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Missouri Valley Conference basketball roundtable

Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall and Evansville guard D.J. Balentine will meet on Jan. 6 and Jan. 31 in two of the MVC’s top games.
Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall and Evansville guard D.J. Balentine will meet on Jan. 6 and Jan. 31 in two of the MVC’s top games. The Wichita Eagle

Bradley (1-7)

What we’ve learned: That Bradley struggled in the early going is no surprise. The Braves are the youngest, least-experienced team in Division I basketball with a roster numbering 10 freshmen, one sophomore and one senior.

Following a 52-51 squeaker over Ball State in their opener, BU dropped seven in a row in a brutal 15-day odyssey covering 6,304 air miles. It began with a 30-point loss at then-12th-ranked Arizona and continued cross country to the Charleston (S.C.) Classic and defeats to then-No. 6 Virginia 82-57, Seton Hall 67-59 and Towson 62-60. Two 13-point home losses to New Orleans and Ole Miss followed before a 70-47 thumping at Delaware.

Bradley played competitively for stretches, but rarely maintained a lead late in games. The offense emerged as the biggest trouble spot. For the season, BU has averaged just 55.2 points, shooting .359 from the field and .229 from 3-point range with 15.6 turnovers per game.

Sophomore forward Donte Thomas has been the leading scorer the past four games and shares the scoring lead with freshman guard Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye with 10 points per game.

What's next: The schedule lightens during December thanks to final exams and Christmas although road challenges at Texas-Arlington and Boise State loom as well as a home test vs. TCU. New coach Brian Wardle will continue to search for a consistent lineup that can score and take care of the ball.

— Dave Reynolds, Peoria Journal Star

Drake (4-3)

What we’ve learned: This is not your older brother’s Drake team. These Bulldogs have talent at every position, but lack a little swagger that comes from having been there before.

They’re still learning to win. Kale Abrahamson, a transfer from Northwestern, is averaging 19.1 points. Graham Woodward, a Penn State transfer, is contributing 13.3 points. Sophomore guard Reed Timmer, one of coach Ray Giacoletti’s first recruits is scoring at an 18.6 clip. Drake, which started last season 1-8, began this week shooting 49.4 percent from the floor, including 44.8 percent from 3-point range.

What’s next: The Bulldogs are still in the process of figuring things out. They let games against Tulane and UMKC slip away, but have won three of their last four. Saturday’s game at Bowling Green (5-2) will match Drake against an opponent with five players averaging at least 8 points a game. The Falcons won last year’s meeting 77-58.

— Andrew Logue, Des Moines Register

Evansville (6-1)

What we've learned: The team's three newcomers have seen limited minutes off the bench, so this is essentially the same group that finished tied for fourth in the MVC last season and won the CIT championship. And through their first five games, the Aces played like the same team: capable, but prone to spurts of mediocre play.

But Evansville has put together two consecutive dominant performances, pulling away from Big West preseason favorite UC Irvine for a 75-56 win and dismantling Alabama State 88-56 at home.

Egidijus Mockevicius has stayed out of foul trouble and is averaging 16.9 points and 13.7 rebounds. D.J. Balentine is averaging team highs of 20.9 points and 6.1 assists while shooting 49 percent from the field. Sixth man Mislav Brzoja is statistically the team's third-best player and is often the catalyst for Evansville's big runs.

What's next: The Aces visit Murray State (5-3) Saturday and Arkansas (3-3) Tuesday for their first true road games of the season. Those games, plus a Dec. 20 contest at Fresno State, are Evansville's biggest remaining tests of the nonconference slate.

UE point guard Duane Gibson is expected to return soon from a knee injury. Jaylon Brown (8.9 points per game) has played well at that position while handling most of the minutes.

— Daniel Allar, Evansville Courier & Press

Illinois State (3-5)

What we’ve learned: The Redbirds showed they could compete with the country’s top-two ranked teams in a span of six days, leading No. 2 Maryland by five points with less than eight minutes left and battling No. 1 Kentucky to a halftime draw at Rupp Arena.

While ISU couldn’t finish in those games, or the opener at San Diego State, the Redbirds know they were right there. However, that kind of effort hasn’t always been there in games against lesser competition. ISU has one of the league’s top players in senior guard DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell (16.6 ppg) and needs Paris Lee, MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins to play more consistent. ISU also must do a better job rebounding (minus 4.1 margin).

What’s next: After eight games in 18 days and traveling about 7,300 miles roundtrip, the Redbirds face two quality teams at home in the next two weeks in Conference USA favorite UAB (Saturday) and Murray State (Dec. 13). If the Redbirds lose either of these games, they could head into the MVC season opener on Dec. 30 against Missouri State with a sub-.500 record.

— Jim Benson, The Pantagraph

Indiana State (3-3)

What we've learned: You don't know which Sycamores you're going to get, not only from game-to-game, but half-to-half, media timeout-to-media timeout, you get the picture.

When good, ISU has been stingy defensively, it's ranked 33rd in the nation at 0.9 points per possession. Devonte Brown (15.2), Khristian Smith (13.0) and Brenton Scott (10.8) represent a triple-threat and freshman Emondre Rickman has shown positive signs in the post. When bad, ISU is inept offensively, forcing shots, playing selfish and committing turnovers. The good showed up in a win over a good Hofstra team and a near-miss against Tulsa, the bad came up in ugly losses to IUPUI and Eastern Illinois.

