While everyone was paying attention to the drama atop the men's basketball standings, Evansville made a move to vacate the lowest level.
Evansville, 5-5 after Wednesday's win over Indiana State, already surpassed last season's MVC win total of three (the same amount the Aces won in 2008). The Aces also beat Indiana State at home. They won at Illinois State, matching last season's road win in MVC play.
Evansville isn't ready to challenge the leaders. It almost certainly won't finish last (as it did in 2008 and 2010). It might avoid the play-in round of the MVC Tournament. An upper-division finish isn't unthinkable.
Coach Marty Simmons credits a win at Butler _ last season's NCAA runnerup _ with showing his team how to win on the road.
"These guys have been pretty confident most of the year, and it's because they work hard," Simmons said. "Then you have to have guys step up and make plays."
Even with the steady rise, nothing comes easy for Evansville, the MVC's smallest school. With a private-school budget and academics, the Aces are often fighting uphill. There is a reason Evansville, a school with a tremendous basketball heritage, hasn't finished higher than fifth since 1999.
We have to play extremely hard each and every night in this league to have chance," Simmons said. "Our margin for error is not the same as some of the opponents we're going to play. It's daily maintenance on confidence."
The Aces returned seven of their top eight scorers from last season. The addition of juco transfer Kenneth Harris, a 6-foot-6 forward, helps. Despite playing as an undersized power forward, Harris averages 10 points and 7.2 rebounds and 1.2 steals.
"He's done anything and everything we've asked him to do," Simmons said. "He rebounds for us. He pushes the ball in transition. He defends. He ties everything together for us."
* BracketBusters TV games are announced at 5:30 p.m. Monday (ESPNU, Ch. 244). Non-televised games will be announced Monday night or Tuesday morning. MVC coaches in line for a good matchup profess not to pay much attention to possible opponents. "It's not a concern of mine at all," MSU coach Cuonzo Martin said. "We know we'll be on the road."
* In early January, Northern Iowa's issue seemed easy to diagnose. The Panthers couldn't score. They won at Illinois State 46-44 on Jan. 12 and failed to break 60 points in five of their first seven MVC games. That is no longer the book on UNI. With Wednesday's win over Creighton, UNI scored 69 or more points in four straight games. Coach Ben Jacobson said guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe is playing the best basketball of his career in those games. "He's creating a lot of opportunities," Jacobson said. "He's scoring it when he should be. He's having a lot of fun doing it." Ahelegbe, a senior, averaged 21 points in wins over Southern Illinois, Wichita State, Drake and Creighton.
* First-place Missouri State is 4-1 in conference games decided by three or fewer points after Tuesday's 73-70 win at Drake. Its last three games (one a loss) were decided by a total of five points.
* Before WSU's triple-overtime win over Indiana State on Saturday, no MVC team played that long since 1990. Northern Iowa defeated Illinois-Chicago 99-94 in three overtimes that season.
What to watch
Northern Iowa at Missouri State, 7 p.m. Sunday (ESPNU, Ch. 244) _ Missouri State outrebounded Northern Iowa 38-27 in the first meeting. The Bears needed a last-second three-pointer by Kyle Weems to win 58-57.
Keep an eye on
Creighton freshman forward Doug McDermott recorded his fifth double-double with 15 points and 11 rebounds on Saturday against Missouri State. He is the only Creighton freshman with a double-double in the past 20 years. Last week, he led Creighton with averages of 16 points and 10.5 points.
In their words
"There's no doubt when you play a lot of close games, and you win like they have, and some in very dramatic fashion, it gives you a little bit of swagger and a belief that you'll win it again."
_ Drake coach Mark Phelps, in the Springfield News-Leader, after a 73-70 loss to Missouri State