REDBIRDS CAN SHAKE UP VALLEY RACE
Neither Illinois State nor Indiana State will win the MVC regular-season title. Those two teams, battling for third place, could enjoy a major say in the eventual champion.
Their influence starts on Wednesday, when the fourth-place Redbirds play at No. 13 Northern Iowa carrying the knowledge they gave the Panthers a major scare. Third-place Indiana State plays at No. 15 Wichita State on Wednesday. On Saturday, the Shockers travel to Illinois State. Indiana State gets another shot at the Shockers on Feb. 25 in the Hulman Center.
Neither WSU nor UNI can afford a slip-up as they head toward their Feb. 28 showdown at Koch Arena. The Shockers benefit from playing that final game at home, but face four games against the top three in their final six. The Panthers, after Wednesday’s game against Illinois State, can coast against Missouri State, Loyola and Bradley before facing Evansville at home.
The Redbirds should receive UNI’s full attention. The Panthers had to play zone defense and rally from a 46-34 deficit to win 54-53 earlier this month. Illinois State is healthy after spending most of the season down a player or two and the addition of freshman forward Deontae Hawkins makes the Redbirds a better scoring team.
Illinois State grabbed 16 offensive rebounds and forced 16 turnovers in the first meeting. UNI’s Nate Buss made a three-pointer with six seconds remaining to ruin the upset.
“I thought we went over there and played pretty well,” UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. “Then they really got to us. They turned us over. We had a couple of ball-handling mistakes that had a lot to do with the pressure they put on the basketball. Then they got to us in terms of rebounding.”
With Hawkins and DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell healthy, the Redbirds appeared set for a strong finish. Then they lost at Southern Illinois 65-59 on Saturday and coach Dan Muller may shake up his starting lineup. A three-game losing streak doesn’t look out of the question with two ranked teams on tap this week.
“It’s going to be a tough week for us,” Muller said. “We played (UNI) very well for 32 minutes, but you have to understand every game is different.”
▪ Bradley fans want to forget most of this season. They will always have memories of 7-footer Nate Wells breaking out at Evansville.
Wells, who had not attempted a three-pointer in his first 49 games, made 2 of 3 against the Aces to score a career-high eight points in Saturday’s 56-53 win. The Braves trailed 37-23 with 16:20 to play when Wells entered the game for the first time. He scored all eight of points during a 24-3 run.
“He got us a little bit of energy, a little bit of a spark,” Bradley assistant coach Jaden Uken said. “It’s always easier to play defense when you make a few shots.”
▪ Drake coach Ray Giacoletti is living with freshmen in his rotation, including starters Reed Timmer and C.J. Rivers. Drake’s recent surge can be tied to his rookies playing better defense.
“Sometimes those guys don’t understand that each possession is critical, and you don’t get two or three mistakes and continue to stay in the game,” Giacoletti said. ““If we walk through how we’re defending this ball screen, you can’t screw it up two or three times. That’s how you get beat.”
▪ Wichita State guard Fred VanVleet ranks second nationally among active players in career assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.14 (415 assists, 132 turnovers). He trails Pitt’s James Robinson (3.22). The NCAA record for a player with 400 or more assists is 3.01 by Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor.
▪ The Shockers held Missouri State to the MVC’s second-lowest points total in the past 20 seasons in Saturday’s 78-35 win. In 2005, Missouri State defeated Indiana State 58-34.
Drake — The Bulldogs look serious about avoiding the play-in round of the MVC Tournament. They are tied for sixth with slumping Loyola at 4-8 in the MVC and the top six schools avoid the dreary Thursday games in St. Louis. Drake has won three of its past four and four its final six games are against teams in the bottom of the MVC. The play of guards Gary Ricks Jr. and Karl Madison is one reason Drake is making a move.
Evansville — Drake is rolling up on the Aces, who are in free-fall with center Egidijus Mockevicius out with a concussion. Evansville lost at Drake and Illinois State with him in the lineup and at home to Bradley without him.
GET TO KNOW AN MVC NEIGHBOR
Q: How many Indiana State coaches finished their tenure with a winning record against MVC opponents?
A: One, Bob King. King coached the 1977-78 season and finished second in the MVC with an 11-5 record. Health reasons forced him to resign after the season. Assistant coach Bill Hodges took over a team featuring Larry Bird and advanced to the 1979 NCAA title game. Current Sycamores coach Greg Lansing is 49-35 in four-plus seasons in MVC games. In between, seven coaches finished under .500.
ONE TO WATCH
Illinois State (15-9, 7-5) at No. 13 Northern Iowa (22-2, 11-1), 7 p.m., Wednesday (ESPN3.com)— The Redbirds need to make up for Saturday’s crushing loss at Southern Illinois.