Last week was a good one for Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball.
We haven't been able to say that much this season, so let's give the Valley credit. MVC schools went 12-1 last week. They closed out the pre-Christmas schedule with a 26-5 burst.
It's probably too little, too late. A few name wins in December can't erase damage done previously.
Northern Iowa did the most good for the Valley's pride by defeating Indiana and New Mexico in Las Vegas. Beating Indiana means a whole lot less than it used to; New Mexico was picked third in the Mountain West Conference. If nothing else, the Panthers showed they're not going to slip out of sight after winning back-to-back MVC titles. Wichita State slipped past LSU — and promptly watched LSU lose by 20 points at home to North Texas.
Conference play begins Wednesday. Questions that should be on your mind:
* How is the addition of Rutgers transfer Greg Echenique helping Creighton?
The Bluejays are 3-0 with Echenique, a 6-foot-9 center, eligible. However, the wins are over Idaho State, Western Illinois and Samford, all at home. He is playing 19.7 minutes a game and averaging 11.3 points and 4.0 rebounds.
Echenique is strictly an inside bruiser. He gets the ball in the lane and gets fouled — his 27 free throws already rank third on the team. His seven blocked shots already equal center Kenny Lawson's total.
The Bluejays are 8-4 and suffered all four losses without Echenique.
* Who owns the MVC's best victory?
Evansville won at Butler, which looks better due to a recent hot streak by the Bulldogs. Butler is No. 22 in Jerry Palm's RPI ranking. Next is Bradley's win over No. 52 Southern Cal.
* Can Wichita State do something ridiculous like go 17-1 in the MVC?
No. The Shockers remain the favorite, but expecting them to cruise though the MVC is unrealistic. Since the current 10-team configuration begin in 1996-97, three teams went 16-2 or 17-1 in the round-robin schedule. Illinois State went 16-2 in 1998. Southern Illinois went 16-2 in 2003 and 17-1 a season later.
Close races are the norm. Since 1996-97, 10 champions won the MVC by two games or fewer.
* Who is WSU's biggest challenger?
Three teams deserve mention, and they are no surprise — Creighton, Northern Iowa and Missouri State.
* Who enters conference play as the MVC's best player?
Missouri State forward Kyle Weems is the only one in the top five for scoring (17.1 points) and rebounds (7.0). Keep an eye on Indiana State's Dwayne Lathan, who is averaging 19.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in his past three games.
* With all the talk about scheduling, isn't a lack of talent the bigger issue in the MVC?
Consider this: In the 2005-06 season, the All-MVC team featured three players with NBA experience — Missouri State's Blake Ahearn, Bradley's Patrick O'Bryant and Creighton's Anthony Tolliver. Ahearn and Tolliver repeated in 2006-07.
Since then — nothing. Sure, schedules are always important. They are less of a problem when teams are talented enough to win games, no matter the location or opponent. Scheduling problems don't explain losses to Dartmouth, Eastern Kentucky and Eastern Illinois.
* Who is the MVC's most unpredictable team?
Wyoming embarrassed Indiana State 81-51 on Dec. 4. Four days later, the Sycamores routed DePaul 73-51.
* Can anybody challenge Creighton's Doug McDermott for Freshman of the Year?
No. McDermott, son of coach Greg McDermott, averages 12.6 points and 6.3 rebounds, Drake guard Rayvonte Rice is the only freshman in the same zip code. He averages 13.6 points, but is not nearly as efficient as McDermott.
Holiday helper — Track and field coach Steve Rainbolt starts a new session of Shocker Fitness on Jan. 3.
The session runs until March 11. Workouts are held at 5:45 a.m., 6:45 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Cost is $45 for 30 sessions.
For information call 316-978-5543.