If this week’s action was any indication of how fun, entertaining and overly exciting this year’s Valley conference games are going to be, Valley fans, as well as the rest of the country, are going to be in for a big time basketball treat. Even though it was only the first week of conference play, numerous questions have already been answered. And the simple fact is, no matter who you play and how well you play in the non-conference portion of the schedule, everything is thrown out the window when conference action begins. Need verification, just ask Wichita State or Drake. Wichita State rose to #8 in the polls but dropped their first conference game to UNI, while Drake entered conference play with 8 consecutive wins only to fall to 0-2 in MVC games.
Northern Iowa looks to be the best team thus far by surpassing Wichita State, and the Salukis of Southern Illinois will once gain be a contender as they easily won on the road against Illinois State. Despite a slow start to the season, Creighton has roared back after beating Missouri State, while the Bears themselves will be a very solid team against conference foes. Road wins will be tough to come by, so the teams that can protect their home court and steal a few games away from home will be the one left standing at the top when the season ends. With an 18 game conference schedule, it’s a marathon run that has never been easy. It almost seems to be anybody’s guess to who will be left standing after the final buzzer, but never the less, this year’s Valley season is definitely going to be fun to watch.
After surprising the nation with a couple key road wins in the early going, the Wichita State Shockers cracked the Top 10. But after 3 consecutive losses the Shockers have fallen out of the Top 25. (Ed: WSU also lost to SIU shortly after this article was submitte). The Shockers, however, are receiving the most votes in both polls among Valley teams followed by Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois and Missouri State. The Creighton Bluejays are receiving votes in just the USA Today / ESPN Poll. As Valley teams beat up on each other it will be tough for all of these teams to crack the rankings together, as inevitable losses will hurt team records. But don’t be surprised to see some, if not all, of these teams crack the Top 25 at some point this season.
The Valley’s first major injury of the season occurred when Creighton lost sophomore point guard Josh Dotzler for 4 to 6 weeks after he had surgery to repair an injured finger. Dotzler was the Jays starting point guard and, despite his 3 point per game scoring average, is a very valuable member to the Bluejays offense. After he went out with a knee injury last year, the Bluejays struggled. Creighton, however, won their first game without Dotzler in the lineup and they will have to continue to rely on Nate Funk and Issac Miles at the point while Dotzler is out. The Missouri State Bears lost some of their depth when junior center Sky Frazier quit the team and will now need to get more out of Drew Richards, which means he’ll have to stay out of foul trouble. This loss could hurt the Bears as they are not a very big team.
There are numerous big games on this week’s Valley slate including Wichita State at Southern Illinois, Wichita State at Missouri State and Southern Illinois at Northern Iowa. With every Valley team playing two games or more this week, we’ll be able to start figuring out who the contenders for the Valley crown really are.
Game of the Week – Missouri State at Creighton
A national television audience witnessed a Valley game Saturday that had as much passion and energy of a game being played in March. The Missouri State Bears traveled to Omaha to take on the Creighton Bluejays and both teams left everything they had on the court. Jumping out to an early 11 point first half lead, the Bluejays looked to be in control of the game from the outset. However, the Bears weren’t about to get embarrassed by the Jays for a second year in a row, as last year they fell in Omaha by 22 points. Using a 16-0 run the Bears quieted the third largest crowd in Qwest Center history and took their own 11-point lead. The Bears seemed to have complete control of the game, until the Bluejays began to erase a double-digit lead in front of 15,684 fans. With just under five minutes to play, the Bears led 70-59 but the Bluejays closed out the game on an 18-4 run, capitalizing on some key offensive rebounds in the late moments and taking advantage of the Bears inability to hit free throws. When the buzzer sounded, the Bluejays escaped with a key 77-74, early season victory. Creighton benefited from a huge game from both Nate Funk and Anthony Tolliver as the duo combined to score 43 points, with 23 coming from Funk. And along with his 20 points, Tolliver’s presence down low proved to be too much for the Bears to handle. Ahearn took the blame for the loss as he was held scoreless the final 14 minutes of the game and rarely touched the ball on the offensive end of the floor. With this performance, Creighton showed why they were the preseason pick to win the Valley while the Bears road woes in Valley play continued. There’s no doubt Bears fans will be looking forward to January 24 when the Bluejays travel to Springfield. If that game is anything like the first, the fans from both teams will be in for an emotional experience.
Game of the Upcoming Week –Wichita State at Missouri State
In a pivotal early season conference clash, the Wichita State Shockers travel to Springfield to take on the Missouri State Bears Sunday afternoon. After a stellar start to their season, the Shockers have stumbled while the Bears will be returning to Springfield for their first home game since December 16. These two teams play twice this season, but the Bears will look to keep their perfect home record intact, while the Shockers will look to pick up a very challenging road victory in their first meeting of the year. Both teams look to be in the hunt for the Valley title and the winner of this game will have a leg up on the loser. The Bears have struggled as of late against the Shockers so they’ll no doubt be motivated to change courses. This game will see the Bears finally closing out a win over a tough opponent with a victory in a very close game.