What's next: The Sycamores' non-conference schedule takes a significantly harder turn as it travels to Butler on Saturday, followed by a home game next Wednesday against Valparaiso. If the Sycamores can't find consistency on both ends of the floor, they'll sink below .500 and doubts will creep in. ISU is thin in the post, so Rickman's continued improvement is crucial.

— Todd Golden, Terre Haute Tribune Star

Loyola (4-3)

What we’ve learned: Before the calendar turned to December, Loyola already had more losses than in all of non-conference play last season.

Loyola’s offensive efficiency ranks No. 220 in the nation. Last season, even with star guard Milton Doyle missing 14 games, the Ramblers ranked No. 120. Loyola is still shooting the ball fairly well. The loss of forward Christian Thomas is showing, as the Ramblers are making only 44.1 percent of their two-point shots. But they are shooting 40.6 percent from beyond the arc, which has kept them in the top half of the Valley in effective field-goal percentage, a stat that factors in three-pointers being worth more than two’s.

The problem is the Ramblers are turning the ball over like crazy. Loyola has coughed up the ball in 22.1 percent of its possessions, and its 19 turnovers were the kiss of death last week in a loss to UNC-Asheville. The turnovers have been happening across the board, but Doyle in particular needs to clean up his game as the team’s main distributor. The junior is averaging 5.7 turnovers in games against Division I opponents.

What’s next: Two tough games await the Ramblers in the next nine days. Loyola hosts Creighton this weekend before traveling to Notre Dame on Dec. 13. By the time the Ramblers return to Gentile Arena for a three-game home stand to finish non-conference play, they could very possibly be amidst a four-game losing streak.

— Jesse Kramer, thecatchandshoot.com

Missouri State (1-5)

What we’ve learned: This team still doesn’t know how to win, but they’re competitive and fun to watch, which is a marked improvement over last season.

There are two major problems the Bears are still fighting: turnovers (especially unforced ones) and perimeter defense. Coach Paul Lusk is having to decide whether to put his best offensive backcourt on the floor, or go with his best backcourt defenders. Those are very different lineups.

Freshman Obediah Church has brought a level of athleticism and raw talent that hasn’t been seen in years in this program. He’s averaging 9.0 points, 6.8 rebounds and 2.2 blocks per game, shooting 78 percent (21 of 27) from the field.

What’s next: MSU travels to Oklahoma State on Saturday afternoon, and it will be interesting to see how the young newcomers react to the hostile environment. After that it’s finals week, with the only game a home “must win” against IUPUI on Thursday night.

— Jim Connell, Springfield News-Leader

Northern Iowa (5-1)

What we've learned: There is life without Seth Tuttle for UNI, which has won five in a row after losing its opener to Colorado State and Larry Eustachy. The game that earned national attention, of course, was the victory over then No. 1 North Carolina. UNC did not have injured Iowa native Marcus Paige in the lineup, yet the Panthers needed to rally from a 16-point second-half deficit to win.

Wes Washpun, the senior point guard, was tremendous in the last 15 minutes of the Carolina game, and he's shown he can take over a game. But he's gotten help from the rest of the rotation. Jeremy Morgan may be UNI's most versatile player, while Matt Bohannon has diversified his offensive game. So far, at least, Bennett Koch and Ted Friedman have contributed, as has Klint Carlson after returning from a three-game suspension.

What's next: UNI now faces a stretch of seven consecutive games away from the McLeod Center. That piece of the schedule begins Saturday against a very good Richmond team and continues Tuesday at George Mason.

— Jim Sullivan, Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier

Southern Illinois (7-1)

What we’ve learned: Guards matter. SIU has more than one (Anthony Beane) this season. Tyler Smithpeters is much improved, including from three-point range (.438). Mike Rodriguez gives SIU an assist-maker at point guard (4.3 per game) for the first time since Kevin Dillard (2009-10) and gives SIU its best point guard since Bryan Mullins (2007-10).

We also learned F Bola Olaniyan (8 rebounds per game) matters, too. SIU was 2-1 in his suspended absence, but its rebounding and interior defense were especially lacking. SIU has its best eight-game record since 2003-04.

What’s next: After playing eight games in three weeks, SIU has more practice time in the coming weeks to work on a defense that is not yet MVC-ready. The Salukis showed defensive improvement against an outmanned Southeast Missouri team on Dec. 2, but there is room for growth.

The Salukis’ offense is legit (79-point average). Opponents, however, are averaging 70.5 points. SIU has a legitimate chance to have 10-plus wins when it opens MVC play Dec. 30 at Loyola.

— Mike Reis, SIU radio voice

Wichita State (2-4)

What we've learned: The Shockers are lost without guard Fred VanVleet, who missed an 0-3 trip to Florida with a strained left hamstring. Freshman guard Landry Shamet played well before a stress fracture sidelined him and center Anton Grady is out indefinitely after suffering a spinal concussion.

VanVleet's absence wrecked WSU's offense and confidence. Ron Baker is doing what he can, but opposing defenses are swarming him.

Freshman Markis McDuffie provided a bright spot in the AdvoCare Invitational, scoring 14 points in losses to Southern California and Alabama.

What's next: The Shockers must get healthy soon. Wichita State faces Saint Louis, UNLV and Utah with its chances to build an NCAA at-large resume at stake. VanVleet may return Saturday at Saint Louis. Transfer guard Conner Frankamp is eligible for the Utah game (Dec.12) and his talents will be a big lift.

— Paul Suellentrop, The Wichita Eagle

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