We are at the halfway point of the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball race. Almost without exception, coaches, fans and the media regard the race as a formality. It is Wichita State’s season to win the MVC and load up on post-season awards.
Indiana State, trailing the Shockers by two games, lost its right to argue with Wednesday’s loss at Southern Illinois. The Sycamores desperately need to win Wednesday’s game against the Shockers at the Hulman Center to revive their NCAA Tournament at-large resume. As February starts, there is no reason for the WSU athletic department not to plan on a trophy haul in March.
The MVC’s mid-season awards:• Player of the Year: This is a two-man race between WSU’s Cleanthony Early and WSU’s Fred VanVleet. Early is smoking in Valley play, averaging 16.8 points and shooting 48 percent from the field, 42.3 percent from three-point range and 84.6 percent from the foul line. He leads WSU in rebounds (6.3). Since he is a senior, he will win it and will deserve it if he continues at that pace. MVC coaches lust for VanVleet’s blend of skill and composure. Plenty will vote for him and his time will come.
• Coach of the Year: WSU’s Gregg Marshall is 22-0 and 9-0. Bill Hodges (Indiana State, 1979) and Dick Versace (Bradley, 1986) won the award when their teams went unbeaten in the MVC. Should the Shockers stay on pace, Marshall will win the award for a third straight season, matching Drake’s Maury John (1968-70).
• Freshman of the Year: Loyola’s Milton Doyle, who redshirted last season after transferring from Kansas, is the lone rookie in the top 15 list of scorers. He averages 16 points and 3.3 assists and shoots 46.2 percent from the field. Missouri State’s Austin Ruder is an excellent shooter, Evansville’s Blake Simmons averages 9.1 points and Southern Illinois forward Sean O’Brien averages 5.9 rebounds, but this is a one-man race.
• Newcomer of the Year: Doyle may pull a Doug McDermott and win this, as well. My choice is Northern Iowa sophomore guard Wes Washpun, who is making 58.3 percent of his shots in MVC games and handing out 4.8 assists. He leads the Panthers in assists (79 for the season) and has 19 steals and 18 blocks.
• Defensive Player of the Year: WSU’s Tekele Cotton should become the first Shocker since Jamar Howard in 2003 to win this honor.
• All-MVC: Early, VanVleet, Northern Iowa forward Seth Tuttle, Evansville guard D.J. Balentine, Indiana State guard Jake Odum. Second team: WSU guard Ron Baker, Bradley guard Walt Lemon Jr., Missouri State forward Jarmar Gulley, Southern Illinois guard Desmar Jackson, Drake guard Richard Carter.
Fast breaks• Evansville’s Marty Simmons is coaching the third-youngest team in the nation (according to Ken Pomeroy’s web site). The Aces have .062 seasons of experience and don’t have a senior on the roster. Simmons guided a similar roster through growing pains the previous four seasons. In 2009-10, he started with players such as Colt Ryan, Ned Cox and Troy Taylor and moved the Aces into the upper division of the MVC.
Patience and a slow introduction of concepts is required when working with freshmen and sophomores.
“You’d like to have more upperclassmen,” Simmons said. “It’s learning on the job, learning by experience. Being able to work with them in the summer helped a lot, that was one big change from when Colt and those guys were here.”
Entering Wednesday’s game at Northern Iowa, freshmen and sophomores accounted for 91 percent of Evansville’s scoring, 90 percent of minutes played and 89 percent of the rebounds. Simmons, son of the coach, is the top scorer among true freshmen in the MVC. Sophomore center Egidius Mockevicius leads the MVC by making 60.4 percent of his shots.• Zone defenses are growing in popularity in the MVC, most coaches agree. Illinois State, with size an issue, plays a 2-3 zone and nothing else. Other coaches are playing more zone, likely in response to new rules designed to cut down on physical play by defenders.
“It’s a way to stay away from the hand check and some of the contact that is being called now so you can keep some guys out of foul trouble,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said.
Simmons is one of the coaches who rarely used zone in the past.
“We have a young team and at times our matchups don’t favor us in man, and we feel the zone has really helped us,” he said. “We’ve actually had multiple zones and in the past we had just one.”• Not surprisingly, WSU fans are scooping up tickets to the MVC Tournament. As of the end of the Valley’s early promotional pricing period, Shocker fans accounted for 2,391 of the 5,132 tickets sold. Illinois State is next at 525 with Indiana State at 500. Northern Iowa (356), Bradley (235) and Drake, Evansville, Loyola, Missouri State and Southern Illinois (225) follow. Schools are required to buy 225.
Last year, schools bought 6,929 in the early period, with Creighton fans snapping up 4,000.
If Shocker fans are planning on skipping St. Louis to save up for the NCAA Tournament, it’s not showing up yet. WSU’s sales are up from 1,019 last year.
In their own words
“The biggest factor is the debacle we have going on right now is with college officiating. We just got a memo this week that says it (rules limiting physical play on defense) has changed the game for the better, and I absolutely think that’s a complete political spin and a scam. I’m not upset at the officials. I’m upset at the inconsistency that we have in college officiating. We have officials that night-in and night-out tell me, and we’re sitting here in January, they are confused and still don’t know how to call the game. It just blows my mind.” — Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson.
One to watch
Indiana State at Northern Iowa, 7 p.m. Saturday (ESPN3) — Sycamores can’t look ahead to Wednesday’s game vs. Wichita State. Their margin of error to stay in the race and build their NCAA resume is thin, especially after the loss at SIU.