Prediction – Missouri State 75-70
Player of the Week – Marco Stinson, Fr., G – Indiana State
What a week it was for the freshman from Memphis, TN, Marco Stinson, and his Indiana State Sycamores teammates. Entering the week averaging just over 13 points a game, Stinson led ISU with a career high 24 points off the bench in the Sycamores win against Purdue. Stinson’s career high 24 points didn’t last more than two days, as he proved almost unstoppable Saturday, leading the Sycamores to an MVC win over Drake. Shooting a lights out 14-17 from the field and hitting a school record 9 three point shots, Stinson shattered his career high from the previous game with a total 37 points against Drake. What was even more remarkable about Stinson’s performance against the Bulldogs was he made 9-of-10 three-point attempts. For the week, Stinson only missed 7 shots in 30 attempts and was 13-of-17 from three-point land, an incredible 76 percent from long distance. If Stinson can continue to have performances similar to these two night in and night out, the Sycamores will give plenty of teams in the Valley more problems and headaches than they have anticipated.
1. Northern Iowa (11-2, 2-0) Last Week: 4th
First year coach Ben Jacobson has his Northern Iowa Panthers playing what may be the best basketball in the conference. The Panthers improved to 2-0 in Valley play with a home win on national television over Bradley Wednesday night and a hard fought road victory over #16 Wichita State. The Panthers jumped out to a big lead in the first half against the Braves and held off a second half comeback effort to beat Bradley 76-65 behind a 17 point, 15 rebound effort by Grant Stout. The Panthers then went into a sold out Koch Arena and beat the Shockers 63-59 behind what may be the best front court duo in the Valley, Eric Coleman and Stout. Coleman had his seventh double double in 8 games with 11 points and 11 rebounds and Stout led the Panthers in scoring with 17 points and 9 boards. The win was the third straight time the Panthers have come into Wichita and handed the Shockers a notch in the loss column. The Panthers welcome Evansville to Cedar Falls Wednesday night before hosting Southern Illinois in a very important early conference match up. The Panthers should improve to 4-0 this week in Valley play.
2. Southern Illinois (10-2, 1-0) Last Week: 3rd
Southern Illinois had no trouble in their conference opener beating the Redbirds of Illinois State 68-49. The Salukis turned a close game in the first half into a blow out after an 18-6 run pushed their lead to 19 points early in the second half. SIU got 10 points and 17 rebounds from Randal Falker and 16 points and 5 assists from probably the best point guard in the league, Jamal Tatum. The Saluki defense was at its best Friday night as they held the Redbirds to just 32 percent shooting and 49 points. If their defense can continue to play at this high level SIU is going to be tough to beat. The Salukis will have three difficult games this week as they open the New Year hosting Wichita State followed by trips to Drake and Northern Iowa. SIU is good enough to win all three games but realistically will most likely be looking at a 2-1 record for the week after stealing one of the road games and winning at home.
3. Missouri State (10-3, 1-1) Last Week: 1st
It was like déjà vu for the Missouri State Bears this past Saturday when they traveled to Omaha to take on Creighton. Just like they had done 12 days ago in a loss to St. Louis, the Bears blew a double digit second half lead. After falling behind by 11 points in the first half, the Bears used a 16-0 run to take the lead. But, with the Bluejays finishing the game on an 18-4 run, the Bears left Omaha with a 77-74 conference loss. Blake Ahearn had a big game for the Bears, hitting 5 three pointers and finishing the game with 21 points to be the only Bear in double digits, but his lack of productivity in the final 14 minutes sealed the Bears loss. Road wins are tough to come by in the Valley and if the Bears are unable to figure out how to hold onto double digit leads away from home, they’re going to make it even harder on themselves to continue on into March play. This week the Bears will travel to Bradley on Tuesday night, a place they haven’t had much success as of late. The Bears will then welcome Wichita State Sunday afternoon, in an early season must win match-up for both teams.
4. Wichita State (9-3, 0-1) Last Week: 2nd
After losing their first two games of the season in Las Vegas last week, the Shockers returned home looking to end their drought against Northern Iowa Saturday. However, the Shockers losing streak continued as they fell to the Panthers on their home floor 63-59 while dropping their third game in a row. Kyle Wilson, who had 18 points and 5 rebounds, led the Shockers. Wichita State shot just 36 percent from the field while shooting just 20 percent from the three-point arc. Things won’t get any easier for the Shockers this week as they will open the New Year with a Jan. 1st game in Carbondale against Southern Illinois, then host Bradley Thursday before traveling to Springfield to take on the Missouri State Bears Sunday. Don’t be surprised if the Shockers beat Bradley at home and win one of the two on the road but don’t be too shocked if they drop both road games, picking up 3 early season conferences losses. This year’s Valley play isn’t going to be easy and the Shockers may be discovering that this week.
