We are two weeks into the Missouri Valley Conference portion of the schedule and the teams have begun to separate themselves. Northern Iowa, the only unbeaten team in conference play, looks to be the team to beat at this point. Behind the Panthers, the Missouri State Bears, who finally got the monkey off their backs and beat Wichita State for the first time since 2002, look to be the next best team in the MVC. Southern Illinois and Creighton are both off to 3-1 conference records and will both be near the top of the standings all season while contending for the title. After losing by 20 in their conference opener to Missouri State, Indiana State has reeled off 3 consecutive conference wins and sits in a tie for second. Wichita State, the talk of the Valley after they rose all the way to #8 in the national polls has fallen on hard times and is a surprising 1-3 in the conference after going 14-4 a season ago. The rest of the league, comprising of Bradley, Evansville, Drake and Illinois State, at this point don’t look to be a big factor in the race for the regular season crown. Conference action will continue in full force this week and the teams will look to even further separate themselves from each other.
Northern Iowa has made the biggest jump in the polls, receiving the most votes of any Valley team and good a #27 ranking in the USA Today / ESPN Coaches Poll and a #28 ranking in the AP Poll (25th in CHN’s Top 50 Power Ranking). The Missouri State Bears are the only other Valley squad to be ranked in both polls. Wichita State and Southern Illinois are both receiving votes in the AP Poll with 10 apiece. Look for both the Panthers and the Bears to crack the Top 25 in the next couple weeks as both teams appear to be the top class in the MVC.
This week is highlighted by Creighton’s visit to Northern Iowa on Friday and Missouri State’s visit to Southern Illinois on Saturday. After these two games, Valley fans should have a good idea of how each team holds up against the top competition in the league. We’ll also see if the Sycamores of Indiana State are for real as they host Wichita State and Bradley. It’s going to be a fun week in the Valley, so sit back, relax and enjoy some exciting MVC hoops.
Game of the Week
Southern Illinois at Northern Iowa, McLeod Center, Cedar Falls, Iowa
An early season showdown between Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa, the only two reaming unbeaten teams in conference action, showed why these two teams have been two of the leagues most successful teams in the past few years. The game went back and forth in the first half with neither team holding more than a four point lead and the Panthers entered the locker room with a 25-23 halftime advantage. The Salukis, however, showed they weren’t going to be intimidated on the road and opened the second half with an 11-2 run while holding UNI with just one field goal for over 6 minutes. After UNI battled back to tie the game at 34, the Panthers went on a 17-7 run and took a 51-41 lead with just under 4 minutes to play. UNI hit their free throws down the stretch to seal the 66-61 victory. It was the Panthers fifth consecutive victory while the Salukis saw their 5 game winning streak come to an end. Grant Stout led the Panthers with 11 points and 13 rebounds and Eric Coleman added 12 points. Jamal Tatum had a game high 18 points and Randal Falker contributed 17 points and 10 rebounds. The Panthers shot 52 percent from the field, the best shooting percentage the Salukis have allowed all season as they came into the game allowing their opponents to shoot just 40 percent. UNI also hit 22 free throws while they held SIU to only 9 free throw makes in 13 tries. In improving to 4-0, the Panthers showed they are currently the best team in the Valley.
Game of the Upcoming Week
Creighton at Northern Iowa, Fri. Jan. 12, McLeod Center, Cedar Falls, Iowa
Creighton, the Valley’s preseason top pick, taking on the only unbeaten team in conference action, Northern Iowa, highlights this week’s Valley schedule. This game could have huge implications on the race for the Valley title. If both teams win their Tuesday match ups, CU at home against Drake and UNI at Illinois State, on the line for Creighton will be a share of the Valley lead while Northern Iowa will be looking to remain the only unbeaten team in the MVC. Both teams have been playing stellar basketball as of late and UNI will look to the most dominating frontcourt in the league, Eric Coleman and Grant Stout, to lead them past the Bluejays. Creighton will need to have a big inside-outside game from Anthony Tolliver and Nate Funk. If the Bluejays can limit Coleman and Stout’s production and force UNI to find someone else to step up they’ll have a chance top pull the upset. However, UNI has yet to lose in their new building and this game won’t be the exception. A double double from Stout and a big game from Coleman lead the Panthers to victory and in the process proving to the league that this years Valley title runs through Cedar Falls.
