Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball play begins Wednesday with four games. Wichita State starts on Thursday against Drake at Koch Arena (1 p.m.).
After two months of non-conference play, here’s where we are:
1. Wichita State (6-5, RPI No. 54) — WSU might not go 18-0 or 17-1 (as the past two seasons), but the Shockers are the deepest team in the MVC. The Valley’s best backcourt should produce a third consecutive MVC title. One bothersome stat: Opponents are outscoring WSU by 10 points at the line, and that’s after the Shockers made a school-record 44 against Nevada. Losses to Alabama, Iowa and Seton Hall created a lot of that disparity. Maybe it’s inconsistent officiating; maybe’s it’s something to watch.
2. Northern Iowa (8-5, 53) — The Panthers are one of the nation’s best shooting teams, which means they will be tough at home. The recent improvement of sophomore forward Klint Carlson is a potentially important development. UNI needs more production from its big men. Wins over North Carolina and Iowa State stamp UNI as WSU’s top challenger.
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3. Evansville (11-2, 76) — The Aces are a smooth-running offensive machine, although a strength of schedule ranked No. 243 and five wins over teams ranked 201 or lower is troubling. Guard D.J. Balentine is one of the nation’s most efficient scorers and center Egidijius Mockevicius leads the nation with an average of 13.8 rebounds. F Mislav Brzoja is shooting 48 percent from three-point range and cutting down on turnovers. Depth, however, remains a question.
4. Illinois State (6-7, 164) — Picking the MVC gets difficult here, as every remaining team comes with red flags. The Redbirds can’t shoot (40.6 percent) and can’t handle the ball (0.9 assist-to-turnover ratio). The hope is they can regroup from playing a tough schedule and get organized again. The talent is there, but players such as DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and Paris Lee must play better.
5 Southern Illinois (11-2, 115) — SIU is the MVC’s biggest surprise, one win away from matching last season’s total after being picked ninth in the preseason poll. It would help if SIU can keep winning, because it has a legit chance to move into the top 100. Guard Anthony Beane is a star and forward Sean O’Brien averages 13.8 points and 6.7 rebounds, both up from a disappointing sophomore season.
6. Loyola (7-5, 224) — The Ramblers beat Creighton, a contribution that makes the rest of the MVC happy. Losses to Toledo, North Carolina-Asheville and Cleveland State spoiled the rest of the non-conference season. The return of forward Montel James, who missed three games with a back injury, may help some offensive issues. James averaged 17.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in wins over Illinois-Chicago and Western Illinois.
7. Indiana State (6-6, 186) — Scoring is a problem for the Sycamores, who are shooting 40.6 percent from the field and being beaten at the foul line. Forward Matt Van Scyoc, a transfer from The Citadel, averages 9.8 points. Defenses can focus on Indiana State’s guards because sophomore Brandon Murphy and freshman Emondre Rickman aren’t scoring threats in the lane.
8. Drake (5-7, 283) — Reed Timmer, Kale Abrahamson and Graham Wood scored 584 of Drake’s 891 points. All three are shooting 39 percent or better from three-point range. Defense is a problem, but the Bulldogs are going to get hot against somebody and cause problems.
9. Missouri State (4-8, 238) — The Bears showed promise with wins over Oklahoma State and Oral Roberts before flopping against winless Southeast Missouri State at home. It is hard to win shooting 27.4 percent from three-point range.
10. Bradley (2-11, 281) — Freshmen scored 583 of Bradley’s 742 points.
G Balentine — leads MVC in scoring (21.7 points) and second in assists (5.0).
G Beane — averages 20.5 points, shooting 43.2 percent from three-point range.
G Wes Washpun, Northern Iowa — leads MVC in assists (6.3) while averaging 15.8 points and 4.6 rebounds.
G Ron Baker, Wichita State — kept the Shockers from collapsing while Fred VanVleet got healthy.
C Mockevicius — averages 18.0 points, 13.8 rebounds, 2.8 blocks
Top three stories to watch
1. Can Evansville contend for a title?
The combination of Balentine and Big Mock should make the Aces a real threat for the first time since 1999. Brzoja and guard Jaylon Brown score enough to pull defenses off the two stars and forward Adam Wing is a tough guy who rarely makes mistakes. It’s not clear if the Aces possess the depth to make a serious run at WSU and Northern Iowa, especially in the front court. Willie Wiley, David Howard and Sergej Vucetic are not playing large roles in relief of Mockevicius.
The Aces are 6-12 in MVC road games the past two seasons. Until they turn that around, they will remain a mid-level MVC team.
2. Are the Salukis for real?
SIU played a soft schedule (No. 286 by warrennolan.com) and lost two games to teams ranked 201 or lower. At a minimum, SIU should be dangerous at home with Beane capable of taking over a game. A lack of inside scoring might derail the Salukis over the long run. Regardless, SIU is one of the key MVC programs and reviving SIU Arena is important.
3. Will the MVC produce an at-large team?
Wichita State has little margin for error, but the Shockers are in solid shape. UNI owns two chips (wins over North Carolina and Iowa State) that will help plenty in March. Like WSU, however, the Panthers need to avoid bad losses. It will help everybody if Evansville and SIU win the right combination of games to bump up their RPI.
Five big games in January
Jan. 2 — Northern Iowa at Southern Illinois. If the Salukis are legit, this is their chance to let everybody know.
Jan. 6 — Evansville at Wichita State. The Shockers have seen the Aces motion offense so many times, they guard it well. They held Evansville below 60 points the past three meetings. However, there are new faces stepping into key defensive roles. Who gets to chase Balentine through 2,745 screens?
Jan. 15 — Evansville at Illinois State. A chance for the Redbirds to remind us why they were picked second.
Jan. 20 — Wichita State at Northern Iowa. The Panthers are the only MVC team to beat WSU in the regular season the past two.
Jan. 31 — Wichita State at Evansville. Since losing at Evansville in 2013, the Shockers won by 16 and 20 points at the Ford Center.