What a week it was in the Missouri Valley Conference as numerous teams learned just how hard it is to consistently to win in this conference. League leading Northern Iowa went down at the hands of last place Illinois State, before the Redbirds lost to winless Drake later in the week. Missouri State, after rolling to one of the most lopsided wins in conference history, a 52-point win over Evansville, went on the road to Southern Illinois and lost by 20.
The Wichita State Shockers continued to struggle despite beating Evansville, as they lost to Indiana State. Shortly after that the Sycamores got beat by a surging Bradley team. The Creighton Bluejays are looking like the team to beat as they sit alone atop the standings with a 5-1 record after beating Drake and UNI. But what sits behind the Bluejays is a logjam of 4 teams all at 4-2. UNI, Missouri State, Southern Illinois and Indiana State are all within one game of the lead while the Bradley Braves sit at 4-3, just a game and half behind the Bluejays. In seventh place at 2-4 is Wichita State, a team that looked to be the favorite, but if they can string a few wins together don’t count them out just quite yet. However, you can count out Evansville, Drake and Illinois State, neither of these three teams have a chance at competing for the Valley crown, and all three will be playing on the opening day of the Valley tournament come March.
Valley teams have taken a hit as of late in the national rankings as teams have begun to beat up on each other in conference play. Four teams enter this week’s play with votes in the AP Top 25. Creighton leads the way with 13 votes, Southern Illinois has 11, Northern Iowa with 2 and the Missouri State Bears with 1 vote. All four teams also received votes in the USA Today/ESPN Coaches Poll, though none are even close to cracking the Top 25, all receiving 5 votes or less..
Teams will begin to separate themselves this week as many of the top teams will be playing each other, including Northern Iowa at Missouri State, Creighton at Wichita State, Bradley at Creighton, Southern Illinois at Creighton and Indiana State at Northern Iowa. But don’t think for a minute Drake, Evansville and Illinois State won’t give the better teams in the league fits. This league is solid from top to bottom and when the smoke clears after this week’s action, we’ll have a better idea of who is going to contend for the Valley title.
Game of the Week – Northern Iowa at Illinois State, Tues. Jan. 9, Redbird Arena, Normal, Illinois
On paper, the Illinois State Redbirds, winless in conference play, looked to be no match for the league leading Northern Iowa Panthers who were 4-0 in league play. But the old saying goes, “that’s why they play the game.” The Redbirds, behind a game high 20 points from Levi Dyer, pulled off the biggest upset so far this season in MVC play, beating UNI 67-64 in overtime. Osiris Eldridge added 18 points for the Redbirds and he hit three free throws in the final seconds to seal the victory for Illinois State. After a 25-25 tie in the first half, the Redbirds held a three point lead after Dyer hit two free throws with 12 seconds left in regulation. But the Panthers’ Brooks McKowen hit a three pointer with just under a second to play to send the game into overtime. Eldridge scored 5 of ISU’s 8 points in overtime but he missed a free throw with eight seconds left giving UNI one last chance. This time McKowen was unable to connect as he missed a three at the buzzer. Eric Coleman and McKowen led the Panthers with 12 points each. This was a huge win for the Redbirds as they not only avoided falling to 0-5 in conference play and they also gained some much-needed confidence, now knowing they can compete with any team in the league. The Panthers on the other hand, need to avoid the “hangover effect” and after losing to Creighton Friday, they have now lost their last 2 conference games. This loss could be very harmful to Panthers in their quest for the MVC regular season crown.
Game of the Upcoming Week – Southern Illinois at Creighton, Sat. Jan. 20, Quest Center, Omaha, Nebraska
The two teams that have helped put the Valley on the map in the past couple of years will square off in Omaha Saturday with the winner having a leg up in the race for the Valley Championship. The Southern Illinois Salukis will take their smothering defense to Creighton to battle the Bluejays and their very solid inside outside duo of Nate Funk and Anthony Tolliver. This game will be the third game of the week for both squads so both may be a little on the tired side when they hit the floor. However, if the Bluejays can get hot, which they have proven they are capable of doing, and the crowd at the Quest Center is loud, they should be able to overcome the Salukis’ solid defense. The Bluejays have the edge on the inside with Tolliver but SIU has the edge at the point guard position with Jamal Tatum. These two teams always play each other close so look for a very close game that could come down to the final minutes. I like Creighton in this one as they continue to play very confident basketball and are playing at home, where they are perfect on the season.
