A sampling of Missouri Valley Conference beat writers check in on the second half of the conference schedule:
1. Who finishes second?
Evansville 2nd, Indiana State 3rd. No great profound reason, other than it appears Indiana State's schedule sets up better that Southern Illinois for 3rd place. I think the Balantine-Mock combination keeps Evansville in the runner-up spot.
— Jim Sullivan, Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier
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I think Evansville will recover from Sunday's beatdown against Wichita State and finish second in the MVC, partially because the Aces are done playing the Shockers.
SIU, the other team tied for second in the standings, still has to play at WSU, at Evansville and at Indiana State. UE has a more favorable schedule — and is likely the second-best MVC team anyway — so second place feels like a good bet for the Aces.
Third is harder to predict, but I'm going with Indiana State to edge out SIU. The Feb. 10 game between the Salukis and Sycamores could decide this spot, and it's being played in Terre Haute.
— Daniel Allar, Evansville Courier & Press
Evansville looks to have the inside edge for second place because of the schedule and the Purple Aces have seniors who have been through this before and know how to avoid the pitfalls in February that doomed them last season. It is going to be a battle for third place and this could be one of those years when there is at least a two- or three-way tie for that spot. But if I had to pick one team, I would say Indiana State over Southern Illinois because the Salukis still have four difficult road games in their path.
— Jim Benson, The Pantagraph
Who is the MVC Player of the Year?
I'll go with VanVleet. Obviously, he means a ton to the Shockers and they've been virtually unbeatable since he returned to full-time action.
It is the same guy who was the preseason player of the year: Wichita State's Fred VanVleet. He's the best player on the best team and he just hung a career-high 32 points on Evansville in Evansville. It is no coincidence that the Shockers began rattling off wins when their star point guard returned from injury.
This is a no-brainer. Fred VanVleet is the most important player on far and away the best team in the league. Anyone who doesn’t think VanVleet is the best needs to remember what the Shockers did when he was out of the lineup earlier with a hamstring injury. Case closed.
Who is the Valley’s most-improved player?
And from the hometown cooking dept - Bennett Koch of UNI. Played very little a year ago. Now he's being asked to carry the Panthers' inside game. Still has issues with foul trouble and conditioning, but he's taken some giant steps forward, even since the Hawaii trip.
Evansville's Jaylon Brown. The 6-foot junior guard has become a reliable third scorer for the Aces, more than doubling his scoring average from 5.3 to 11.2 this season. He also ranks second in the MVC in field-goal percentage at 56.7, an impressive number for a perimeter player.
Look very hard at Illinois State’s MiKyle McIntosh. The 6-7, 234-pound sophomore forward seems like he has finally figured things out. McIntosh is averaging 16.4 points in the Redbirds’ last seven games, which includes a two-pointer against Bradley. Twice, he has scored 25 points vs. SIU and Drake and 21 against Loyola.. When McIntosh has his perimeter shot falling, he is very difficult to defend because he has the ability to drive and use his big body to get to the rim. McIntosh still gets in foul trouble more than he should by picking up silly fouls. When he corrects that flaw, he is a first-team all-league future player waiting to happen.