A we enter the final week of the regular season, Southern Illinois controls their own destiny. The Salukis currently sit one game ahead of second place Creighton and if they can beat Indiana State and Evansville this week, which they likely will, SIU will be this year’s Missouri Valley Conference Champions. The Bluejays still have a shot at the title but need SIU to lose twice while they win their final two games. The Jays will likely have to settle for second place but they’ll join the Salukis in the NCAA Tournament as both look to be “locks” at this point. Missouri State sits in third place one game ahead of Bradley and if the MVC is going to get a third bid to the Big Dance it will likely come from either the Bears or Braves. Wichita State is currently 8-8 in league play and will look to finish strong and build some momentum heading into the conference tournament. The UNI Panthers have fallen as of late and need to avoid falling even further if they hope to make the NIT. Evansville, Illinois State, Drake and Indiana State round out the Valley standings and all four will be playing the final week for conference tournament seeding purposes.
Although the Valley entered this past weekend’s BracketBuster event with the third best non-conference record in league history, the MVC took a step in the wrong direction as they went 5-5 as a league. What makes that even more amazing is the Valley was 53-1 at home in non-conference games and in just one weekend’s time, four Valley teams dropped home games to non-league foes. The weekend wasn’t a complete loss, however, as SIU went on the road and knocked off nationally ranked Butler, a win that proved the Salukis are one of the top non-BCS teams in the country. Bradley also went on the road and picked up a tournament resume-boosting win over Virginia Commonwealth. Despite their .500 record in this year’s BracketBuster event, the MVC is still the best non-BCS league in the country. The Valley posted the sixth best non-league record in conference history going 87-32 and was a remarkable 6-3 against teams ranked in the Top 25.
After defeating Butler on the road last Saturday the Southern Illinois Salukis have continued their climb up the national rankings. SIU jumped three spots this week in the AP Poll and will enter the final week of the regular season ranked #13. The Salukis also jumped one spot in the USA Today / ESPN Coaches Poll from #15 to #14. Creighton was the only other MVC team to receive votes this week as they received 16 votes in the AP Poll and 3 in the USA Today / ESPN Coaches Poll. After receiving one vote last week, the Missouri State Bears fell from the polls with their two losses last week.
It’s hard to believe that ‘Arch’ Madness is right around the corner and Valley teams will enter this week looking to improve their seeding for next weekend’s conference tournament while bubble teams will look to add to their resume. This week’s action is bound to be intense, as teams will be looking to build momentum as the post season arrives. A few questions still remain to be answered as MVC teams hit the home stretch. Can SIU hold on and win the regular season title? Will the Valley get a third or even fourth team in the Big Dance? Will the Missouri State Bears once again be left out of the tournament despite having another solid campaign? Which team at the bottom of the standings is going to pull off the upset and put a wrench in another team’s postseason plans? These questions and more will be answered in the upcoming weeks so sit back and relax and enjoy the final week of regular season play, before the madness ensues.
Game of the Week – #16 Southern Illinois at #13 Butler, Sat. Feb. 17, Hinkle Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana
In what was being billed as the highlight game on this year’s BracketBuster schedule, Southern Illinois traveled to Butler Saturday for a match up of two of the top mid-majors in the country as both entered the game ranked in the Top 25. The two teams did not disappoint and the game turned out to be a classic contest with both teams leaving everything they had on the floor. The game also featured the match up of two of the top guards in the country, SIU’s Jamal Tatum and Butler’s A.J. Graves, both who have an excellent chance at winning Player of the Year honors in their respective conferences. Tatum won the head to head battle as he scored 20 points as his Salukis picked up a huge 68-64 road victory. The win will likely increase the Salukis chances of becoming a top 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The Salukis, known for their excellent defense, shut down the Bulldog’s leading scorer Graves, who was battling a stomach ailment, holding him to just 5 points on 1-of-8 shooting. The Salukis jumped out to 5-point halftime advantage but Butler made a run in the second half. SIU extended their lead to 10 points, 45-35, but the Bulldogs answered and clawed back within 2 at 50-48 with just over 6 minutes to play. Trailing by 3 with just over a minute to play Butler’s Brandon Crone missed a lay up that could have cut the deficit to 1 and SIU closed out the game at the free throw stripe. The win extended the Salukis winning streak to 9 games and it was their first road win over a ranked opponent since 1975. The loss was the first for Butler in 22 games at home. Mike Green led the Bulldogs with 18 points and Pete Campbell had 17 points in 14 minutes off the bench. The Salukis out rebounded Butler 33-24 and outscored the Bulldogs at the free throw line by 8. Both of these teams are going to be a force to be reckon with come March and teams from BCS conferences will not want to face either of these two in the tournament as both are capable of duplicating what George Mason accomplished last year.