Prediction – Creighton 64-58
Player of the Week – Anthony Tolliver, Sr., C – Creighton
The Creighton Bluejays are 5-1 in the MVC and are sitting atop the standings. A big reason to their success thus far has been the play of senior center Anthony Tolliver. Tolliver was dominant in the Bluejay’s two wins this past week over Drake and Northern Iowa. Against Drake, Tolliver had one the more complete games of the season, scoring 18 points and adding 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 blocked shots. Tolliver didn’t stop there as he had 17 points and 6 rebounds against Northern Iowa, a team who has arguably the top big man duo in the league in Eric Coleman and Grant Stout. Tolliver’s keys to success are staying out of foul trouble and maintaining solid shooting. This past week he averaged 36.5 minutes per game and he shot a very solid 64 percent from the field including 86 percent from the free throw line. Tolliver is currently second on the team in scoring averaging 14 points a game and he is leading the team in rebounds, with 6.4 a game and blocked shots with just under 2 a game. With Tolliver picking up his game in the past couple of weeks, if he can keep up his effort and play at this high of a level, the Bluejays are going to be tough to beat.
1. Creighton (11-5, 5-1) Last Week: 4th
The Bluejays continue to play like the team that was picked in the preseason to win the MVC, going 2-0 this past week and improving to 5-1 in conference play on the season and moving to the top of the rankings. Creighton opened the week with a dominating 79-56 win over Drake at home behind 18 points from, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Week, Anthony Tolliver and a career high 15 points from Nick Bahe all from behind the arc. Tolliver had a very solid game recording 6 rebounds, 6 assists and 5 blocked shots to help the Bluejays improve their record this year at the Quest Center to 7-0. The Bluejays only held a 1-point lead at the half but opened the second half on a 10-2 run and never looked back. The Jays shot a season high 66 percent from the field. Creighton then traveled to Northern Iowa for a Friday match up of two of the conferences four 1-loss teams and it was the Bluejays who came out on top, handing the Panthers their first home loss of the season, a 62-54 setback. The Bluejays set the tone early, jumping out to a 20-4 lead and a 13-point halftime lead. The Panthers made a run in the second half but the Bluejays fended them off for the win. Nate Funk had 24 points and Tolliver added 17 points and 6 rebounds as the Bluejays, after losses by Indiana State and Missouri State, have taken sole possession in first place in the MVC. It won’t be an easy week for the Bluejays as they travel to Wichita State on Monday to play a solid Shocker team, despite their recent struggles. The Jays will then return home for two very important home games first against Bradley Thursday before hosting Southern Illinois Saturday. If the Bluejays come away with 3 wins, although 2-1 is probably more realistic, they will be in driver’s seat for the regular season championship.
2. Southern Illinois (13-4, 4-2) Last Week: 3rd
It was a rough start to the week for the Salukis but they closed out the week with a bang. SIU traveled to Peoria Wednesday night falling to the Braves in a defensive battle 48-46, dropping their second consecutive road conference game. Despite out rebounding the Braves 34-17, the Salukis turned the ball over 20 times in the loss. With the game tied at 46, Jamal Tatum missed a three-point attempt with 25 seconds left that set up Bradley’s Will Franklin’s game winning basket with just under a second to play. Matt Shaw led the Salukis with 14 points and Randal Falker recorded a double double with 11 points and 12 rebounds. The Salukis returned to SIU Arena after going 1-2 on 3 game road trip and it was “Home Sweet Home,” for the Salukis who are 46-1 in MVC games at home in the last six years. Behind 23 points from Falker the Salukis snapped their two game skid with a dominating performance against the Missouri State Bears winning by 20, 76-56. After building a nine point halftime advantage the Bears crept back within 5 on numerous occasions but the Salukis, who shot 68 percent in the second half, turned a close game into a blowout over the final ten minutes. Tatum had 19 points on 6-of-8 shooting including 4-of-4 from three-point land. SIU will stay home for a Monday date with Drake, a game they should win convincingly. The Salukis will then hit the road for a Wednesday night affair with Evansville before traveling to MVC leader Creighton on Saturday. Southern Illinois should have no trouble with Evansville and a win over the Bluejays in Omaha would be a huge road win for the Salukis and they would assert themselves as the favorite for the league championship.
3. Missouri State (13-4, 4-2) Last Week: 2nd
One look at the Bear’s box score for their game Wednesday night against Evansville and one would immediately think that the final score was a misprint, 106-54. Yes, that’s right; the Bears did rack up that many points behind 21 from Tyler Chaney as the Bears became only the fifth team in the last ten years to score over 100 points in a Valley game. The Bears were on fire all night long, shooting 64 percent from the field including 58 percent from the three-point line. Deven Mitchell added 16 points and the Bears beat the Aces on the boards 42-24. Despite their crushing win over the Aces, the Bears struggles on the road continued when they traveled to Southern Illinois Saturday. After leading 4-2 in the early minutes the Bears watched the Salukis score the next 7 points and they never trailed again beating the Bears convincingly 76-56. The SIU defense hounded the Bears all day as they only managed to shoot 40 percent for the game, including 23 percent from beyond the arc. Blake Ahearn was the only Bear in double figures with 18 points as the Bears saw their 3 game conference-winning streak come to an end. The Bears must figure out how to win away from Hammons Student Center if they want a chance at the MVC title. They’ll get their chance this week as the travel to Illinois State Monday and to Evansville on Saturday. The Bears should be able to win both games but the road has proven to be an adventure for this team thus far. Mixed in between those two games is a home date with Northern Iowa, a must win for the Bears, Thursday.
