Creighton continues to haunt the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament. This was the stage where the Bluejays built much of their success under coach Dana Altman, winning it four times in five seasons early in his tenure.
They are the last MVC team to repeat as champions. Fourth-seeded Northern Iowa gets a chance to steal that distinction from the Bluejays, starting Friday against fifth-seeded Southern Illinois. The Panthers (19-12) are the Valley’s hottest team with a 9-1 stretch that includes a 67-58 win over SIU (22-9).
“It’s really been a good five-week stretch,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “We were spinning our tires for about 2 1/2 weeks and these three guys just made it happen. They would not quit.”
Those three are seniors Wes Washpun, Matt Bohannon and Paul Jesperson. All three pointed to defense as reviving the Panthers after a 2-6 start to MVC play. They held seven of those 10 opponents under 60 points.
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“Defensively, we’re not taking as much pride as we needed to, and just overall toughness needed to be a little better,” Bohannon said. “We fought through it.”
UNI split the season series with SIU and its defensive progress can be traced through those games. On Jan. 2, the Salukis made 28 of 52 shots and 13 of 22 three-pointers in a 75-73 win at SIU Arena. In the rematch, SIU made 24 of 62 shots and 4 of 18 threes. SIU guard Anthony Beane, who scored 32 in the first game, scored 16.
The development of center Bennett Koch and forward Klint Carlson also helped. Both sophomores improved throughout the MVC schedule, with Carlson taking a dramatic turn in February. He averages 7.2 points in his final seven games, denting Drake for 11, Wichita State for 12 and Evansville for 10.
“The younger guys, they just came along with experience,” Jesperson said. “Before this year, obviously, they weren’t playing significant minutes.”
UNI is the last current member to repeat in St. Louis, winning in 2009 and 2010.
Not quite yet — Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said in Monday’s conference call that he was dealt a bit of a surprise when he met with sophomore forward Zach Brown in the summer to discuss goals for the upcoming year.
That’s when Brown, 6-foot-6, told Marshall his goal was to be Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. That was after Brown averaged 3.3 points in 10.5 minutes per game as a freshman.
“He had big plans for this year, and his career,” Marshall said. “So I had to say ‘Wait a minute, you might want to set goals that are a little more achievable,’ and I think that’s what he did.”
Marshall challenged Brown to be the best defender he could and to try and help fill the shoes of two-time MVC Defensive Player of the Year Tekele Cotton. This season, Brown has started 26 of 30 games and averages almost 20 minutes and 7.2 points.
“When I told (Marshall) that, he said right away that it shouldn’t really be my focus,” Brown said. “We’ve got guys like Fred (VanVleet) and Ron (Baker) on our team, so looking at conference player of the year right now is a little far-fetched, and was going to take a lot of hard work.
“I bought into what he told me. I trust the system and I love what I do, so in turn it’ll come back to bless me.”
Brown said he’s matured from not only last season, but from the start of this season.
“How I move, how I act on the court, it’s a big difference,” Brown said. “I’ve always been confident, ever since I was a kid. I’ve always wanted the best for myself and for my family and the people around me. That won’t change.”
Beane on the court — Beane said he expects to play in Friday’s quarterfinal game against Northern Iowa after suffering a concussion on Saturday.
“I had a couple headaches, but no concussion symptoms,” he said. “I’m all right. I’m going to be ready.”
Bonus time — Marshall missed out on a $25,000 contract bonus by four points on Thursday when Southern Illinois’ Barry Hinson won Coach of the Year won the award in a close vote.
WSU’s success is hitting plenty of other targets for Marshall. He earned $20,000 for a winning MVC record, $35,000 for 20-plus wins and $18,000 for the MVC title.
Winning the MVC Tournament is worth $18,000.
Dance with me — Hinson and Baker passed in the hallway outside the locker rooms on Thursday.
The grinned at each other, giggled and hugged like two old friends.
Hinson said Baker had to know something was coming earlier in the day when Hinson spoke after winning Coach of the Year.
In typical Hinson style, he drew big laughs by apologizing for misprouncining the names of Evansville’s Egidijus Mockevicius and Fred VanVleet. Then he told the crowd that Baker planned to sign a six-year deal with Chippendales male dance team.
“I thought it was real comical,” Baker said. “Barry is always a real loyal guy when we play them. I’m very proud of him and his award. His speech after is something I’ll always remember.”
Voting booth open — Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet is one of 10 finalists for the Senior CLASS Award, which recognizes community service and academics in addition to basketball.
Fans can vote for VanVleet at www.seniorclassaward.com/. Fan ballots account for a third of the total, with coaches and media members accounting for the rest.
On Thursday, he ranked second with 19.9 percent of the vote. Virginia’s Malcolm Brogdon was first with 42.7 and Kansas’ Perry Ellis ranked third at 15.4 percent.
Voting continues until March 21.