Game of the Upcoming Week – Missouri State at Wichita State, Tues. Feb. 20, Koch Arena, Wichita, Kansas
With Southern Illinois and Creighton, at this point, considered to be locks for the NCAA Tournament, the Missouri State Bears are trying to become the third team to make the Big Dance from the Valley. The Bears will travel to Wichita State Tuesday night for an ESPNU telecast when they meet the Shockers. A week ago, the Bears looked to be in a prime spot to make the Big Dance. But after two home losses last week the Bears tournament chances took a major hit. The Bears still are not out of tourney discussions, they just now find themselves were they didn’t want to be, on the bubble. The Shockers on the other hand are likely headed for the NIT but if they can get hot and go on a run they are more than capable of winning the MVC Tournament and receiving the league’s automatic bid. The Bears will enter this game in a must win mode and if they can win this game and beat Drake at home Saturday, they would greatly increase their tourney chances. It all starts with this game for the Bears and they must do everything possible to avoid losing three straight games, as a loss against to the Shockers would likely end the Bears tourney hopes. Earlier this year the Bears ended an 8-game losing streak to the Shockers when they beat WSU in Springfield 95-87, so they should have the confidence they need. The Shockers however, are always tough at home. The Bears know the feeling of what it’s like to get left out of the Big Dance and they don’t want to experience that again. Missouri State bounces back by beating the Shockers on the road and keeping their NCAA tourney dreams alive.
Prediction – Missouri State – 68-67
Player of the Week – Jeremy Crouch, Jr., G – Bradley
Bradley is one of the best three-point shooting teams in the nation and junior guard Jeremy Crouch is a big reason why. This past week, Crouch and his deadly three-point shooting led the Braves to two more wins, giving them 19 on the season. In the Braves win over Evansville Tuesday Crouch had 15 points on 5-of-12 shooting but he hit 4-of-7 three point tries. Crouch was at it again Saturday as the Braves picked up a huge road win over Virginia Commonwealth. Crouch led the Braves in scoring with 22 points as he hit 8-of-11 shots from the field, including 6-of-9 three-point shots. For the week, Crouch hit a remarkable 63 percent of his three point attempts while hitting 57 percent of his overall shots from the floor. Crouch, who is second on the team in scoring with 14.4 points per game, has been huge all season for the Braves from beyond the arc as he is hitting over 50 percent of his three point shots. Crouch’s ability to shoot from downtown will make the Braves a very dangerous team in St. Louis for the MVC Tournament.
1. Southern Illinois (23-5, 13-3) Last Week: 1st
The Southern Illinois Salukis showed the nation they are the Valley’s best team and they’ll be a force come March. SIU stayed atop the Valley standings with a hard fought 51-47 win Tuesday night over Missouri State in Springfield. Leading by 5 at the break, SIU saw Missouri State tie the game with 9 minutes to play and eventual take a 1-point lead with just over a minute to play. With 1:09 to go, Jamal Tatum hit a deep three in front of the SIU bench, giving SIU a 2-point lead and one they would never relinquish. Randal Falker led SIU with 20 points and 12 rebounds and Tatum, the Missouri Valley Player of the Week, chipped in 16 points, including the game winner. SIU then took to the road Saturday for a match up with nationally ranked Butler in the highlight game of this year’s ESPNU BracketBuster event. The two top mid-major teams in the nation went head-to-head and it was Tatum and the Salukis who game out on top. Tatum led SIU with 20 points and Matt Shaw added 15 points as SIU greatly improved their NCAA Tournament Seeding with a very solid road win over a nationally ranked Butler squad. SIU shut down Butler’s leading scored A.J. Graves, holding him to just 5 points while SIU was deadly from long distance, hitting 7-of-15 three point attempts. The win over Butler was SIU’s 9th consecutive win. The Salukis will wrap up the MVC regular season championship this week and clinch the number one seed for the conference tournament the first weekend in March. SIU will beat Indiana State on the road Wednesday and finish Valley play 15-3 after beating Evansville at home Saturday.