4. Northern Iowa (13-4, 4-2) Last Week: 1st
It was a very tough week for the Northern Iowa Panthers after they had won their first 4 conference games and had climbed within inches of being ranked in the Top 25, coming in at #27. The Panthers fell victim to winless Illinois State 67-64 in overtime on Tuesday in a game they had no business losing. Eric Coleman had 12 points and 7 rebounds and Brooks McKowen had 12 points including a three that sent the game into overtime. The Panthers then hosted Creighton on Friday, which was MVC Founders Day, an event marking the league’s 100-year anniversary. After falling behind 20-4 the Panthers stormed back only to ultimately fall to the Bluejays 62-54, dropping the Panthers to 4-2 in conference play. Eric Coleman and McKowen each had 13 points for the Panthers who lost for their first time in their new arena, the McLeod Center. The Panthers will look to get back on track when travel to Missouri State to take on the Bears in Springfield Thursday. The game against the Bears isn’t going to be easy, as the Bears are very solid at home, but it is a very important game for UNI, as they want and need to avoid three straight losses. The Panthers will then return to Cedar Falls to take on Indiana State Saturday, a game they should win in their own gym.
5. Indiana State (11-5, 4-2) Last Week: 7th
The Sycamore entered the week as one of the biggest surprises thus far in the MVC, winning their last three conference games after getting blown out by Missouri State in their league opener. With 5 consecutive wins under their belt the Sycamores continued their hot streak, winning their sixth straight game by beating Wichita State 68-63 Wednesday night in Terre Haute. Indiana State got 16 points from freshman Cole Holmstrom and Marcio Stinson added 13 points as the Sycamores shot 46 percent for the game while holding the Shockers to just 39 percent. Following the very emotional win over the Shockers, the Sycamores took the night off in their next game, getting blasted by Bradley 76-59 Saturday and ending their 6 game winning streak. Trent Wurtz led the Sycamores with 14 points as they shot a miserable 32 percent from the floor and 19 percent from three as they suffered their first home loss of the season. The Sycamores inability to make shots cost them a game they should have won on their home floor. If they want to have chance to surprise the Valley and continue to compete they can’t afford to lose at home. The Sycamores will make Iowa their home this week as they travel to Des Moines to take on Drake Thursday night and then will make their way to Cedar Falls for a match up with the Panthers of Northern Iowa on Saturday. These two games won’t be easy and if ISU can go 1-1 on the road, beating Drake and losing to UNI, it would be a major accomplishment.
6. Bradley (13-6, 4-3) Last Week: 6th
The Bradley Braves are playing as well as any team in the conference as they went 2-0 this past week winning two very tough games. The Braves handed Southern Illinois their second MVC loss of the season beating the Salukis 48-46 behind 18 points from Will Franklin. The Braves fell behind by 10 points early but showed great composure and battled back and held a 2-point lead at the break. With the game tied at 46, Franklin banked home a shot with just under a second to go giving the Braves a thrilling 2 point win. The Braves forced SIU into committing 20 turnovers and despite being out rebounded by 17 the Braves still won the games. The Braves then traveled to Indiana State to take on the Sycamores, who had won six consecutive games and might have been the hottest team in the conference. The Braves showed no concern for that winning streak and handily beat the Sycamores 76-59. Bradley opened up a 15-point halftime advantage and never trailed in the second half as they got 19 points from Daniel Ruffin and 17 from Franklin. The Braves shot 55 percent from three while holding ISU to just 19 percent beyond the arc. Currently sitting at 4-3 in the conference and two games behind league leading Creighton, the Braves enter a very critical week of their schedule if they look to be a league championship contender. Bradley will travel to Creighton on Thursday before hosting Wichita State on Saturday. The Braves will have their hands full this week and two losses would almost certainly end the Braves hopes at a league title.
