MVC Weekly Notebook: SIU Firmly in First

February 13th, 2007
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With just two weeks to go in the season, the Southern Illinois Salukis are officially the team to beat after they took down Creighton Saturday. The Bluejays sit just 1 game behind SIU with 3 games to play. The Missouri State Bears, currently on a 5 game winning streak, sit solely in third place, one game behind CU and 2 games behind SIU. Bradley and Wichita State are currently tied for fourth place in the MVC with identical 8-7 conference records. Northern Iowa has slipped after losing all three of their games this past week and is currently in sixth place. Evansville enters this week’s action in seventh place followed by Indiana State. Illinois State and Drake are tied for last place at 4-11 in league play. The race for the conference champion is anything but over, but as of right now you have to like the Salukis chances. If SIU can get past Missouri State Tuesday night on the road, the Salukis should coast to the league title as their last two games are against Evansville and Indiana State.

The Salukis, after defeating Bradley and Creighton this past week, made a big jump in this week’s polls. The Salukis jumped 5 spots in both polls and will enter this action ranked #15 in the USA Today / ESPN Coaches Poll and #16 in the AP Poll. SIU was the only Valley member to receive votes in the USA Today / Coaches Poll, however both Creighton and Missouri State received votes in the AP Poll. The Bluejays received 13 votes while the Bears picked up one vote. These three teams have asserted themselves over the past couple of weeks as the elite teams in the Valley and all three appear to be in good shape to make the Big Dance as long as they take care if business down the stretch.

Each Valley member will play one conference game this week followed by an ESPNU BracketBuster game this weekend. (Ed: David will have a preview of these games later in the week.) SIU will travel to Butler to take on the 12th ranked Bulldogs and UNI will get its chance to upset a Top 25 squad when they visit Nevada to take on the #11 Wolfpack. The Valley will have 6 teams playing on the ESPN Family of Networks and the MVC will show the rest of the country that it belongs in the discussion as one the elite leagues in the NCAA.

Game of the Week – Creighton at #21 Southern Illinois, Sat. Feb. 10, SIU Arena, Carbondale, Illinois

With first place in the Valley on the line, Creighton and Southern Illinois hooked up in what turned out to be yet another dandy. Both teams entered the game tied atop the Valley standings with an 11-3 conference record with the winner taking sole possession of first place with just three games to go. Either SIU or CU has been the Valley regular season champion five of the last six seasons and it appears that will be the case again this year with the Salukis in control of their own destiny following their 72-68 victory over CU. The Bluejays fell behind early and trailed by as many as 8 points in the first half but they were able to cut into the Saluki lead and trailed SIU by 2 at the break. Creighton then took its first lead of the game three minutes into the second half and pushed that lead to 6 points. But the Salukis didn’t go away. With the Jays trailing by 2, Nick Porter hit two free throws with just over a minute to play knotting the game at 67. Tony Young then hit a 12 footer with 49 seconds to go and SIU hit their free throws down the stretch to hold off Creighton and move into sole possession of first place in the MVC. The win marked the seventh consecutive win for SIU over Creighton after the Bluejays beat the Salukis in the 2003 MVC tournament final. The Salukis had the best offensive half in school history as they shot a remarkable 86 percent from the field, making 12 of their 14 shot attempts. The Salukis were on fire all game long hitting 8-of-11 three-point attempts and shooting 65 percent from the floor for the game. Jamal Tatum, playing with a deep thigh bruise, had 18 points and Matt Shaw had 25 as the Salukis won despite committing 21 turnovers. Nate Funk and Dane Watts had 17 points apiece for Creighton as the Bluejays fell to SIU for the second time this season. Both match ups between these two teams this season have come down to the final minute and another meeting between the two could come in the Valley tournament final. Playing their first game with a national ranking of #21, the Salukis showed the nation and the rest of the league that they are top dogs in the Valley.

Game of the Upcoming Week – #15 Southern Illinois at Missouri State, Tues. Feb. 13, Hammons Student Center, Springfield, Missouri.

The highlight game of the conference schedule this week will feature first place Southern Illinois on the road to take on third place Missouri State in a “must win” game for both teams. SIU is in the driver’s seat for the regular season title but a slip up on the road against the Bears will give Creighton and Missouri State new life. The Bears currently sit just two games behind the Salukis with 3 to go and if they can beat SIU and run the table, coupled with a few SIU and Creighton losses, the Bears could find themselves with an opportunity at the league title. That scenario is highly unlikely but the Bears have been on a roll as of late and with 5 consecutive wins have put themselves in a great position to make the Big Dance. A win over SIU would certainly bolster their resume. The Salukis have reached “lock” status for the Big Dance and will no doubt hear their name called on Selection Sunday. The Bears will be looking for revenge as SIU blasted them earlier this season in Carbondale 76-56. The Bears shot just 40 percent from the floor at SIU Arena while they let the Salukis hit 58 percent of their shots and over 50 percent from three, led by 23 from Randal Falker. SIU has struggled as of late in Springfield and the Bears have tons of momentum after winning their last five games. SIU has won 7 in a row and is coming off an emotional win over Creighton but the Salukis may be looking past the Bears to their BracketBuster showdown Saturday with nationally ranked Butler. The Bears pick up a resume-boosting win with a hard fought match over SIU and knock the Salukis from sole possession of first place and put themselves within 1 game of the lead as the two teams enter the final week of action.