2. Creighton (18-9, 12-4) Last Week: 2nd
Entering the final week of regular season action, if Creighton hopes to win this year’s Valley Championship they are going to need a lot of help. Just one game back of SIU, the Bluejays need to win both their games this week and hope SIU drops their last two games if they want to wear this year’s Valley crown. That scenario is unlikely but CU will enter the Valley tournament as the two seed. The Bluejays got last week off on the right foot after losing to SIU last Saturday when they knocked off UNI 66-55 in Omaha. Nick Porter had 21 points to lead the Bluejays and Dane Watts added 16 points and 9 rebounds as CU held UNI to just 34 percent shooting. The Bluejays then welcomed Drexel to the Quest Center Saturday night in a nationally televised BracketBuster match up. The Bluejays jumped out to a 6-point lead at the break but the Dragons shot 64 percent in the second half to pull away from Creighton and knock off the Bluejays 64-58. The win was Drexel’s 12th win away from home and the Bluejays struggled with their shooting all night long on their home floor. CU shot just 35 percent from the floor and Nate Funk had just 13 points while shooting 3-of-11. Anthony Tolliver had 15 points and 7 rebounds to lead Creighton. The Bluejays still appear to be in good shape for an NCAA Tournament berth despite this latest setback. CU will go on the road Tuesday to take on the Illinois State Redbirds. The Bluejays will close out their regular season Saturday when they welcome Wichita State. Look for Creighton to bounce back from their loss to Drexel and finish with back-to-back wins over the Redbirds and the Shockers.
3. Missouri State (19-9, 10-6) Last Week: 3rd
The Missouri State Bears had a huge opportunity this past week to show the selection committee that they are worthy of an NCAA Tournament bid, but what they showed the committee may end up costing them a tourney spot. The Bears welcomed league-leading SIU to Springfield Tuesday night giving, MSU a great chance to pick up a win over a highly ranked team. The Bears, however, fell apart down the stretch and lost to SIU for the second time this season 51-47. Leading by 1, the Bears saw their shot at the upset slip away when Jamal Tatum hit a deep three with just over a minute to play. Tyler Chaney had 13 points for MSU while Dale Lamberth added 11 points off the bench as the Bears saw their 5 game winning streak come to an end. Missouri State then had another chance to pick up a solid win on their home floor when they welcomed Winthrop on Friday. However, the Bears forgot to play defense and they had no answer for Winthrop’s hot three point shooting as they fell 77-66. The Golden Eagles hit 14 threes and the Bears were unable to contain Michael Jenkins who hit 7 threes for a game-high 25 points. Deven Mitchell led the Bears with 21 points off the bench. Two losses on their home floor to two tournament worthy squads could end up being what keeps the Bears out of the Big Dance. The Bears travel to Wichita State Tuesday in a “must-win” game if they hope to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive. Missouri State will then welcome Drake Saturday for their final home game of the season. The Bears bounce back and keep themselves alive for an at-large berth as they win both games.
4. Bradley (19-10, 9-7) Last Week: 4th
After two more wins this past week, the Bradley Braves have now entered the discussion of teams currently on the bubble. The Braves opened this past week with a trip to Evansville and the Braves walked out of Roberts Stadium with a 72-71 victory. The Braves looked to be coasting to their ninth conference win of the season but the Aces weren’t about to go away on their home floor. Matt Webster tied the game with a three with just 7 seconds to play but Bradley’s Will Franklin hit a free throw with 1 second to play giving the Braves the 1-point win. Jeremy Crouch led BU with 15 points as the Braves hit 13-of-25 three-point attempts. The Braves then went on the road Saturday as part of ESPN’s BracketBuster Saturday and picked up a huge non-conference win as they beat a very good Virginia Commonwealth team 73-64. The Braves were once again deadly beyond the arc as they hit 11-of-23 three-point shots. Crouch led the Bears with 22 points and Daniel Ruffin added 19 as the Braves picked up a huge win over a VCU team that was 22-5 and sitting atop the Colonial Conference standings. This win for the Braves may prove to be very beneficial and if they can make a run in the MVC tourney like they did last year, they may just put themselves in a good position for an at-large berth. The Braves will have a great chance this week to add to their tournament resume, as they should have no trouble picking up wins number 20 and 21. The Braves host Northern Iowa Tuesday before playing host to Indiana State Saturday.
