With no team in the top 25 and no team with a strong NCAA Tournament at-large resume, the Missouri Valley Conference is farther out of the national spotlight than it’s been in years.
Saturday night presents the MVC with a chance to grab some attention.
Its best teams play on ESPN2. If the eye test matters to fans and members of the NCAA selection committee, Wichita State and Illinois State can state their case against each other at Redbird Arena.
That’s a hope. The reality is quite different and scary for a conference that, in recent seasons, could rely on Creighton, Wichita State and Northern Iowa to intrigue the selection committee when the rest of the conference slumped. Bracket projections by ESPN.com, CBSSports.com and NBCSports.com place the MVC’s entrant as a double-digit seed, a firm member of the one-bid fraternity.
The Shockers, ranked No. 86 in the warrenolan.com RPI, and Redbirds (No. 44) might play a high-level game and look the part of worthy NCAA teams. It might not matter. The only chances to earn quality wins are against each other, and even those results offer little nourishment.
That’s the burden of playing in the MVC, where eight teams are ranked No. 145 or lower in the RPI.
“They are a long way from being at-large teams,” Jerry Palm of CBSSports.com wrote in an e-mail. “I don’t see a realistic scenario where the MVC is a multi-bid league. Playing well never hurts, but if all you have is the eye test, you have nothing. Besides, the eye test is only meaningful against tournament quality opposition.”
With that disheartening backdrop, two teams on a roll will play in a continuation of one of the Valley’s most interesting rivalries. The Redbirds are capable of standing up to WSU, unlike most of their Valley mates, with MVC Tournament wins in 2012 and 2015 and one in Redbird Arena last season.
“I really want to go to the game,” said Loyola coach Porter Moser, whose Ramblers lost to both this season. “It’s two physical, athletic teams going at it.”
And, at least in the mind of Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson, the Shockers and Redbirds are in a different class.
“There’s eight teams under two,” Hinson said.
The Redbirds, as their recent wins over WSU attest, are the Valley team that most closely matches size and athletic ability with WSU. Intermittent success against the Shockers, however, hasn’t translated into MVC titles — which it last won in 1998 — or NCAA Tournament bids — also 1998. Eight wins in the past 10 meetings show the Shockers own edges in other areas, especially experience and continuity.
The Redbirds are gaining in that area. According to kenpom.com, they rank No. 90 nationally in experience with an average of 1.96 seasons in college. WSU is No. 267 at 1.45 seasons.
Illinois State’s roster contains three seniors, all whom started their career at Illinois State, and four others who returned from last season. Senior guard Paris Lee and junior forward MiKyle McIntosh were named to the preseason All-MVC team. Senior forward Deontae Hawkins averages 14.5 points and 6.6 rebounds.
Like the Shockers, Illinois State attacks teams with an array of rangy, athletic players. The Redbirds and their largely man-to-man defense lead the MVC by holding opponents to 58.2 points and 35.4-percent shooting, in conference games. Their past eight opponents shot 33.4 percent from the field.
“They’re all exchangeable moving parts,” Hinson said. “They can all shoot. They can all penetrate. They can all pass. And their greatest attribute, I think, is their athleticism on the boards.”
Lee lives up to his billing as the MVC’s top point guard with averages of 13.2 points, an MVC-leading 5.2 assists, 4.1 rebounds and 2.0 steals. He is shooting 46.7 percent from three-point range.
“He’s the head of the snake,” Hinson said. “You can’t take it away from him. He’s going to to take it away from you. He makes everybody better. He is the glue of that basketball team.”
Wichita State takes the MVC highest-scoring offense (83.4 points) and its most well-rounded group of scorers into Redbird Arena. The Shockers rank second in the MVC in shooting percentage (47.1), second in three-point shooting (38.5), second in foul shooting (72.7) and first in offensive rebounding (grabbing 34.9 percent of available rebounds).
“It’s a lot of dudes working hard,” WSU forward Zach Brown said. “It’s good to know you’ve got so many weapons on your team and you can attack anybody any time.”
The Shockers realize they rest on their offensive gifts at times, such as in the second half of Wednesday’s 87-75 win over Loyola. The Ramblers cut a 19-point second-half lead to four after the Shockers slipped on defense.
“I think a lot of times when we get on offense and blow out the lead, I wouldn’t say the game isn’t as fun, but it is a big gap, so you can do things that you don’t normally do,” WSU guard Daishon Smith said. “I think that allows us to have lapses on defense and miscommunication sometimes.”
Wichita State’s spot in the MVC standings hasn’t changed since 2013. After finishing that season in second, it’s resided in first place, either alone or tied, every week since Jan. 2, 2014.
Wichita State at Illinois State
- When: 7 p.m. Saturday
- Where: Redbird Arena, Normal, Ill
- Records: ISU 13-4, 5-0 MVC: WSU 15-3, 5-0
- Radio: 103.7-FM
- TV: ESPN2
Wichita State at Illinois State
Wichita State (15-3, 5-0 MVC): The Valley’s previous meeting of 5-0 teams happened in 2014, when the Shockers defeated Indiana State 68-48 at Koch Arena. … McDuffie scored a career-high 26 points in Wednesday’s 87-75 win over Loyola. He averages 15.8 points in five MVC games and is shooting 61 percent from the field. He is 21 of 23 from the foul line in his past five games. … C Rauno Nurger leads the MVC in shooting percentage in conference play at 75 percent (15 of 20). … WSU lost last season’s game at Redbird Arena 58-53 after making 6 of 27 three-pointers and getting out-rebounded by 11. In the rematch, WSU won 74-58 after also making 6 of 27 threes. WSU forced 17 turnovers and grabbed 17 offensive rebounds, 11 more than the Redbirds.
Illinois State (13-4, 5-0): The Redbirds bring a six-game win streak into Saturday’s game, their longest since a 7-0 start to the 2009-10 season. … Illinois State leads the MVC in blocks at 4.3 a game. Fayne (1.2) and McIntosh (0.8) rank in the top 10. … McIntosh averages 16.4 points and 7.2 rebounds in MVC games and is 8 of 17 from three-point range. He remains susceptible to foul trouble, drawing four or more in 10 games this season, fouling out once. … F D.J. Clayton averages 6.9 points and started three games. G Keyshawn Evans averages 4.2 points and is 8 of 15 from three-point range. … The Redbirds defeated Southern Illinois on Wednesday 60-53. They held SIU to 5-of-27 shooting in the second half.
RPI rank as of Friday: WSU 86, ISU 44