7. Wichita State (11-6, 2-4) Last Week: 5th
The Shockers slide continued last week as they lost their first game of the week, on the road at Indiana State, 68-63. The loss was the Shockers fourth conference loss in five games after only losing 4 conference games all last year. Despite out rebounding the Sycamores and out scoring them in the paint 44-14, the Shockers couldn’t over come the fact they let ISU hit 11 three-point shots. PJ Couisnard led Wichita State with 20 points. Wichita State was finally able to break their 2 game losing skid as they beat a struggling Evansville team Saturday night 69-56 behind 19 points from Kyle Wilson. The win, their second in conference play was very important if the Shockers look to right their ship and be a competitor in the league; a league where they once believed to be the clear cut favorite after a couple solid non-conference wins. Wichita State plays a must win game at home Monday night against Creighton before hitting the road for two roads games. The Shockers will travel to Illinois State Thursday night and then to Bradley Saturday night, a team they beat by 21 earlier this year. If the Shockers can beat a Creighton team who is playing excellent basketball, that could help them greatly as they hit the road. Look for the Shockers to go 3-0 this week as they begin to regain their early season form.
8. Evansville (9-9, 2-5) Last Week: 8th
The Evansville Aces might just want to forget about this past week as it was not a good week to be an Ace. To start things off, the Aces playing in front of a national television audience on ESPNU, got blasted by 52 points against Missouri State, falling 106-54. The Aces defense must have stayed on the bus as the Bears were allowed to shoot over 60 percent from the field and 57 percent from three. The Aces also were out rebounded 42-24. Matt Webster and Jason Holsinger scored 30 of the Aces 54 points with 16 and 14 respectively. The Aces then traveled to Wichita and things didn’t get better as the Aces fell to the Shockers 69-56. Webster and Holsinger once again were the only shinning stars for the Aces as Webster recorded a double double with 11 points and 10 rebounds and Holsinger had 10 points. The loss was Evansville’s fifth straight. Evansville head coach Steve Merfield showed his frustration in both losses for the Aces this week as he received a technical foul in both games for arguing. The Aces will likely be headed for two more defeats this week despite playing both games on home their home floor. First on Wednesday, the Aces welcome a very good team in Southern Illinois. Evansville will then look to get revenge on the Bears for the beat down that they got handed last week when Missouri State comes to Evansville Saturday.
9. Illinois State (9-8, 1-5) Last Week: 10th
It was a very interesting week for the Illinois State Redbirds. The Redbirds welcomed the league leading Northern Iowa Panthers Tuesday night and pulled off the biggest upset so far this year in Valley play, handing the Panthers their first conference loss with a 67-64 overtime decision. After UNI hit a three pointer at the buzzer to send the game to OT, one would have thought the underdogs would fall apart but that wasn’t the case as Osiris Eldridge scored 5 of the Redbirds 8 points in OT and the Redbirds won their first MVC game of the year. Levi Dyer had 20 points to lead the Redbirds and Eldridge ended with 18. Just over 3,500 people saw the Redbirds pick up their biggest win of the year thus far. The high they gained from that great win Tuesday night didn’t last long as the Redbirds fell to the last place Drake Bulldogs 70-66 Saturday night, capping a very strange week in which saw ISU beat the first place team and then lose to the last place team. Boo Richardson, the MVC Newcomer of the Week, had 24 points for the Redbirds and Dyer had 13 points and 13 rebounds and the Redbirds lost despite hitting 11 three-point shots. Illinois State will play two very tough home games this week, first welcoming Missouri State Monday night and then playing Wichita State Thursday night. The Redbirds will then look to get revenge on Drake when they host the Bulldogs Saturday night. Look for the Redbirds to steal one of these three games as they are all being played at Redbird Arena.
10. Drake (10-7, 1-5) Last Week: 9th
The Bulldog’s continued their struggles as of late, losing their fifth consecutive conference game to open league play after entering MVC action with an 8-game winning streak. It’s never easier going into the Quest Center and playing the Creighton Bluejays and the Bulldogs found that out first hand, losing 79-56. After trailing by only 1 at the break, the Bulldogs fell apart in the second half getting outscored by 22 points. Jonathan Cox and Nick Grant were the only Drake players in double figures with 11 points a piece. Drake shot just 33 percent while the Bluejays lit up the scoreboard shooting 66 percent. Drake finally got in the win column however, as they beat the Illinois State Redbirds 70-66 Saturday night in Des Moines. The Bulldogs got 19 points and 9 rebounds from their leading scorer Ajay Calvin, snapping their 5 game losing streak. It will be a very busy week for the Bulldogs as they will play 3 games in 7 days. Drake travels to SIU Monday night for a game they have no chance at winning. The Bulldogs then return home to take on Indiana State Thursday before ending the week with a game at Illinois State; their second meeting in just over a week. A 1-2 record is likely for the Bulldogs but don’t be surprised if their struggles continue and they drop all three games.