With just over a month left of play in the Missouri Valley, two teams have emerged as major players in the chase for the conference championship. Sitting at 8-3 in league action, Southern Illinois and Creighton have jumped to the head of the pack after Northern Iowa fell twice this past week and dropped into third place. However, as we have seen this year in this league, any team can beat any team and it would not do the other squads justice to crown either SIU or Creighton league champ just yet. Only 1.5 games back, the Panthers are still within striking distance, while Missouri State enters this week’s action 2 games behind the lead in fourth place. The Bradley Braves sit 2 games back in fifth place and the Wichita State Shockers, coming off two wins this past week, are just three games back. Evansville is also three games back and is realistically still in the hunt, although they will likely fade. You can, however, count out Indiana State, who after starting 4-1 has dropped five consecutive games and now sits at 4-6. Cross off Drake and Illinois State as well, both currently sit in the cellar at 3-8 in the MVC. With only 3 games separating the top 7 teams, the final month of conference action is shaping up to be very exciting to watch and it’s anybody’s guess at who will still be standing on top when the season comes to a close.
The Southern Illinois Salukis enter this week as the highest ranked MVC team. SIU received 54 votes in the latest ESPN / USA Today Coaches poll, good for 26th place. Northern Iowa also received two votes in the coaches’ poll, good for 41st. SIU also received 101 votes in the latest AP Poll, good for a #29 ranking. Creighton received 8 votes while UNI got 2 in the AP Poll. As teams in the Valley continue to beat each other night in and night out, it’s going to be very tough for teams to crack the Top 25 and remain in the rankings. To prove just how balanced the Valley is, eight of the 10 Valley members are ranked in the Top 100 of the RPI with SIU leading the way with an RPI of #9. That bodes well for the Valley as they look to get four teams into the NCAA Tournament as they did a season ago.
The marquee game of the week features Wichita State going on the road to take on Northern Iowa. The Shockers will also host Southern Illinois in a very important match up. Creighton will take on Bradley and Missouri State will visit both Drake and Indiana State. The league championship picture will hopefully become a little clearer after this week’s action.
With the schedule just past the midway point, here’s a look at how the league awards appear to be shaking out.
Player of the Year – Nate Funk, Sr., G, Creighton – Funk has been a big reason why the Bluejays are tied for the conference lead as we head into the home stretch.
Coach of the Year – Ben Jacobson – The first year coach has done an excellent job in his first season as the Panther head coach, giving UNI a shot to win the MVC.
Newcomer of the Year – Anthony Slack, F, Jr., and Boo Richardson, G, Jr. – Illinois State – Both transferred from Coffeyville CC and both average over 10 points a game, with Slack averaging 6 rebounds a game while Richardson is third in the league in assists with 5.4 per game.
Freshman of the Year – Marico Stinson, G, Indiana State – Stinson is second on the Sycamores in scoring with 11.7 points per game and he is a deadly threat from outside, shooting 42 percent from three.
Sixth Man of the Year – Deven Mitchell, F, Jr. – Missouri State – Mitchell is the best athlete on the Bears squad and he is averaging 10 points and 5 rebounds off the bench.
First Team All-Missouri Valley
G - Nate Funk, Sr., Creighton – You would never guess he missed most of last year due to injury. Funk continues to make the big shot.
G - Jamal Tatum, Sr., S. Illinois – The “go-to guy” on a very solid SIU squad. Tatum is one of the top scoring threats in the league.
F - Eric Coleman, Jr., N. Iowa – Coleman is averaging nearly a double double per game and is a force in the middle.
F - Grant Stout, Sr., N. Iowa – Stout and Coleman comprise the league’s best inside duo. Stout is second in the league in rebounds per game.
C - Anthony Tolliver, Sr., Creighton – Can change the outcome of games with his shot blocking ability and can score and rebound with the best of them.
Second Team All-Missouri Valley
G - Blake Ahearn, Sr., Missouri St. – The league’s best shooter will give the Bears a shot down the stretch.
G - Daniel Ruffin, Jr., Bradley – Ruffin is arguably the fastest player in the MVC and leads the league in assists with almost 6 a game.
F - Ajay Calvin, Sr., Drake – The best player nobody knows about, Calvin is third in the league in scoring and is averaging almost 7 rebounds a game.
F - Matt Webster, Sr., Evansville – Webster has been a big reason why the Aces have had success against the leagues top teams. Webster is second in the league in scoring.
C - Randal Falker, Jr., S. Illinois – Excellent rebounder who is very dangerous offensively because he can score points in bunches.