Prediction – Missouri State – 63-59

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

Blake Ahearn has stepped up his play as of late and has been a big reason why the Missouri State Bears have won 5 consecutive conference games. Ahearn led the Bears in scoring in both of their wins this past week and continues to be the Bears most consistent offensive threat despite being the main target by many other teams’ defenses. Ahearn had 20 points on 7-of-11 shooting in the Bears double digit win over Illinois State on Tuesday. An excellent three-point shooter, Ahearn showed he can get it done inside the arc as he only took 2 three point attempts, making 1 while being perfect from the free throw line. Saturday, Ahearn once again came up big for the Bears as he had 19 points and 4 rebounds as the Bears won on the road at UNI. Ahearn made 6 of 9 shot attempts and hit 4-of-6 three point shots. For the week Ahearn shot 65 percent from the floor and 63 percent from three point distance. The Bears are looking to make the NCAA Tournament for the first time under coach Barry Hinson and if they get in after being snubbed last year, Ahearn will be a huge reason why the Bears will be dancing come March.

Team Capsules

1. Southern Illinois (21-5, 12-3) Last Week: 1st

The Salukis are in control of their own destiny as they sit atop the Valley standings with just three games to go. SIU avenged an earlier loss to Bradley Wednesday night as they picked up a 60-50 win over the Braves. Despite playing all but 6 minutes with out star guard Jamal Tatum, the Salukis defense was outstanding, limiting Bradley to just 37 percent shooting. Tony Young, the Missouri Valley Player of the Week, picked up the slack, scoring 25 points as the Salukis won their 20th game of the season. Following the game the fans chanted “We want Creighton,” and on Saturday they got their wish. The Salukis pushed their winning streak to seven games when they beat Creighton in front of a national television audience and in doing so took over sole possession of first place in the MVC. The Salukis beat Creighton for the second time this season, 72-68, behind 25 points from Matt Shaw. SIU now has a 1 game lead with 3 games to go and also holds the tiebreaker for the #1 seed in the conference tournament since they have beaten CU twice. It won’t be an easy week for the Salukis as they have two very tough road tests. First, SIU travels to Springfield to take on the Missouri State Bears who will be out for revenge after losing to SIU by 20 early this season. The Salukis then travel to nationally ranked Butler for the feature game of this year's ESPNU BracketBuster Event. SIU is good enough to win both games but a split is more likely.

2. Creighton (17-8, 11-4) Last Week: 2nd

The Creighton Bluejays entered this past week’s action in a tie for first place, but after a loss Saturday to SIU the Bluejays find themselves in second place, one game behind the Salukis with 2 weeks to play. CU got off to a good start last week beating Evansville Wednesday night and in doing so set up the first place showdown with SIU. It wasn’t easy for the Jays, as the Quest Center crowd didn’t intimidate the Aces as they built a 14-point halftime lead. The Bluejays woke up in the second half as Nick Porter and Nate Funk combined for 26-second half points and each finished with 19 points each as the Bluejays rallied and picked up a hard fought 79-74 victory. Creighton then looked to end its 6 game losing skid to SIU and take over sole possession of first place in the Valley but instead, the Jays fell to SIU for the second time this season. Dane Watts and Funk each had 17 points for the Bluejays who shot just 68 percent from the free throw stripe, making 22-of-33, and allowed SIU to shoot 73 percent from three. The Bluejays conference championship hopes definitely took a hit with this loss but if they can win out and SIU drops two of their remaining three games CU could find themselves right back at the top of the MVC. The Bluejays have two very tough home games this week but they should be able to bounce back and win both and get that bitter taste of defeat out of their mouth. A struggling UNI team comes to Omaha Tuesday night and the Bluejays will battle the Drexel Dragons Saturday at the Quest Center.

