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Re-evaluating the Missouri Valley

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, Dec. 25, 2011, at 12:05 a.m.
  • Updated Monday, Dec. 26, 2011, at 3 p.m.

Selection Sunday may offer emotions beyond disappointment for Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball teams.

For the past four seasons, the Valley has been limited to one spot in the NCAA Tournament. That may change this season. With all but one November and December non-conference games in the books, Valley schools are in position to dream about an at-large berth — or two.

The MVC has compiled a 73-38 non-conference record (65.8 percent). In 2006 (three at-large bids) and 2007 (two), the MVC compiled non-conference winning percentages of 70 percent or better. Since then, the non-conference win percentage slipped under 65 percent in 2008 (64.8), 2009 (61.6) and 2011 (61.1). BracketBusters games in late February remain.

In addition to quantity, the MVC is notching some quality wins. Valley schools were 11-13 against schools from the six BCS-football conferences and 15-15 in all road games. Last season, the MVC went 11-22 against BCS schools and 8-31 in non-conference road games.

MVC play begins Wednesday. Here is how the MVC got here, and what you might see from now until March:

Best MVC wins

1. Indiana State 61, No. 25 Vanderbilt 55 — Sycamores coach Greg Lansing looks smart for taking his team on the road. Cross your fingers that Vandy, owners of one of the nation's toughest schedules, lives up to its reputation.

2. Wichita State 89, No. 18 UNLV 70 — The Shockers manhandle a team that beat then-No. 1 North Carolina and then-No. 19 Illinois.

3. Creighton 85, San Diego State 83 — Another good road win, one that put the Bluejays in the national rankings.

Worst losses

1. Ohio Dominican 64, Southern Illinois 63 — An NCAA Division II school embarrasses the Salukis at SIU Arena.

2. Tennessee Tech 72, Evansville 70 — Bad loss at home for the Purple Aces.

3. Temple 78, Wichita State 74 (OT) —There's nothing wrong with losing to the Owls. But the Shockers were so close to grabbing a nice win that the pain lingers. WSU learned a lesson — it hasn't lost since.

Best efforts

1. Wichita State guard Joe Ragland made 8 of 9 three-pointers and scored 31 points in a win over UNLV. Add five rebounds, three assists, one steal and no turnovers in 35 minutes and you've got a gem.

2. Creighton forward Doug McDermott carried the Bluejays with 25 points and 12 rebounds at San Diego State.

3. McDermott makes it hard to choose — perhaps you like 35 points (16 of 23 shots) and seven rebounds at Tulsa. The Golden Hurricane declined to double-team him and learned a lesson.

4. Northern Iowa guard Anthony James made 11 of 18 shots and scored 28 points in a win over Colorado State. He also grabbed eight rebounds, showing he isn't just a scorer this season.

5. Bradley guard Walt Lemon Jr. made the winning three-pointer and blocked a last-second shot to preserve a 67-66 decision at George Washington. Lemon finished with 22 points, three rebounds and three steals.

Three disturbing trends

1. Southern Illinois' slide continues. The Salukis can't score and can't keep players healthy or away from off-the-court problems. Once the MVC's premier program, the Salukis are in the dog house.

2. Evansville fans probably didn't spend much time lamenting the departures of centers Pieter van Tongeren and Clint Hopf. Without those big bodies, the Aces rank last in the MVC in points allowed (73.7), shooting defense (allowing 47 percent) and rebound margin (minus-7.9).

3. Illinois State is 8-3, yet ranks below 200 in the power rankings (RPI). The Redbirds, despite playing Rutgers and Illinois, face one of the nation's worst non-conference schedules.

Three encouraging trends

1. Two new coaches appear to be on the right track. Bradley is competitive under Geno Ford , as Thursday's 77-66 loss at No. 20 Michigan proved. So is Missouri State and Paul Lusk . The Bears won three road games and pushed West Virginia to overtime on Thursday in Las Vegas. Both teams endured significant player turnover, in addition to the coaching change. Neither appear to be pushovers, which bodes well for the future.

