The toughest thing to do in college basketball is to win on the road. That might be more true in the Missouri Valley Conference this season than in most.
While it is too early to make a judgment, conditions are ripe for home dominance. For the first time since 2008-09, Valley schools lost more starters than return. Seven schools lost at least three players with starting experience from 2012-13. It will be a challenge for coaches to prepare inexperienced players for life on the road.
So far, it’s been a disaster for several teams.
The first two rounds of MVC play established a trend of big swings. Home teams went 8-2 with an average margin of victory of 12.3 points, up from 5.5 last season. Drake won 94-66 at home against Evansville and lost 68-57 at Bradley, which lost 80-46 at Northern Iowa in its opener. Loyola opened MVC play with a 70-58 loss at Indiana State before coming home to rout Missouri State 89-57.
Only Wichita State and Indiana State — both loaded with returners from last season — won on the road. It is difficult, if not impossible, to speed up the process of learning how to play on the road. Young players often must learn through painful experience.
“You’ve got to go play some games,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “Then, at some point, you’ve got to break through on the road.”
UNI started the conference schedule with its largest margin of victory in an MVC game. The big win provided little carryover in Sunday’s loss at Wichita State. Not surprisingly, several of UNI’s inexperienced players didn’t play well.
“I don’t know that young guys fully appreciate the importance of every possession,” Jacobson said. “Teams that are really good are really good for a couple reasons and one of them is that they understand the value of every possession. Wichita State doesn’t make mistakes. They play every possession the same, at both ends and in transition.”
Missouri State coach Paul Lusk has four seniors to lean on, but that’s misleading. Keith Pickens is battling chronic injuries. Jarmar Gulley sat out last season with an injury. Nathan Scheer is fighting for playing time and Emmanuel Addo is a transfer. It is not a group heavy on MVC road experience.
“I don’t think our minds were right at Loyola,” Lusk said. “I was very disappointed with our mind-set and our approach to that game.”
Last season, MVC coaches turned to seniors such as Colt Ryan (Evansville), Jackie Carmichael (Illinois State) and Ben Simons (Drake) to lead on the road. This season, home teams will feast on visitors unprepared for the difficulties of road games.
• Drake senior Aaron Hawley, discarded by his old coaching staff, is back in uniform and helping the Bulldogs as a bonus for new coach Ray Giacoletti. Hawley, a 6-foot-8 forward, scored a career-high 27 points against Bradley and is averaging 9.2 points and 3.5 rebounds.
“He’s a guy that’s a product of a second opportunity,” Giacoletti said. “He’s a guy that can really score. He’s really buying into to trying to be a better defender.”
Drake hired Giacoletti in April. Instead of gambling on an unknown recruit, he asked Hawley to return to the team. He fills a need for a year and won’t take up a scholarship in the future.
“Aaron was working out with our guys and somebody brought it to our attention that he had a year left,” Giacoletti said. “It was a win-win for both parties. We couldn’t have found somebody as good as he is at that late date.”
• Southern Illinois took the worst of the winter weather covering the MVC states. After SIU lost at Illinois State on Sunday, snow stopped its bus trip to Carbondale after about 75 miles.
The team spent the night on cots in a church Tuscola, Ill., 175 miles from home. They got home Monday afternoon before leaving Tuesday morning for Chicago and a game at Loyola. They tried to take Amtrak, which shut down service, forcing them back on a bus.
That continued a rough stretch for SIU and coach Barry Hinson. A loss at Murray State inspired Hinson to launch a rant that attracted national attention. His son-in-law died on Christmas and he took a game off to be with his family. Then SIU lost its first two MVC games.
“I don't know if we're keeping things together or not,” Hinson said. “I caused a lot of that with the rant at Murray State and I take full responsibility for that. We're just searching right now. The best Band-Aid is always to win a ballgame.”
• Loyola blasted Missouri State to win its first MVC game after joining the conference last summer. Coach Porter Moser wants to keep the landmark in perspective.
We’ve all been on both sides of those things,” he said. “We’re extremely happy to be on that side of it. We understand we’re not 32 points better than Missouri State by any means. You put it in the bank and you move forward.”
One to watch
In their own words
“For us, it’s all tied to defense. We’ve not shot the three well. That may actually be the understatement of all time. We’ve shot the three really poorly. We’ve not passed the ball well. We play every game with a lot of pressure on our defense.” — Bradley coach Geno Ford