3. Missouri State (19-7, 10-5) Last Week: 3rd

The Missouri State Bears appear to be peaking at just the right time. The Bears extended their winning streak to 5 games this past week with victories over Illinois State and Northern Iowa and in doing so improved their conference record to 10-5 and now sit alone in third place. The Bears got the week off to a good start with a 73-61 home win over Illinois State Tuesday night. The Bears didn’t have much trouble in beating the Redbirds for the second time this season as Blake Ahearn had 20 points and Nathan Bilyeu had 11 points and 10 rebounds. The Bears then hit the road Saturday to take on UNI in Cedar Rapids. The Bears won their 10th conference game of the season beating the Panthers 62-58 and avenging a home loss to UNI last month. Ahearn had 19 points and Tyler Chaney had 14 points and 8 rebounds as the Bears almost let another double-digit road lead slip away. MSU pushed their lead to 12 in the second half but the Panthers stormed back and got within 1 with just over 2 minutes to go. But the Bears were not going to be denied this time as they hit their free throws down the stretch to seal the game. The Bears appear to be in good shape to make the NCCA tournament and this week they’ll have a huge opportunity to add to their resume. It’s going to be a tough week for the Bears but luckily both of their games are on their home floor at the Hammons Student Center. The Bears welcome league leader SIU on Tuesday night before taking on a very solid Winthrop team who has 20 plus wins and is arguably one of the better so-called “mid major” teams in the country. If the Bears win both games they’ll all but lock up an NCAA tournament berth. The Bears, however, will most likely go 1-1 this week.

4. Bradley (17-10, 8-7) Last Week: 5th

The Braves enter the final two weeks of the season looking to pick up as many wins possible and improve their NCAA Tournament resume. They had a chance to pick up a big marquee win last Wednesday night but were unable to do so when they fell on the road to Southern Illinois 60-50. Bradley looked to complete the season sweep of the Salukis but they fell behind by 12 at halftime and were never able to recover. Will Franklin led the Braves with 15 points as Bradley, a strong three point shooting team, struggled all game long, hitting just 3-of-22 shots from beyond the arc. The Braves were also out rebounded by 15. However, the Braves got back on the winning track Saturday afternoon with a 100-85 win over the Drake Bulldogs. Daniel Ruffin had 19 points and 10 assists and Zach Andrews had 18 points and 10 rebounds as the Braves improved to 8-7 in the Valley. Bradley regained their hot three point shooting hitting 14-of-26 shots for 54 percent as they Braves scored 56 points in the second half to pull away from Drake. The Braves travel to Evansville on Wednesday before traveling to Virginia Commonwealth on Saturday. Bradley will beat the Aces before falling to VCU. If the Braves can win out and have a good showing in the MVC tournament they’ll have a shot at being the fourth team from the Valley to make the Big Dance.

5. Wichita State (17-9, 8-7) Last Week: 6th

The Wichita State Shockers continued their late season charge as they won both their games this past week and have now won 5 of their last 6 contests. With the two wins, the Shockers are over .500 in MVC play for the first time this season and are trying desperately to get back into the NCAA Tournament talk. Wichita State opened the week with a solid 61-45 win over Indiana State behind 15 points from Kyle Wilson. The Shockers held the Sycamores to just one basket over the final 14 minutes of the game. Wichita State shot 53 percent from the floor while holing ISU to just 35 percent. The Shockers then welcomed Illinois State Sunday afternoon and they came out with another win, a 69-64 victory over the Redbirds. PJ Couisnard had 17 points as the Shockers outscored the Redbirds 24-4 at the free throw line. The Shockers were able to hold on for the win despite turning the ball over 19 times and being out shot from the floor by the Redbirds. If Wichita State can finish the season on a high note and have a good showing in the MVC Tournament, they just might find themselves in the Big Dance. The Shockers will visit Drake on Wednesday before hosting Appalachian State on Saturday. The Shockers will continue their late season charge with two more victories.

6. Northern Iowa (16-7, 7-8) Last Week: 4th

The Northern Iowa Panthers and their fans might just want to forget what happened to the Panthers this past week. It was not a good week to be a Panther as they dropped all three of their conference games and in doing so dropped below .500 in league play and have all but erased their chances of an at-large NCAA tournament berth. The week got off to a bad start Monday as UNI fell to a struggling Indiana State team, who had lost 7 games in a row, 59-46. Brooks McKowen had 11 points as the Sycamores crushed the Panthers on the glass, out rebounding them 34-15. The Panthers then fell to Drake for the second time this season, 67-59, in Cedar Rapids Thursday night. Grant Stout had a huge game with 17 points and 14 rebounds but the Panthers outside shooting woes continued as they hit just 5-of-24 three-point attempts. UNI then looked to beat Missouri State for the second time this season but were unable to do so, losing 62-58 and dropping their third consecutive game at home. McKowen had 15 points and Stout had 10 rebounds despite shooting 1of 9 from the floor. Just a couple weeks ago the Panthers sat in first place in the MVC but after losing 6 of their last 7 games they now sit in sixth place. Look for the Panthers losing skid to reach 5 games this week as they continue to struggle on the road with two very tough teams. UNI will visit the Quest Center Tuesday to take on Creighton before traveling to Nevada to take on the nationally ranked Wolfpack Saturday.

