No. 19 Wichita State at Illinois State
When Missouri Valley Conference play started in late December, the race for Player of the Year appeared finished.
Creighton forward Doug McDermott played his way into national player of the year consideration with fabulous non-conference performances. If competitors existed for the conference honor, they ranked a distant second.
Perhaps predictably, the rush to judgment proved flawed. McDermott remains the favorite, but Wichita State center Garrett Stutz is very much on the minds of voters. So is guard Joe Ragland.
“You take about 10 of Wichita State’s guys,” Indiana State coach Greg Lansing said. “It’s going to be a tough call.”
No. 19 WSU (24-4, 14-2 MVC) plays at Illinois State (17-11, 8-8) Wednesday night with a chance to wrap up the Valley title outright after already clinching the top seed in next week’s MVC Tournament. Illinois State is in fourth place, but hasn’t yet secured its tournament seed. It is trying to avoid falling into the bottom four spots, which means a March 1 play-in game in St. Louis.
For Stutz and Ragland, it’s another chance to win and play well, both of which matter to the 40 voters (coaches, two media members who cover a school and sports information directors). Voters can’t select players from the team they are associated with.
In most seasons, the Player of the Year trophy, named for Larry Bird, goes to the top player from the championship team. This season, McDermott’s superb offensive numbers may win out. He continued to perform in MVC play, but WSU’s success is forcing voters to study the matter. Drake coach Mark Phelps said his staff discussed the voting recently.
“Everyone understands the terrific year Doug is having,” Phelps said. “No question, (Stutz) has moved into the picture. Garrett is playing terrific basketball. Based on Wichita State’s success, it has to be a consideration.”
WSU coach Gregg Marshall will let voters decide between Stutz and Ragland. He knows two candidates potentially splits the vote for the conference honors.
“It’s hard,” he said. “They both should be first-team all-league.”
McDermott, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, bases his candidacy on a season full of highlights, including 25 points and 12 rebounds at San Diego State, 35 points at Tulsa, 44 at Bradley and 36 in Saturday’s win over Long Beach State. Entering Tuesday’s game against Evansville, he ranked third nationally in scoring (23.2 points) and seventh in shooting accuracy (61.7 percent). He is second in the MVC in rebounds (8.3) and first in three-point percentage (48.9).
“Doug’s had a fantastic year,” Marshall said. “It just depends on whether you think the team that is the No. 1 seed and wins the regular season deserves the most valuable player. It comes down to that.
He earned MVC player of the week honors for a fifth time Monday, most since Bradley’s Hersey Hawkins won it six times in 1987-88.
It took Stutz longer to enter the picture after averaging 10.7 points and 6.5 rebounds in non-conference games. Eight of his 10 double-doubles are in MVC games. A stretch of four consecutive 20-plus scoring games starting in late January moved him closer to McDermott. Stutz, a 7-foot senior, averages 17 points and 9.1 rebounds while making 60.4 percent of his shots in conference play.
Ragland, a 6-foot senior, is a favorite of coaches who know how a point guard controls a team. He averages 13.7 points and is shooting 56.6 percent from the field and 47.5 percent from three-point range while ranking seventh in the MVC in assist-to-turnover ratio at 1.8. His scoring gives WSU an offensive option few teams can match, as his performances against UNLV (31 points), at Creighton (24) and at Davidson (30) show.
“He’s so tough,” Lansing said. “He plays both ends and he’s a leader in the right ways on the floor, with some emotion and some toughness and getting his guys on the same page.”
McDermott’s numbers are often compared to former Creighton star Kyle Korver, who is the most recent Player of the Year not from the MVC champion. Korver won the award in 2003, when the Bluejays finished 15-3 in the MVC, one game behind Southern Illinois.
“You’ve still got to reward the team — if there’s an MVP, it’s Wichita’s team,” SIU coach Chris Lowery said. “They’ve met every challenge. That’s what makes what Wichita has done so special. They have several guys you could consider for player of the year.”