before traveling to Wichita State Thursday. The Sycamores will likely struggle in both of these games. In their third game of the week, ISU will travel to Evansville for a game they could win but won’t as they’ll drop to 4-11 in MVC play.
9. Illinois State (12-12, 4-8) Last Week: 10th
The Illinois State Redbirds are no longer in last place in the Valley. The Redbirds dug themselves out of the cellar Wednesday night with a hard fought 65-61 win over Evansville. Illinois State trailed by 3 at the half and by as many as 10 in the second half but were able to comeback behind 14 points and 8 rebounds from Osiris Eldridge to win their 4th conference game of the year. Eldridge tied the game with a 3 at just under 2 minutes to play and then hit 2 free throws with 3 seconds left to seal the victory. The Redbirds out rebounded the Aces 34-24 and the ISU reserves out scored the Ace reserves 24-6 led by Anthony Slack’s 14 points. The Redbirds then welcomed cross state rival Bradley on Saturday night but failed to protect their home floor, losing to the Braves for the second time in two weeks, 80-72. ISU turned the ball over 15 times while Bradley only committed 5 turnovers and turned the Redbird miscues into 21 points. Dom Johnson had 14 points while Greg Dilligard had 10 points and 11 rebounds as the Redbirds dropped to 4-8 in MVC action. The Redbirds hit the road for two games this week, two games they will end up losing. First up is an ESPNU telecast game against the Missouri State Bears in Springfield Tuesday and then ISU will make their way to Koch Arena to get beat by the Wichita State Shockers Sunday afternoon.
10. Drake (12-12, 3-10) Last Week: 9th
The Bulldogs had a chance to beat two of the top teams in the MVC this past week but they were unable to finish both games. Drake welcomed Missouri State to the Knapp Center Wednesday night and after jumping out to a 16-point second half lead the Bulldogs appeared to be coasting. With just over 2 minutes to play Drake led MSU by 10 points but then came the collapse. The Bears went on a 10-0 run to end regulation to push the game to overtime before they handed the Bulldogs their 9th conference loss of the season, a 87-82 setback. Ajay Calvin led the Bulldogs with 22 points and Drake out rebounded the Bears 35-33. Drake then welcomed league-leading Creighton on Saturday and once again the Bulldogs enter the second half with a lead. Up 2 heading into the second period the Bulldogs looked like they had CU right where they wanted them. With Drake trailing with just under 2 minutes to play, the Bulldogs’ Nick Grant hit a bucket to tie the game at 62. On Creighton’s next possession, Nate Funk hit a mid-range jumper to give CU the lead. Drake’s Josh Young answered, but his basketball was waived off due to a charging call and the Bulldogs fell to the Bluejays for the 5th consecutive time. Calvin once again led the Bulldogs with 19 points as Drake out rebounded their second straight opponent only to wind on the wrong end of the scoreboard, 67-62. Two more losses are likely this week for the Bulldogs as they travel to Northern Iowa Thursday before heading to Peoria on Saturday to take on the Bradley Braves.