Game of the Week – Northern Iowa at Southern Illinois, Tue. Jan. 23, SIU Arena, Carbondale, Illinois
With first place on the line, the Northern Iowa Panthers traveled to Southern Illinois last Tuesday for a game that turned out to be an instant classic. After an intense game, the Salukis emerged in first place with a thrilling 56-54 victory. The Panthers looked to be in good shape from the get-go as they jumped out to a 16-6 lead after the Salukis missed 15 of their first 18 shots. SIU didn’t allow the game to get out of hand as they went on an 18-3 run and only wound up trailing by 2 at the half. After trailing by as many as five points in the second half, the Salukis went on a 15-5 run and following a Ben Jacobson technical foul the Salukis took a 49-42 lead with just over 6 minutes to go. UNI closed the gap and got within 2 points after a Brooks McKowen lay up made the score 56-54 with just over a minute to play. Neither team would score again and UNI’s Travis Brown missed a three-pointer with 1 second left and Grant Stout’s tip-in was waived off, giving the Salukis a much-needed win and partial possession of first place. Bryan Mullins led SIU with 16 points and Randal Falker added 13 points and 7 rebounds. McKowen had 17 points for the Panthers and Stout added 11 points and 13 boards. The Panthers shot a sizzling 73 percent from three-point land while holding SIU to just 15 percent from beyond the arc, but the difference in the game was UNI’s 23 turnovers which allowed the Salukis to shoot 30 more shots than the Panthers. UNI shot 50 percent from the field and even out rebounded the Salukis by 3 but the turnovers cost the Panthers greatly. This win was huge for SIU as they jumped into a first place tie with Creighton, while it was no doubt a tough loss for the Panthers as they dropped to a game behind the lead. The two teams split their regular season series and if they keep winning and play solid at the MVC Tournament in March another meeting between these two could be on the way.
Game of the Upcoming Week – Wichita State at Northern Iowa, Tue, Jan 30, McLeod Center, Cedar Falls, Iowa
Both teams enter this match up Tuesday night in Cedar Falls heading in the opposite directions, although all it could take is one win by either team and both could be back to where they were just a week ago. UNI was sitting atop the league standings at 6-2, before a 2 game losing streak last week has dropped them into third place. This is a game UNI can’t afford to lose on their home floor. Wichita State, after starting conference play 1-4, is currently 5-6 in league play just 3 games behind first place with 7 games to go. This game is a must for both teams if they hope to stay in the hunt for the regular season championship. Neither team is out of the mix but the winner of this game could inch themselves further to the top and ultimately enhance their NCAA Tournament resume. The advantage goes to Northern Iowa since this game is in Cedar Rapids. The Panthers are 9-1 at home this season, while the Shockers have struggled away from Wichita as of late and are 4-5 on the road this season. Eric Coleman and Grant Stout will provide the leadership the Panthers need to win this game and they will do just that. UNI hands the Shockers their seventh conference loss, a loss that will almost certainly eliminate Wichita State’s title chances. The Panthers on the flip side will stay in the chase with a very important resume-enhancing win.
Prediction – Northern Iowa 65 - 60
Player of the Week – Nate Funk, Sr., G – Creighton
Nate Funk continues to show why, despite missing most of last year due to injury, he was still named the Preseason Valley Player of the Year. Funk has seemingly carried the Bluejays on his back at times this season and is a big reason why they sit atop the MVC in a first place tie. He scored 21 points in Creighton’s win over Missouri State in Springfield Wednesday night, including the game winner with 32 seconds to play and then hit a clutch free throw in the games final second to seal the victory. Funk also scored 11 consecutive CU points after his team, for the first time in the game, had fallen behind by 1 in the second half, proving that when a big shot needs to be made, he’ll take it. And more times than not, he’ll make it. The Bluejays then beat Indiana State convincingly Saturday in Omaha and Funk was once again the catalyst. He scored 16 of his team-high 20 points in the first half while adding 7 rebounds which helped set the tone for CU’s eighth conference victory. For the week, Funk hit 50 percent of his shots from the field, including 5 of 10 three point attempts. He also shot 83 percent from the charity stripe, hitting 10 of 12 shots. Funk currently leads the Bluejays in scoring, averaging 17.8 points per game, and if Creighton hopes to win this year’s championship, Funk’s play will be vital in their quest for the MVC title.
1. Southern Illinois (17-5, 8-3) Last Week: 2nd
The Salukis have asserted themselves as the team to beat in the Valley as they enter the second half of the conference season. SIU opened the week with a huge 56-54 nail biter over then first place Northern Iowa. Bryan Mullins had 16 points and SIU held off a late comeback attempt by UNI when the Panthers missed a three with one second left. Randal Falker added 13 points and 7 rebounds and Jamal Tatum had 10 points as SIU won despite shooting just 36 percent from the floor. SIU, however, was able to force UNI into 23 turnovers while only committing 6 and the Salukis remained unbeaten at SIU Arena this season. SIU then welcomed Illinois State Saturday and found themselves in a dogfight from start to finish in a game they should have had no trouble with. After falling behind by 5 points at the break, the Salukis turned it on in the second half and scored 48 points, beating the Redbirds 73-62. Tatum had 22 points and Falker added 19 points and 5 blocks as SIU won their third consecutive game. SIU shot 64 percent in the second half after only scoring 25 points in the opening frame as they beat Illinois State for the second time this season. The Salukis will look to stay in first place this week as they host Indiana State Wednesday in a game they will be favored in and a game they should have no trouble winning. SIU will then travel to Wichita State Saturday for a match up with the Shockers in a game they should win although it could go either way.