Prediction – Northern Iowa 68-61
Player of the Week
Grant Stout, Sr., F – Northern Iowa
If the season ended today, one would have to consider Northern Iowa’s Grant Stout to be the favorite to be named the league MVP. Stout continued his stellar play this week as the Panthers improved to 4-0 in conference action and he has been a huge reason behind their 13-2 start under first year coach Ben Jacobson. Stout had double doubles in both his games this week and a double double from Stout has almost become a sure thing every time he takes the court. He scored 17 points and hauled in 10 rebounds in the Panthers win over Evansville. Stout also blocked 3 shots while shooting 50 percent from the field. In UNI’s win over Southern Illinois, then unbeaten in MVC play, Stout had 11 points and 13 rebounds with 4 blocked shots. For the season Stout is nearly averaging a double with 12 points and 8 rebounds per game. When the postseason honors are announced at the conclusion of the season, Stout will be a first team selection and if his solid play continues, the Panthers could also be the team sitting at the top with their league MVP when all is said and done.
1. Northern Iowa (13-2, 4-0) Last Week: 1st
The Panthers entered the 2006 season with a new coach and a preseason rank of fifth and have shown over the past couple of weeks that they are one of the elite teams, if not the best team, that the Valley has to offer. UNI beat a pesky Evansville team 64-61 Wednesday night behind 17 points from Grant Stout, the Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Week. The Panthers then demonstrated just how good they are when they beat Southern Illinois 66-61 in a match up of the last two unbeaten teams in conference play. Stout had 13 points for UNI as the Panthers won their fifth consecutive game. What makes the Panthers so dangerous is their bench and Adam Viet came off that bench for 11 points in UNI’s win over Evansville. He also had 10 points as the Panther bench outscored the Saluki bench 20-4 on Saturday. The Panthers will take on Illinois State Tuesday before hosting Creighton in a huge early season match up. If the Panthers improve to 6-0 in Valley play, look for them to inch even closer to cracking the Top 25. UNI has played very well thus far and if this team continues to play solid team basketball they could be on their way to the Big Dance for the fourth consecutive year.
2. Missouri State (12-3, 3-1) Last Week: 3rd
What a week it was for the Missouri State Bears. First, the Bears picked up a very tough road win at Bradley, downing the Braves 86-78, and then they did something they haven’t done in 4 years when they beat the Shockers of Wichita State. The Bears gained much needed confidence as they were able to hold onto a lead on the road after suffering two road losses where they allowed their opponents to come from behind. Despite turning the ball over 24 times, the Bears shot just under 50 percent from the field and had 20 more makes at the free throw line than Bradley. The Bears got 16 points each from Blake Ahearn, Drew Richards and Spencer Laurie, the MVC Newcomer of the Week. Missouri State dominated the Braves on the glass out rebounding Bradley 43-21. Missouri State then broke a very long losing streak Sunday afternoon in Springfield. The Bears beat the Wichita State Shockers 95-87 ending an 8 game losing run against the Shockers. This game wasn’t nearly as close as the score may suggest as they Bears had a 19 point lead in the second half and hit 58 percent of their three pint attempts. The Bears were led by Tyler Chaney’s 23 points and 9 rebounds while Ahearn added 22 points, including 14 of 14 from the free throw stripe. Chaney hit 7 of 8 shots including 5 of 6 from three point land. This win over a good Shocker team is the type of win that could help the Bears define their season. The Bears will be back action Tuesday night when they host Evansville before traveling to Carbondale Saturday afternoon to take on SIU. Look for Missouri State to easily handle Evansville before winning a very close and intense game at SIU Arena.
