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Bob Lutz: The Valley looks good ... and bad

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011, at 3:35 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, Dec. 28, 2011, at 7:28 a.m.

I like a lot of what I see at the top of the Missouri Valley Conference basketball standings. Creighton, Northern Iowa, Wichita State and Indiana State are a combined 38-7 and all have some nice non- conference wins. Creighton is ranked No. 21. The Valley is gloating, and with good reason. The top of the league looks healthy.

But for those who believe a conference is only as healthy as its weakest link, there could be trouble to report. There are legitimate concerns about just how weak the weakest links are.

Can Southern Illinois, Bradley, Evansville, Missouri State, Drake and Illinois State compete with the Big Four? Is there another team in that mix capable of surprising?

Missouri State, perhaps? They Bears do have one of the best players in the league in senior Kyle Weems. And they have had a better start to the season than their 7-5 record suggests.

Illinois State? Sorry, don't see it. The Redbirds steadfastly and stubbornly refuse to upgrade their non-conference schedule. So don't be fooled by 8-3.

Drake? You tell me.

I think Bradley, Wichita State's opponent tonight in Peoria, Ill., as Valley play begins, is getting better under new coach Geno Ford, but that's a rebuilding project he's dealing with. It'll take a while.

Too bad the bottom isn't stronger, because I do like the top of the Valley.

Indiana State is coming off an NCAA Tournament bid and is going to be difficult for everyone. If there has been an over-achiever so far, it's Northern Iowa. The Panthers, though, are coming off a 17-point home loss to Ohio, so you wonder if one of the Big Four is to fall back to the back whether it will be UNI.

Creighton is solid for the long haul with an outstanding coach, Gregg McDermott, whose greatest attribute might be the kid he helped raise, Doug, a sophomore forward who is already one of the best players in the country.

That's high praise, but 25.4 points and 8.3 rebounds give my assertion clout.

Creighton has no apparent weakness, unless you want to nit-pick and point to the Bluejays' 68.5 percent free-throw shooting. But the preseason pick to win the conference has not given anyone a reason to change their mind.

Wichita State has that opportunity Saturday night at Koch Arena, when the Shockers host Creighton in one of the most-anticipated early season showdowns in years. Anticipated, that is, if Creighton and Wichita State can take care of their business tonight. The Bluejays have an interesting home game against Missouri State at the Qwest Center in Omaha. That's not a gimme, nor is the Shockers' road game at Bradley.

The mission of the Missouri Valley Conference is to get more than one team into the NCAA Tournament come March. As of this moment, that looks entirely doable. In fact, one of the mock brackets I saw recently had three Valley teams — Creighton, Wichita State and Northern Iowa — in the 68-team field. Difficult to imagine Indiana State wouldn't at least be knocking at the door under any scenario.

RPIs are in good order at the top of the Valley, but RPIs are subject to change. That's why it is imperative for the bottom half of the MVC to at least hold its collective heads above water and not drown the quality teams.

Northern Iowa (No. 5 RPI according to RealTimeRPI.com), Creighton (14), Wichita State (28) and Indiana State (47) are in good shape. Drake (92) and Missouri State (112) are respectable.

But Bradley (202), Illinois State (213), Evansville (239) and the impossible-to-explain Salukis of Southern Illinois (319 of 344 Division I teams) are not.

No Valley team should be below 200 in the RPI. Ever. And it's especially reflective of Illinois State, whose 8-3 record has come against one of the weakest non-conference schedules in the country.

But the MVC's top four can't worry about that now. Those teams have to win the games they play against the conference's bottom six and beat up on one another. Wichita State, for instance, can't afford a loss to the likes of Southern Illinois, which beat the Shockers at Koch Arena last season.

Two years ago, Wichita State lost a harmful game late in the season at Evansville, which had not won a game previously in the Valley.

In both seasons, the Shockers' borderline NCAA Tournament resume was deemed to be just a little short and those losses to Valley have-nots were undoubtedly a big reason why.

I don't anticipate Wichita State having that kind of an issue this season. It looks like a fun season of Valley hoops, especially at the top. It's up to the lesser teams to improve and make this conference more suspenseful than it looks on the surface.

Check sports columnist Bob Lutz's blog at blogs.kansas.com/lutz. Reach him at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com.

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