Wichita State Shockers

Paul Suellentrop's Missouri Valley Conference report

Play to avoid play-in

Northern Iowa didn't leave room for much suspense in the MVC race. In retrospect, the Panthers wrapped it up in mid-January by winning road games against Creighton, Southern Illinois and Illinois State. By early February, closest contender Wichita State faded.

That leaves the Valley's second race to provide the drama _ the race to avoid the March 4 play-in games at the MVC Tournament.

"We'd like to avoid that Day 1, for sure," Drake coach Mark Phelps said. "We haven't used it as a target up on the board. The important thing is to build momentum and play good basketball."

The first day of the tournament is as dreary as dreary gets. The bottom four seeds square off in a mostly empty Scottrade Center. Two sets of seniors will end their careers. Even the winners aren't thrilled _ they're usually wrapping up a disappointing season and know their stay in St. Louis ends soon. The winners are red meat for higher seeds. The losers never feel a part of the proceedings.

Last-place Evansville is locked into the play-in round. Then there's a pack of teams scrambling to get to nine wins and hope the tiebreakers go in their favor.

Ninth-place Southern Illinois (6-10) is in danger of playing on the first day for the first time since 1998. SIU plays Creighton at home and at Wichita State to finish the MVC schedule. Eighth-place Drake, which defeated SIU on Tuesday, is one game ahead of the Salukis. The Bulldogs travel to Missouri State and finish the regular season at home against Evansville.

Indiana State, Bradley, Creighton and Missouri State are also trying to work their way out of the first day. As of Monday, 32,768 seeding scenarios existed. For those teams in the bottom half of the standings, most of them are bad.

Fast breaks

* Northern Iowa broke out of a shooting slump to hammer Creighton 70-52 on Tuesday. That might be bad news for the rest of the MVC heading into St. Louis. The Panthers kept winning even while their outside shooting slumped. Tuesday, the Panthers made 13 of 27 threes. Before Tuesday, UNI shot 30.3 percent from three-point range in 15 MVC games.

* UNI center Jordan Eglseder serves two more games as a part of his suspension for drinking and driving. Junior Lucas O'Rear started in his place. Eglseder is practicing with the team.

* Creighton coach Dana Altman made P'Allen Stinnett's suspension permanent for this season. Stinnett's future in Omaha is unclear. "I haven't really thought that far ahead," Altman said. "We'll see how the rest of the year goes."

* Some of Creighton's treasured streaks are in danger. The Blue jays (13-14, 8-8 MVC) have won 20 or more games 11 straight seasons. Their postseason (NCAA or NIT) streak is 12 seasons. Creighton has won 10 or more MVC games 13 straight seasons.

What to watch

Old Dominion at Northern Iowa, 6:05 p.m. Friday (ESPN2, Ch. 33) _ The Panthers can help the MVC and help their seed with a win over the Colonial Athletic Association co-leader. Old Dominion owns a win at Georgetown.

Keep an eye on

Illinois State guard Osiris Eldridge hasn't played as well as expected. Turns out, there may be a good reason. He revealed a hip injury, in the Bloomington (Ill.) Pantagraph, that is a factor. Eldridge, the preseason MVC Player of the Year, averages 15.7 points and 3.8 rebounds. He is shooting 40.9 percent from the field and 36.1 percent from three-point range. Entering Wednesday's game against Missouri State, he was shooting 35.7 percent from the field and averaging 13.6 points in MVC games.

In their words

"The team this year has set a completely new standard at the University of Northern Iowa, and that's great to see."

_ Former UNI coach Eldon Miller after the Panthers clinched the outright MVC title, giving them a share of two straight championships.