Missouri Valley Conference postseason honors usually go to the winners. The Coach of the Year is almost always the champion coach. The Player of the Year is usually from one of the top two or three teams.
Freshman of the Year is different. It's about individual production, and that often means the winner plays for a struggling team forced to give freshmen major minutes. In the 24-season history of the award, 13 of the winners played for teams .500 or below in conference games. Only three times has a Freshman of the Year played for the Valley champion.
In most cases, if you're playing freshmen, you're at a disadvantage.
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That is true this season. The leader for Freshman of the Year is Evansville guard Colt Ryan. He is the MVC's top scoring freshman at 14.9 points entering Wednesday's game at Illinois State. He also averages 4.8 rebounds and 3.1 assists.
"Colt has been extremely impressive to me to put up the numbers he's been able to put up," Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said. "It's not like he's a secret. He's the main focus of their offense."
Ryan, while not totally immune to freshmen ups and downs, has largely handled the transition to college basketball. He is learning to score by driving and getting to the free-throw line instead of relying on his jumper.
"He's a competitive kid and he's pretty much accepted every challenge we've thrown at him at every point," Aces coach Marty Simmons said.
Simmons also relies on freshmen Troy Taylor and Ned Cox, both of whom play 20-plus minutes a game. Patience became more important for Simmons this season.
"It's probably unfair, but that's how you do it," he said. "That's such an adjustment."
Drake coach Mark Phelps is also counting on rookies who are facing the biggest physical and mental challenges of their careers. They aren't used to the grind of facing more mature opponents, playing more games and traveling.
Drake forward Ben Simons nearly matched Ryan during non-conference games. He scored 24 points against Iowa State and 20 against South Dakota. Since conference play started, he dropped out of the starting lineup and his minutes are down. In six MVC games, his high is five points. Phelps said Simons isn't the type to get too down.
"It's just a matter of continuing to encourage and help him get into gym and do the work and do things the right way," Phelps said. "It's a physical game in our league. When you don't have success, and maybe it's the result of physical play, the natural thing is to have some doubt."
* Northern Iowa's 6-0 MVC start is its best, but not unusual. Drake and Illinois State started 6-0 in 2007-08. Missouri State is the only current MVC member not to have started 6-0 at least once.
* Teams counting on two wins against Drake might want to reconsider. The Bulldogs won at Southern Illinois last week and rolled over Missouri State 88-77 on Tuesday. Phelps is seeing his team translate improvement in practices to games. Against the Bears, Drake made 13 straight shots to go up 51-29 at halftime. "We kind of struggled a little bit, and now we've got a lot of confidence on the offensive end," guard Ryan Wedel told the Des Moines Register. "We're executing and spreading the floor more and getting open looks."
* Evansville sophomore Bryan Bouchie quit basketball last week to concentrate on improving his health. Bouchie, a transfer from Valparaiso, averaged eight points and 3.3 rebounds in 12 games. He had missed games with the flu this season.
* At least it can't get much tougher for Bradley. After Tuesday's loss at Northern Iowa, the Braves finished a tough road stretch. They lost at Missouri State, Wichita State and UNI, teams that combined for a 43-7 overall record (before Wednesday's Shocker game) and 25-1 at home.
* Southern Illinois' high-scoring exploits came to a halt. The Salukis averaged 76.8 points and made 52 percent of their shots during a six-game win streak. Entering Wednesday's game at Creighton, they had lost three straight and averaged 58.3 points.
What to watch
Wichita State at Creighton, 4 p.m., Saturday (ESPN2, Ch. 33) _ Can Gregg Marshall become the first WSU coach since Mike Cohen to win in Omaha?
Keep an eye on
Drake is going with a small lineup and it looks like a genius move, thanks in large part to senior forward Adam Templeton. At 6-foot-5, he is winning a lot of battles against bigger players with hard work and outside shooting. Last week, he averaged 15.5 points and 9.5 rebounds. He torched Southern Illinois for a career-high 22 points and 13 rebounds on Saturday. Tuesday, he helped the Bulldogs knock off Missouri State with 16 points and five rebounds.
In their words
"They've established themselves as the team to beat. If they stay healthy... it will be very tough for anyone to catch them if they continue down this path. They are a very, very difficult team to play in so many ways. I think they deserve to be a top 25 team,"
_ Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich, on Northern Iowa