3. Southern Illinois (12-3, 3-1) Last Week: 2nd
The Salukis got off on the right foot to start the New Year with a 73-68 win over then #16 Wichita State. Randall Falker had 20 points and Matt Shaw added 18 points as SIU won its second consecutive conference game. Southern Illinois then traveled to Drake Thursday night and left Des Moines with a hard fought 59-54 victory. Jamal Tatum had 20 points for SIU as the Salukis got a three point play from Matt Shaw with 22 seconds left to win their third consecutive conference game. Despite committing 16 turnovers, the Salukis made up for it by hitting 40 percent of their three point attempts to beat the Bulldogs. However, the Salukis saw their 5 game winning streak come to an end as they fell for the first time in MVC play to UNI 66-61Saturday. Tatum had 18 points for the Salukis who dropped to 3-1 in conference play. The Salukis will look to bounce back form their first conference loss when they travel to Bradley Wednesday night. SIU will then host Missouri State Saturday, a must win game for the Salukis at home. If the Salukis can win both these games they’ll prove, despite the loss to UNI, they are one of the best teams in the league.
4. Creighton (9-5, 3-1) Last Week: 5th
Creighton continued to build off their thrilling win over Missouri State a week ago in their conference opener going 2-1 this past week and improving to 3-1 in the conference. The Bluejays kicked off the New Year with a 79-71 win over Illinois State behind an outstanding performance for Anthony Tolliver. Tolliver was 11 for 11 from the field and led the Bluejays with 23 points while grabbing 9 rebounds. Creighton shot an incredible 64 percent for the game but then found out that life away from Omaha isn’t going to be easy this year, falling 55-52 Thursday night to Indiana State at the Hulman Center. The Bluejays shot just 38 percent from the field, including a miserable 4 of 20 from three-point land with Nate Funk tossing in 17 points in the losing effort. The Jays bounced back in their third game of a busy week when they dominated Evansville and picked up a 75-62 road win over the Aces. Creighton found its three point shooting, something it lacked in the loss to Indiana State, going 12 of 27 from a distance for 44 percent. Isaac Miles led four Bluejays in double figures with 15 points. The Bluejays will host Drake Tuesday in a game they should not lose before traveling to Northern Iowa for a pivotal early season match up between two of the top contenders for the league crown.
5. Wichita State (10-5, 1-3) Last Week: 4th
It was another rough week for the Shockers who, following a 73-68 loss to Southern Illinois on New Year’s Day, saw their losing streak reach 4 games. The Shockers fell behind early and were unable to overcome a 15-point halftime deficit. PJ Cousinard led the reeling Shockers with 20 points and Kyle Wilson contributed 16. The Shockers were finally able to get over the hump with their first dominating performance in weeks when they beat Bradley 84-63 in Peoria, ending their 4 game skid and picking up their first conference win. Karon Bradley had a career high 21 points for Wichita State as the Shockers shot over 60 percent from the field and 58 percent from three point land. The Shockers then traveled to Springfield to battle the Missouri State Bears but were unable to continue their 4 year dominance over the Bears. WSU had beaten the Bears 8 consecutive times but this time the Bears finally prevailed beating the Shockers 95-87. After starting the game on a 4-0 run, the Shockers let the Bears score the next 7 points and the Bears lead the rest of the way pushing their lead to 19 in the second half. Matt Braeuer led the Shockers with 21 points as they lost for the fourth time in 5 games. The Shockers will look to get back on the winning track this week with two winnable games. First, Wichita State travels to Indiana State Wednesday before hosting Evansville Saturday. The Shockers really need these two wins unless they are to completely fall off the Valley map.
6. Bradley (11-6, 2-3) Last Week: 6th
It was a rough start to the week for the Braves, but they still found a way to end the week on a high note. The Braves fell to Missouri State at home Tuesday night 86-78. Danny Adams had 18 points to lead the Braves but Bradley was out rebounded 43-22 and it’s very difficult when to win when you get beat that bad on the boards. It didn’t get much better as they Braves lost at Wichita State Thursday night 84-63. Will Franklin had 19 points but the Braves allowed the Shockers to shoot 61 percent from the field, including 58 percent from three. The Braves got back on the winning track by beating Drake 89-86 behind 18 points from Daniel Ruffin. It’s going to be another tough week for the Braves as they host Southern Illinois Wednesday before heading to Indiana State Saturday. The Braves most likely will drop both these games and fall to 2-5 in conference play and for all intents and purposes be knocked out of the MVC conference title race.