5. Wichita State (17-11, 8-8) Last Week: 5th
Entering last week’s action, the Shockers still had a slim shot at making the NCAA Tournament but after two losses this past week; the Shockers bubble has officially burst. The Shockers went on the road Wednesday night and probably wish they would have stayed at home in Wichita with their Valentines. The Shockers returned home to Wichita with a 62-58 loss to the last place Drake Bulldogs, a loss that will likely send the Shockers to the NIT. Karon Bradley led WSU with 17 points and despite out shooting the Bulldogs, the Shockers lost the free throw battle, being outscored by Drake at the line 14-3. The Shockers then played host to Appalachian State Saturday and once again they were dealt a very damaging loss. WSU took a two-point lead with just under 2 minutes to play but then the Mountaineers tied it with 1:42 to play. Following a Shocker shot clock violation Appalachian State completed a three-point play with 28 seconds to go. Kyle Wilson then tied the game for Wichita State with 17 seconds to go but Appalachian State scored on a turn around jumper by D.J. Thompson with 5 seconds left and then held on, knocking off the Shockers on their home floor 60-58. Sean Ogirri led WSU with 12 points and Wilson added 7 points and 9 rebounds. The Shockers likely are headed to the NIT which is surprising after they had such a hot start when the rose to #8 in the rankings. It won’t be an easy week for the Shockers this week as they host Missouri State on Tuesday before traveling to Creighton on Saturday. Don’t be surprised if the Shockers win both games but then again don’t be surprised if they drop both contests.
6. Northern Iowa (16-12, 7-9) Last Week: 6th
The Northern Iowa Panthers are playing the worst basketball out of any team in the conference and they are doing so at the absolute worst time of the season. After starting the conference season at 6-2, the Panthers looked to be headed to yet another NCAA Tournament but then they decided to drop 8 of their last 9 games and now they sit just 4 games over .500 and are clinging to their post-season life and hoping for an NIT berth. UNI looked to be in good shape Wednesday night to pick up a quality win on the road over Creighton but then the game slipped right out of their hands in the final 8 minutes. The Panthers lead CU for nearly the entire first 30 minutes of the game but then they were held to without a field goal for an 8-minute stretch and fell to the Jays 66-55. Brooks McKowen had 15 points and Grant Stout just missed a double double with 13 points and 9 rebounds. UNI then got a tough BracketBuster assignment as they were forced to go on the road to take on nationally ranked Nevada. After playing a very solid first half in which they had a 1-point halftime advantage the Panthers once gain fell apart in the second half, getting outscored 47-31 in the second frame and losing to the Wolfpack 79-64. Eric Coleman led the Panthers with 16 points and 9 rebounds and Stout added 10 points. UNI was out shot once again and Nevada hit over 50 percent of their shots from the floor and the three-point line. UNI must start to play better defense if they hope to make some noise in the MVC Tournament. The Panthers will likely see their losing streak hit 6 games as they travel to Bradley Tuesday night for a game they will likely lose. UNI should close out the regular season with a win as they welcome Illinois State Saturday.
7. Evansville (14-14, 6-10) Last Week: 7th
The Evansville Purple Aces enter the last week of action looking to do just enough to avoid having to play on the first day of the MVC Tournament. Last week the Aces went 1-1 as they fell to Bradley at home before beating Samford on the road Saturday. Evansville had a good opportunity Wednesday to pick up another solid win at home but the Aces fell just short as they lost to Bradley 72-71. Trailing by 3, Matt Webster hit a 3 pointer with 7 seconds to play but Shy Ely fouled Will Franklin with 1 second to go setting up Franklin’s game winning free throw. Webster led the Aces with 19 points and Bradley Strickland and Kyle Anslinger added 15 points apiece. Evansville however didn’t let that heartbreaking loss hang around too long as they bounced back and won on the road at Samford Saturday, beating the Bulldogs 69-65. The Aces shot 67 percent from the field in the first half in building a 3-point halftime lead. The Bulldogs would make a run late, getting as close as 2 points, but the Aces hit their shots down the stretch and pulled out the victory. Jason Holsinger had 16 points and Webster added 15 as the Aces shot 70 percent from the floor for the game including over 50 percent from downtown. The Aces will finish the regular season away from home, as they’ll travel to Drake Wednesday before heading to Carbondale to take on the Salukis of SIU. A split is likely and the Aces will enter the conference tournament as the number seven seed.