2. Northern Iowa can't be an easy place for a coach to win — it didn't finish higher than a tie for fourth in its first 12 seasons as an MVC member. Coach Ben Jacobson knows the formula. The Panthers are one of the MVC's best programs and are showing their success in 2009 and 2010 wasn't a fluke.

3. McDermott is backing up his freshman season and a summer playing for Team USA in the under-19 World Championships. He is a star who will attract national attention and that's something the MVC often lacks.

New faces to watch

1. Creighton guard Grant Gibbs is a do-everything transfer from Gonzaga. He leads the MVC in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.3). He leads the Bluejays in assists (59) and steals (17).

2. Wichita State forward Carl Hall rebounds ferociously and gives the Shockers a scorer in the lane to go with Garrett Stutz.

3. Northern Iowa center Seth Tuttle , a freshman, makes 67.9 percent of his shots and averages 5.2 rebounds.

4. Illinois State needed scoring and ball-handling. Junior transfer Tyler Brown can score (12.7 points, 48.3 percent from three-point range) and freshman guard Nic Moore ranks fifth in the MVC with an average of 3.8 assists.

5. Missouri State guard Michael Bizoukas , a senior transfer from DePaul, averages 6.5 assists. Atchison native Anthony Downing , a junior, gives the Bears a scorer (9.3 points) off the bench.

returners rising

1. Lemon didn't make a three-pointer in MVC play as a freshman. As a sophomore, he is starting at point guard, where he averages 12.4 points and shooting 41.2 percent from behind the arc. Lemon made 3 of 5 threes and scored 16 points in Thursday's loss at No. 20 Michigan.

2. Missouri State center Caleb Patterson isn't rebounding as well as a 7-footer should, but he can score. Patterson averaged 5.5 points last season. This season, he is up to 12.9 with more playing time. He scored 18 in Thursday's loss to West Virginia.

3. Northern Iowa guard Marc Sonnen shot miserably as a sophomore (32 percent) after a solid freshman season. Whatever ailed him is fixed. Sonnen is shooting 45.8 percent from the field and 40.5 percent from three-point range. He scored in double figures six times, one more than in his two previous seasons.

4. An elbow injury limited Drake forward Jordan Clarke to 19 games as a sophomore. Now healthy, he is averaging 8.2 points and 7.6 rebounds. He is shooting 55 percent from the floor, up from 38.9 last season.

5. Wichita State senior David Kyles has 30 assists in 11 games after totaling 50 in 37 as a junior. He also averages 4.5 rebounds, almost double his career average.

Power surge

The MVC's power rating (RPI) is also strong enough to produce an at-large bid. Four MVC schools are in the top 50 (according to collegerpi.com) and five are in the top 100. The MVC ranks No. 8 among the nation's 32 conferences, compared to last season's No. 12 ranking. Danger does exist, however, because three MVC schools rank 200 or below. A loss to those schools is a black mark on an NCAA resume.

RPI rank (as of Friday)

No. 5 Northern Iowa (10-2)

No. 15 Creighton (10-1)

No. 29 Wichita State (9-2)

No. 47 Indiana State (9-2)

No. 99 Drake (7-4)

No. 118 Missouri State (7-5)

No. 188 Bradley (5-7)

No. 207 Illinois State (8-3)

No. 239 Evansville (5-5)

No. 328 Southern Illinois (3-7)

Reshuffling the deck

Picking the MVC after two months of play:

1. Creighton (1st in preseason poll)

2. Wichita State (2nd)

3. Northern Iowa (4th)

4. Indiana State (3rd)

5. Missouri State (6th)

6. Illinois State (8th)

7. Bradley (10th)

8. Drake (7th)

9. Evansville (5th)

10. Southern Illinois (9th)

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