It took five days for the Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball race to take unexpected turns. That leaves almost two months for it snap back to form — if such a form exists.
Two games in, nobody can be sure.
"Nothing would surprise me in this league," Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. "In my five years here, it's the best it's been."
Simmons' team leads the list for upsetting the conventional wisdom. The Aces (7-5, 2-0 Missouri Valley Conference) are tied for first with Missouri State. Wichita State (10-3, 1-1) isn't leading the conference because it dropped a home game. Neither is preseason favorite Creighton (1-1), the only MVC team to break into the national rankings. Northern Iowa, which spent December in the top 10 of the power rankings (RPI), is in last place after losing both its MVC games.
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WSU can restore some order to the race tonight at Evansville. It won't be easy, judging from Evansville's efforts last week on defense.
The Aces allowed more points than any other MVC team in non-conference play. They gave up 70 or more points seven times. In two MVC games, the Aces morphed into lockdown defenders. Holding Southern Illinois to a poor shooting night in a 78-60 win didn't surprise. Matching that effort at Northern Iowa in Sunday's 76-65 win attracted more attention. In two MVC games, Evansville's opponents are 10 for 42 from three-point range (23.8 percent). In the first 10, Evansville opponents were 76 for 197 (38.5 percent).
The Aces aren't big. As is their habit under Simmons, they impede progress and obstruct shots as well any team with their man-to-man defense. The Shockers, coming off their worst shooting night of the season, must make outside shots because the Aces will sell out to limit shots by center Garrett Stutz and forward Carl Hall.
"They play extremely hard," WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. "They're working to keep the ball out of the post. When it comes into the post, they're double, if not triple, teaming. They're doing that with great attention to detail and fervor."
Simmons says nothing changed in the past week. "We've got more guys buying in and just playing harder," he said. "It's just playing with a little more purpose, a little more effort."
Evansville does miss the height and bulk of departed centers Pieter van Tongeren and Clint Hopf. The team's biggest starter is 6-foot-8 freshman Ryan Sawvell. The Aces can't match WSU's height and physical ability in the lane. While their defense is solid in MVC play, rebounding is an issue. The Aces rank last in the MVC in rebound margin (minus-7.2). WSU is first at plus-8.7.
"It's kind of who we are and how we have had to play," Simmons said. "We feel like we've got a quicker, faster, more athletic team. The glass has been a tough spot for us. We've got to rebound by committee."
The Aces are also playing with purpose on offense. They rank third in the MVC in shooting percentage (49.5) and first in turnover margin (plus 4.0) in MVC games. Evansville is 50 of 63 from the line, meaning it made as many or more free throws than eight MVC teams.
Junior guard Colt Ryan averages 27 points in two MVC games. Against UNI, he scored 29 points, all in the second half, and made 14 of 14 free throws.
"Marty just does a wonderful job, running his motion and getting his shooters shots," Marshall said. "They seem to be a very cohesive, well-oiled machine."