1. Can Illinois State hold off Wichita State and win its first MVC title since 1998?
Daniel Allar, Evansville Courier & Press: I still give Wichita State the slight edge in the MVC race. Despite losing by 14 at Illinois State, the Shockers have a plus-18.2 scoring margin in conference games. Undefeated Illinois State’s average MVC victory margin is 13.9 – which means the Redbirds are slightly more vulnerable to a slip-up versus a team outside the top two.
While both teams should be favored in the rest of their games against everyone else, I think Wichita State will split the series with a home victory. I could see WSU and ISU sharing the regular-season title but if one teams wins it outright, it’ll be the Shockers.
Dave Reynolds, Peoria Journal Star: I think they'll tie with a pair of losses each. The Shockers will win the rematch in Wichita, but I believe each team will lose one more down the stretch. Illinois State showed Wednesday how easily this can happen, escaping last-place Indiana State at home.
Todd Hefferman, The Southern Illinoisan: I think Illinois State will find a way to hold off Wichita State for the MVC title. The Redbirds’ real strength lies in its defense, reminiscent of the Shockers’ best teams.
Wichita State’s depth is uncontested in this league, or any league, really, but the Shockers can only play five at a time. Both have some challenging games late, but I feel like this is Illinois State’s year with its experience and ability to turn defense into offense.
2. Who is on your All-MVC first team and Player of the Year at the halfway point?
Allar: My player of the year is Deontae Hawkins. He’s the leading scorer and rebounder on the first-place team and is shooting efficient percentages similar to teammate Paris Lee – another candidate for POY.
Along with Hawkins, I’d add Lee, Jeremy Morgan (Northern Iowa), Milton Doyle (Loyola) and Darral Willis Jr. (Wichita State) to the All-MVC team.
Reynolds: First teamers at this point would be Teddy (Deontae) Hawkins and Paris Lee of Illinois State, Markis McDuffie of Wichita State, Jeremy Morgan of UNI and Reed Timmer of Drake.
Player of the Year goes to Paris Lee, who leads the Valley in assists, three-pointers made and is second in steals while a top candidate for Defensive Player of the Year. He is the engine that makes Illinois State go.
Hefferman; All-MVC first team is Paris Lee of Illinois State, Deontae Hawkins of Illinois State, Alize Johnson of Missouri State, Markis McDuffie of Wichita State and Landry Shamet of Wichita State.
My player of the year is Hawkins.
With respect to Donte Ingram, who I haven’t seen yet this season, I think Shamet is incredibly efficient for a team that, along with Illinois State, has separated itself from the rest of the league. Milton Doyle could also be a first-team pick. Lee and Shamet are glue guys.
Hawkins has stepped up his game in the first half of the season, and you could pick any of the first teamers except Johnson as a player of the year candidate. All have made significant contributions to contenders.
3. Is Drake the biggest surprise of the season and can the Bulldogs finish in the top half of the standings?
Allar: The Bulldogs are easily the biggest surprise of the MVC considering they had beaten just one Division I team in the non-conference and started league play 5-4.
Although Drake is playing significantly better, I still see the Bulldogs finishing outside the top five, probably sixth or seventh.
Reynolds: Yes, nobody can top what Drake has done so far in a tumultuous season with Ray Giacoletti resigning eight games in. I don't think the Bulldogs can finish in the top half, though.
Honorable mention for most surprising team is Indiana State, which I thought would be a middle-of-the-pack squad. The Sycamores are already done playing the top two, though, so they could be primed for a good finish.
Hefferman: Drake is the biggest surprise of the season, but I just don’t see them in the top half of the standings at the end.
The Bulldogs can defend and rebound, but past T.J. Thomas they just don’t have any real inside scoring threats. Reed Timmer and De’Antae McMurray are nice playmakers who can score at a high level, and Drake is loaded with shooters. They get Bradley twice in the second half, but also play Illinois State, Northern Iowa and Wichita State in their next four games.
In a mixed bag of a conference, a lot of teams can finish 3rd through 7th, and Drake should be one of them. I have a feeling Indiana State will make a run in the second half, but after a 1-8 start, the Sycamores and Evansville look doomed to the play-in games of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Who will be the other two teams? Your guess is as good as mine.