7. Indiana State (10-4, 3-1) Last Week: 9th
The Sycamores extended their winning streak this past week to 5 games and have quietly built a 3-1 conference record. Indiana State opened the week beating Creighton at home 55-52. Jay Tunnell had 9 points and 7 rebounds and Gabe Moore sealed the victory when he blocked a Nate Funk three-point attempt at the buzzer. ISU then traveled to Normal, Illinois to take on the Redbirds of Illinois State and won a very ugly game by the score of 50-54. Tunnell once again led the Sycamores with 13 points and Adam Arnold had 9 points and 8 rebounds. Despite shooting just 32 percent from the floor and being out rebounded for the game, the difference for the Sycamores was free throw shooting. Indiana State converted on 18 of 22 free throw attempts while the Redbirds hit just 10 of 15 shots. We will get to see just how good the Sycamores are this week as they welcome Wichita State on Wednesday and Bradley on Saturday. Two wins here could propel Indiana State into the upper echelon of the conference, but two losses are not out of the question.
8. Evansville (9-7, 2-3) Last Week: 8th
After starting conference play 2-0, the Evansville Purple Aces have headed south, dropping their last 3 Valley games, including 2 this past week. The Aces, led by Matt Webster who had 12 points and 9 rebounds, gave it their best effort in a 64-61 loss at Northern Iowa Wednesday night. The Aces out rebounded the Panthers but managed just 39 percent from the field. Evansville hosted Creighton Saturday night and after falling behind by 3 at the break, the Aces fell apart in the second half falling to the Bluejays 75-62. The Aces gave up a 15-0 run in the middle of the second half and scored just 24 second half points in falling to 2-3 in MVC action. Jason Holsinger had 16 points for the Aces. Two losses are highly likely from the Aces this week as they face both Missouri State and Wichita State on the road. Evansville will find out first hand just how good the Valley is after this week’s games with the Bears and Shockers, as they will play Southern Illinois and Missouri State, again, the following week. Evansville is in for what will be a very tough 14 day stretch.
9. Drake (9-6, 0-4) Last Week: 7th
Just two weeks ago the Bulldogs were on an 8 game winning streak and the folks in Des Moines thought this year’s version of the Drake Bulldogs may be something special. Fast-forward to MVC play and the Bulldogs may be playing the worst ball out of all 10 Valley squads, dropping their first 4 conference games. The Bulldogs had a golden opportunity to end their losing streak when they hosted Southern Illinois Thursday night but SIU’s Matt Shaw converted on a 3-point play with 22 seconds to break the tied ballgame and the Salukis rallied to beat Drake 59-54. The Bulldogs shot 53 percent in the first half and built a 6-point advantage at intermission but cooled down in the second half, shooting just 40 percent. Nick Grant led the Bulldogs with 15 points. In a game that featured 12 ties and 17 lead changes the Bulldogs lost another heartbreaker, an 89-86 defeat at the hands of Bradley. Despite shooting 51 percent from the floor, Drake allowed the Braves to shoot 59 percent including 50 percent from three as the Braves handed the Bulldogs their fourth conference loss. Ajay Calvin and Josh Young had 19 points each for Drake. After traveling to Omaha to take on Creighton Tuesday, the Bulldogs will have an excellent chance to win their first conference game of the season when they more than welcome Illinois State Saturday.
10. Illinois State (8-7, 0-4) Last Week: 10th
The Redbirds dropped to 0-4 in conference play this past week with losses to Creighton and Indiana State. ISU traveled to Omaha on New Year’s Day and walked out of the Quest Center with a tough 79-71 loss to the Bluejays. The Redbirds were unable to overcome an 8-point halftime deficit and dropped their third straight MVC game. Osiris Eldridge led the Redbirds with 28 points in his first collegiate start while making 8 of 11 three point shots. That wasn’t enough, however, to make up for ISU’s lack of size as they were out rebounded 30-17. The Redbirds then hosted Indiana State on Saturday but once again came out on the short end of the stick. With the game tied at 49 with fewer than 2 minutes to play, the Sycamores went on a 5-1 run to close out the game and beat the Redbirds 54-50. Greg Dilligard just missed a double double with 9 points and 10 rebounds for the struggling team from Illinois State. Things don’t get any easier this week as they face first place Northern Iowa on Thursday at home before traveling to Drake on Saturday. An 0-6 start in MVC play for the Redbirds is highly probable.