8. Illinois State (14-14, 5-11) Last Week: 9th
Entering last week’s action on a three game losing streak the Illinois State Redbirds were not playing good basketball. But what a difference a week can make as the Redbirds won both their games this past week and did so convincingly. The Redbirds opened the week defeating Indiana State 68-53 behind 18 points from Levi Dyer. The Redbirds shot 55 percent from the floor and dominated the Sycamores down low, out rebounding them by 11 boards and out scoring them in the paint 34-18. Greg Dilligard added a double double with 12 points and 10 rebounds as the Redbirds won their fifth conference game of the season. The Redbirds then won their second game of the week, a 70-57 decision over Ball State as part of ESPNU’s BracketBuster Saturday. Dyer was almost unstoppable Saturday night as he had 29 points on 11-of-13 shooting and Anthony Slack, the MVC Newcomer of the Week, added 10 points while grabbing 9 rebounds. After trailing by 8 at the half, Ball State closed to within 1 with 7 minutes to play but the Redbirds responded with a 9-0 run to put the game out of reach. The Redbirds shot well again for the second time last week hitting over 50 percent of their shots from the floor against Ball State. The Redbirds will finish the season with 2 more conference losses bringing their MVC record to 5-13. ISU will fall to Creighton Tuesday and to Northern Iowa on the road Saturday.
9. Drake (15-13, 5-11) Last Week: 10th
Despite being at the bottom of the Valley standings, the Drake Bulldogs had a very successful week going 2-0. The Bulldogs opened the week with a hard fought home win over Wichita State. Trailing by 2 with just over a minute to play, Drake’s Klayton Korver hit a three-point bucket while being fouled. Korver then hit the free throw giving Drake a 2-point lead, a lead they would not surrender. The Bulldogs held the Shockers scoreless for the rest of the game, holding on for the 62-58 win. Ajay Calvin led Drake with 16 points and the Bulldogs dominated the glass, out rebounding the Shockers 37-26. Drake then hosted UW-Milwaukee Saturday night and the Bulldogs won for the third time in four games beating the Panthers 84-76. The win gave Drake 15 wins on the season for the first time since 1987. Five Bulldogs reached double figures led by Nick Grant’s 22 points. Drake trailed early by as many as 16 points but they used a 20-6 run to get within 2. Josh Young then hit a three-point basket with just over 7 minutes to play giving Drake the lead for good. Drake’s full court pressure was the difference as they forced UW-Milwaukee into committing 24 turnovers. The Bulldogs welcome Evansville on Wednesday before heading to Evansville on Saturday. The Bulldogs will drop these two games and enter the MVC Tournament with an opening round game on Thursday.
10. Indiana State (12-15, 5-11) Last Week: 8th
It wasn’t a very good week to be associated with the Indiana Sate men’s basketball team as they lost both their games by double figures at home at the Hulman Center. The Sycamores hosted Illinois State Wednesday night and they fell behind early and were unable to overcome the Redbirds hot second half shooting as they fell to Illinois State 68-53. Adam Arnold and Cole Holmstrom each had 11 points as the Sycamores were dominated on the glass, getting out rebounded 33-22. ISU then welcomed Miami (OH) Saturday for an ESPNU BracketBuster match up and once again the Sycamores fell by double digits, despite leading the Redhawks by 7 at the break. ISU was outscored 39-20 in the second half in dropping their 11th game in their last 12 contests. Gabe Moore led ISU with 15 points and 8 assists as terrible shooting once again did in the Sycamores as they hit just 6-of-24 shots in the second half. The Sycamores will lose both their games this week, falling at home to Southern Illinois Wednesday and to Bradley on the road Saturday. ISU will end up in last place in the Valley after starting the Valley season 4-1.