5. Creighton (7-4, 1-0) Last Week: 7th
The preseason Valley favorite, and the only Valley team to be ranked in the Top 25, struggled out of the gates during the non-conference portion of their schedule. Saturday afternoon, however, they showed they can and will be a force this year in the MVC. The Bluejays stormed back from an 11-point deficit to defeat the Missouri State Bears 77-74 to win their conference opener. The Bluejays got 23 points from Nate Funk and 20 from Anthony Tolliver as they hit clutch shots down the stretch to defeat the Bears. This win over a very solid Bears team could give the Bluejays the confidence they’ll need to be competitive in the MVC this season. Creighton will have a busy week this week with three games, first taking on Illinois State on New Years Day followed by trips to both Indiana State and Evansville. The Jays should improve to 4-0 in conference play following this week’s action.
6. Bradley (10-4, 1-1) Last Week: 5th
The Braves dug themselves a big hole Wednesday night against Northern Iowa and then proved unable to climb out. Falling behind by 14 points at the half, the Braves stormed back to within 4 points with six minutes to play but they couldn’t get over the hump and fell to the Panthers 76-65. Daniel Ruffin, who had 20 points, led Bradley. The Braves however, bounced back Saturday to pick up their first Valley win of the season, an 85-78 win over Evansville. Will Franklin led six Bradley players in double figures with 21 points. It will be a challenging and busy week for the Braves as they host Missouri State Tuesday night and travel to Wichita State Thursday before concluding the week playing at Drake on Saturday. This early stretch of games just might define the Brave’s season.
7. Drake (9-4, 0-2) Last Week: 6th
After an 8 game winning streak, the Drake Bulldogs found out just how tough life in the Valley is going to be this season. The Bulldogs traveled to Evansville Thursday night and got run off the floor by the Purple Aces. The Valley’s leading scoring, Ajay Calvin, was held to just 7 points and the Bulldogs saw their streak come to an end with a 78-57 loss to Evansville. The Bulldogs, led by Klayton Korver’s 17 points, shot just 24 percent from the floor in the second half. The Bulldogs then traveled to Indiana State and once again found themselves on the short end of the stick. A hot Sycamore team handed the Bulldogs their second consecutive loss and dropped Drake, which had been one of the surprise teams in the Valley during the non-conference portion of the season, to an 0-2 Valley record. Calvin led the Bulldogs with 17 points and 10 rebounds but he and his teammates weren’t able to overcome ISU’s 17 three point hits, falling 84-73. The Bulldogs return home this week for two very tough games, a Thursday match up with Valley favorite Creighton followed by a visit to Des Moines on Saturday. The Bulldogs must do everything in their power not to fall to 0-4 in league play, which could be a situation from which they may never recover.
8. Evansville (9-5, 2-1) Last Week: 8th
After seeing their 4 game winning streak snapped last week by Butler, the Aces got back on the winning track Thursday night with a convincing 78-57 win over Drake to improve to 2-0 in conference action. Led by the outstanding basketball play of Matt Webster, who contributed 26 points and 9 rebounds, Evansville ended Drakes 8 game winning streak. This win was the seventh consecutive home victory for the Aces. Evansville then traveled to Bradley on Saturday and wound up with their first Valley loss of the season, an 85-78 setback to the Braves. Kyle Anslinger, Bradley Strickland and Webster all had 20 points for the Aces in the loss. Evansville will face two tough opponents this week when they travel to Northern Iowa Wednesday and host Creighton Saturday. The Aces will have their hands full this week and most likely will drop both games to much better teams.
9. Indiana State (8-4, 1-1) Last Week: 10th
The Sycamores continued the Valley’s success against the Big Ten this past week with a convincing win over Purdue, 89-70. Despite allowing the Boilermakers to shoot 53 percent from the floor, ISU out rebounded Purdue, 30-22 and shot over 80 percent from the free throw stripe. Indiana State never trailed in a game that was never really close, finishing the first half on a 16-1 run to build a 15-point halftime advantage. On Saturday, Indiana State picked up their first conference win of the season behind the hot shooting of Marco Stinson who dumped in 37 points in an easy and convincing 84-73 victory over Drake. Cole Holmstrom had a career high 20 points and Gabe Moore added 16 points as ISU improved to 1-1 in Valley play. Indiana State showed great poise, rallying from a 17-point deficit to beat the Bulldogs. The Sycamores are still looking for respect in the crowded Valley and with wins over Purdue and nationally ranked Butler they are showing they are worthy of this respect. This squad isn’t far from being in the upper echelon of the conference standings, and just need to play consistent basketball while finding ways to win away from home.
10. Illinois State (8-5, 0-2) Last Week: 9th
In their only game of the week, the Illinois State Redbirds saw their Valley record fall to 0-2 as they were beaten soundly by the Salukis of Southern Illinois. Trailing by 7 at the break, the Redbirds were unable to chip into the deficit, falling 68-49 after being outscored 41 to 29 in the second frame. The Redbirds shot just 32 percent for the game while allowing the Salukis to shoot 50 percent, a recipe that won’t lead to too many wins in the Valley. Dom Johnson led the Redbird with 11 points and Anthony Slack just missed a double double with 9 points and 10 rebounds. The Redbirds will kick off 2007 with a New Year’s Day match up with the Creighton Bluejays in Omaha and then return home to Normal to face in state rival Bradley on Saturday. An 0-4 conference start for the Redbirds is highly likely.