PLAYER OF THE YEAR RACE
When January 2006 ended, Wichita State senior center Paul Miller did not figure into the discussion for Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. Players such as Northern Iowa's Grant Stout and Ben Jacobson and Missouri State's Blake Ahearn beat him to Player of the Week honors, and WSU ended the month with a 7-3 record.
Within a month, Miller carried WSU to the top of the MVC and became the clear choice for Player of the Year. He started his campaign with 30 points in an overtime win over defending champion Southern Illinois on Feb. 4 and provided the foundation for WSU's final push. The Shockers won six of seven MVC games that month to sweep past a pack of teams and win the conference by two games.
As February 2011 starts, WSU senior center J.T. Durley is not a part of the Player of the Year discussion.
Missouri State forward Kyle Weems started as the front-runner and is living up to that billing. Northern Iowa guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe is coming fast. Durley, like Miller, has a chance to pass them if he can keep the Shockers in first place and continue to add defense and rebounding to his usual scoring numbers. He is coming from way behind. As Miller showed, however, it's possible to make up a lot of ground in a month.
For now, it's between Weems and Ahelegbe, and it's hard to choose.
Weems, a junior from Topeka, is the MVC's best go-to scorer. Entering Wednesday's game at Evansville, he averaged 16.5 points on 53.6-percent shooting, and 6.9 rebounds. He is the only player to rank in the top five in all three categories.
"He's scoring a variety of ways," Bradley coach Jim Les said. "He's a guy in late-game situations that wants the ball."
Ahelegbe's emergence coincides with a seven-game win streak (entering Wednesday's game against Illinois State) that boosted Northern Iowa back in the MVC race. In those games, he averaged 16.3 points while making 10 of 21 three-pointers. He had 27 assists (with 13 turnovers) in that span. Creighton coach Greg McDermott called him the MVC's best _ "and it's not even close" _ in the Omaha World-Herald after a 71-66 loss to the Panthers.
"I'm partial to guards," Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. "Kwadzo has got the ball in his hands a lot, and he facilitates about everything they do. At the other end, he's going to defend and he's going to lead."
* Better defense tops the list of needed improvements for Indiana State. Opponents shot better than the Sycamores in each of the past four games, and the gap is growing. Creighton shot 46.8 percent in its win on Saturday. Wichita State made 53.8 percent of its shots (to 36.4 percent for Indiana State) in Tuesday's 70-54 win in Terre Haute. "We're not being very well-coached right now, and that's got to change," Lansing said. "We haven't gotten better like we need to. They're a lot better than us right now, and that is 100 percent on me."
* One of Indiana State's issues it working Dwayne Lathan into the rotation. He is probably the team's most talented one-on-one scorer, and he led the Sycamores in scoring before a concussion cost him three games. He's struggled to fit in since. Lathan played nine minutes against WSU and missed four of his five shots, often going outside the offense.
* There's relief in Peoria after Bradley defeated Creighton 69-61 on Tuesday to end an 11-game losing streak. "They made all the plays down the stretch: the hustle plays, (getting) the 50-50 balls and stepping to the line," Bradley coach Jim Les said of his players. "I'm really proud of their attitude and how they stuck together through this whole thing." Les, guard Andrew Warren and Creighton assistant Steve Lutz exchanged harsh words near the end of the game, following a play in which Warren was knocked to the floor. "I walked over and see how (Warren) was doing and their assistant coach was yelling at me," Les said in the Peoria Journal-Star. "I didn't really understand what he was saying. But I didn't appreciate him coming at me in the manner he was. When we walked through the (postgame handshaking) line, I told him I didn't appreciate him addressing me like that at halfcourt in the midst of a game. That left a little to be desired on his part."
* Creighton coach Greg McDermott had his own issues with the game in Peoria. Bradley officials moved the start time up four hours to 3 p.m. to avoid the blizzard. McDermott said Bradley told him of the change at 9 a.m. "There's bad weather all over the Midwest, and there was one game moved forward on game day," he told the Omaha World-Herald. "The communication to us was ridiculous. Game day is all about routine. We were not allowed to have a routine today, and I'm very disappointed in the way that it was handled.''
* While the MVC men languish in 12th place in conference power ratings, the MVC women moved up to No. 8 this week. It is the highest rank this season for the women, who are No. 10 in schedule strength.
* The Northern Iowa women lead the MVC with an 8-1 record, but face a tough road trip this weekend. The Panthers play at Wichita State on Friday and at Missouri State on Sunday. Creighton, tied with Missouri State in second at 7-2, faces 0-9 Southern Illinois tonight and 2-7 Evansville on Saturday, both in Omaha.
What to watch
Indiana State at Missouri State, 2:05 p.m., Saturday _ A four-game losing streak knocked the scrappy Sycamores out of the MVC race. Now that the pressure is off, perhaps they are capable of regaining the chemistry that helped them to wins over Northern Iowa and Missouri State.
Keep an eye on
Creighton is dominating the Newcomer of the Week awards for the men and women. Freshman forward Doug McDermott won it for the seventh time after averaging 20.5 points and 8.0 rebounds against Northern Iowa and Indiana State. He's not just the best freshman in the MVC, he's one of the best players. Freshman guard Carli Tritz won the women's award for the sixth time this season after averaging 16.5 points and 6.0 assists in wins over Missouri State and WSU.
In their words
"This is a huge setback. When you're playing the worst team in the league and you can't close out, it hurts."
_ Creighton senior Kaleb Korver, in the Omaha World-Herald, after a loss to Bradley on Tuesday