7. Evansville (12-13, 5-9) Last Week: 7th

The Purple Aces started off the week with a loss but rebounded and picked up a win Sunday afternoon. The Aces nearly knocked Creighton out of first place Wednesday night before the Bluejays even had a chance to take on SIU. The Aces jumped out to a 14-point halftime advantage but fell apart in the second half. The Bluejays came out of the locker room on fire scoring the half’s first 12 points and the Aces would never recover. Matt Webster led the Aces with 13 points and Evansville dropped their fourth game in a row. Evansville, however, responded nicely with a convincing 76-61 win over Indiana State Sunday. The Aces jumped all over the Sycamores as ISU never led and the Aces snapped their 4 game losing skid, winning their fifth conference game of the year. Bradley Strickland led Evansville with 24 points and 10 rebounds and Webster added 16 points as Evansville out rebounded the Sycamores by 10, 33-23. It won’t be an easy week for the Aces. Evansville hosts Bradley on Wednesday before traveling to Samford on Saturday as part of ESPN’s BracketBuster event. The Aces will fall to Bradley before winning at Samford.

8. Indiana State (12-13, 5-10) Last Week: 8th

After starting the conference season 4-1, the Indiana State Sycamores proceeded to lose their next 7 games. However, that long losing streak finally came to end Monday night when ISU beat Northern Iowa 59-46. After falling behind by 10 points in the early going, the Sycamores used solid three point shooting and domination on the boards to beat the Panthers for their fifth conference victory. ISU, behind 21 points from Gabe Moore, shoot 42 percent from three and out rebounded the usually strong Panthers 34-15. Indiana State then had a chance to string together consecutive wins but they were unable to do so and lost their last two games of the week, thus starting another losing skid. The Sycamores fell Thursday night to Wichita State 61-45 after they were held to just one basket over the final 14 minutes of the game. Trent Wurtz, Harry Marshall and Moore all had 10 points apiece as Indiana State was unable to complete the season sweep of the Shockers. ISU then made the trip to instate rival Evansville Sunday afternoon and lost to the Aces 76-61 in a game they never led. Cole Holstrom was the only Sycamore in double figures with 19 points. The Sycamores will have a good opportunity this week to pick up two wins however a split is likely. The Sycamores host Illinois State Wednesday night before taking on Miami (OH) on Saturday.

9. Illinois State (12-14, 4-11) Last Week: 9th

It was a rough week for the Redbirds as they fell twice this past week losing to Missouri State and Wichita State. The Redbirds traveled to Missouri State Tuesday night and they left Springfield with a 73-61 beating. The Redbirds trailed by 12 at the half and saw that deficit reach 17 in the second half as they were unable to overcome their inability to rebound the basketball. The Bears out rebounded Illinois State 50-25 and held a 17-2 advantage on the offensive glass. Levi Dyer had 17 points for the Redbirds and Boo Richardson added 12. The Redbirds then traveled to Wichita Sunday to take on the Shockers and they fell for the third straight time, losing to Wichita State 69-64. Despite the score being so close, the Redbirds trailed the entire half but managed to get within one on numerous occasions but just couldn’t quite get over the hump. Dyer led the Redbirds with 22 points as Illinois State remained in a tie with Drake for last place in the Valley. The Redbirds will hit the road for a game against Indiana State Wednesday night. Illinois State will then return home for a BracketBuster match up with Ball St. Look the Redbirds to fall to Indiana State but bounce back and beat Ball State.

10. Drake (13-13, 4-11) Last Week: 10th

The Drake Bulldogs became to mythical Iowa State Champions this past week as they competed an impressive run that saw the Bulldogs beat Iowa, Iowa State and Northern Iowa twice to go undefeated against Division I teams from their home state. Ajay Calvin had 14 points and 9 rebounds as the Bulldogs went on the road and picked up a very solid road victory over UNI and in doing so completed the season sweep of the Panthers. Drake jumped out to an early lead and led by 6 at the break and coasted to a 67-59 victory for their fourth conference win of the season. Al Stewart had 8 points to go along with 10 assists. Things didn’t go quite as well for the Bulldogs Saturday afternoon in Peoria as they fell to the Bradley Braves 100-85. Calvin had 19 points for the Bulldogs but they ran into a very hot shooting Braves team who hit over 50 percent of their three point shots. The MVC Newcomer of the Week, Josh Young, added 14 points and 7 assists. Drake hit just 6 threes while Bradley knocked home 14 which proved to be the difference. Drake welcomes a resurgent Wichita State team Wednesday before hosting UW-Milwaukee on Saturday. The Bulldogs will fall to the Shockers but bounce back with a win Saturday over the Panthers from Milwaukee.