For the third year in a row, Wichita State enters the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament as an overwhelming favorite.
For the third year in a row, the rest of the Valley will be happy to try and knock the Shockers off their pedestal.
This year’s pack of dark horses is led by MVC runner-up Evansville, Northern Iowa and Illinois State.
Each can stake a claim as to why it will be the team to pull off an upset and grab a surprise NCAA Tournament bid at the Scottrade Center. Each showed up Thursday with that goal in mind.
Evansville (23-8) finished four games behind WSU in the final MVC standings and earned the right to be on the opposite side of the bracket from the Shockers. The Aces haven’t played in the championship game since 1999 and have never won a tournament title.
Evansville opens play Friday against the Missouri State-Drake winner.
"Obviously it’s my last time coming here, so it means a little bit more to me,” said Evansville senior guard D.J. Balentine, an All-MVC pick and the nation’s active leading scorer. “Every year, my goal has been to win it, but this team seems really focused, very energetic and very excited. Not many teams shoot too well (at Scottrade), so finishing buckets, defense, executing plays is the key. Just playing the best ball you possibly can.”
Northern Iowa (19-12), the No. 4 seed and a potential semifinal opponent for WSU, opens play on Friday against Southern Illinois and has been one of the more confounding teams in not only the MVC, but the nation.
The Panthers have plenty of signature wins, beating No. 8 North Carolina, No. 21 Iowa State and ended Wichita State’s 43-game home winning streak on Feb. 13. But they were also swept by Loyola and dropped games to Indiana State and Missouri State.
Northern Iowa enters the MVC tourney having won 9 of its last 10 games.
“We feel like we’ve shown we can play well when we need to,” Northern Iowa sophomore forward Bennett Koch said. “Against North Carolina, we pulled out the win. Against Iowa State, another great team, we got a win. We feel like no one should doubt us. We’re very confident and we feel like we can play really well … now we can also play really poorly, but we’re on a winning streak right now.”
Illinois State (18-13) played spoiler last season, upsetting WSU in the semifinals. This season’s Redbirds don’t put much stake into that victory, other than they know what it takes to get into the championship game.
Illinois State, the No. 3 seed, opens play on Friday against Indiana State.
“I think people take this tournament for granted, take how good our conference is for granted,” Illinois State sophomore forward MiKyle McIntosh said. “Any given day, a team can come out and win and do something special. We’ve been playing good basketball lately and we’re ready to come out and get a couple of wins. We know what it was like to lose in the finals, so we’re coming back hungry. We understand what it takes to win a championship.”