2. Creighton (14-7, 8-3) Last Week: 3rd
After losing to SIU last week and falling into second place, Creighton had to have a solid week if they hoped to stay alive in the MVC title chase and they did just that. The Bluejays won a huge game Wednesday night, beating the Missouri State Bears 66-62 on the road and completing the season sweep of the boys from Springfield. Nate Funk, the Missouri Valley Player of the Week, carried the Jays to victory as he hit the game winning shot with just over 30 seconds to play and finished with 21 points in the game. The Bears took a 38-37 lead with 12 minutes to go but Funk scored the next 11 Bluejay points to give the Jays a 5 point lead they would later give up momentarily. Nick Porter had 18 points and Dane Watts added 10 rebounds as the Bluejays bounced back from their 1-point loss to SIU. The Bluejays then had no trouble improving to 8-3 in the Valley as they easily beat Indiana State 71-55 Saturday in Omaha. Funk led four Bluejays in double figures with 20 points as the Bluejays stayed in a first place tie with SIU. Watts had 10 points and 12 rebounds and Anthony Tolliver added 14 points for CU as they out rebounded ISU 40-27. The Bluejays shut down the Sycamores best player in Gabe Moore, holding him to 0 points on 0-of-6 shooting. The Bluejays will look to keep pace with SIU this week but it won’t be easy, as they will hit the road for two games. First up is a date with Bradley Wednesday before a trip to Des Moines to take on Drake Saturday. Creighton has already beaten both teams in Omaha this year and they should complete the sweep this week, but look for the Braves and Bulldogs to play CU close.
3. Northern Iowa (15-6, 6-4) Last Week: 1st
Sitting atop the league at 6-2 the Panthers had a chance to separate themselves from the rest of the pack last week but were unable to do so, losing both of their games and dropping to third place. It didn’t take long for the Panthers to fall from the top as they fell to Southern Illinois Tuesday night 66-64. UNI cut SIU’s lead to 2 points after a Brooks McKowen lay up with a minute and 20 seconds to go and the Panthers had a chance to win or tie as they got the ball back with 15 seconds to play. However, Travis Brown missed a three-point attempt with 1-second left and the Panthers saw their two game winning streak come to an end as they fell from the top of the MVC. McKowen had 17 points and Grant Stout had 11 points and 13 rebounds and the Panthers lost despite hitting 73 percent of their three point attempts. Things didn’t get much better for UNI as they then lost Saturday night to league doormat Drake, 74-61, in Des Moines. After leading by 1 at the half, the Panthers feel apart and were outscored by 14 points in the second half while dropping their second game of the week. The Panthers gave up 10 three pointers to the Bulldogs and UNI only shot 41 percent from the floor. Eric Coleman had 15 points and 14 rebounds and McKowen added 11 points and 10 assists. The Panthers will welcome a surging Wichita State team to the McLeod Center Tuesday in a “must-win game,” if they have any hopes of staying in the hunt for the league crown. UNI will then travel to Evansville to take on the Aces Saturday. Two wins are likely, and the Panthers will stay in the hunt for the MVC championship.
4. Missouri State (15-7, 6-5) Last Week: 4th
It was a make or break week for the Missouri State Bears as they entered this past week with 3 losses in there last 4 games. With Creighton and Bradley on the slate, the Bears had a chance to turn things around and get back on track. However, the Bears struggles continued Wednesday as they lost for the third consecutive game, falling to the Bluejays 66-62 for their second consecutive home loss. Trailing by 2 with under a minute to play Blake Ahearn hit a three to give the Bears a 1-point lead. That lead didn’t last long as Nate Funk hit a short jumper with 32 seconds to play and the Bears turned the ball over on their next possession, sealing their fate and dropping them to 5-5 in the league. The Achilles Heel for the bears during their losing skid has been their free throw shooting and they missed another 12 attempts against CU. Dale Lamberth led the Bears with 16 points and 7 rebounds in the loss. Missouri State welcomed Bradley Saturday night in a game they had to win to keep their tournament hopes alive and they ended their losing streak with an 85-70 win over the Braves. Blake Ahearn had 21 points and Lamberth came off the bench to add 17 points and 12 rebounds as the Bears turned a 2 point halftime lead into a convincing win in the second half. The Bears were on top of their game as they shot 59 percent from the field, out rebounded the Braves by 16 and saw their bench outscore the Braves bench 40-17. This win could be just what the Bears need to get them back in the MVC title hunt. It won’t get any easier this week for the Bears, as they hit the road for two games, a place they have struggled this season. The Bears should come away with two wins this week and further enhance their NCAA Tournament chances. The Bears play at Drake Wednesday night before traveling to Indiana State to take on a Sycamore team they beat by 20 earlier this season.
5. Bradley (15-8, 6-5) Last Week: 5th
The Braves entered the week at 5-4 in the conference and were still holding onto slim hopes of a chance at the MVC title and an NCAA tournament bid. The Braves put on a show Tuesday night in front of a crowd of 11,444 at Carver Arena beating Illinois State 88-67 and keeping themselves within 1 game of the league lead. The Braves hit 13 of their first 14 shots and converted an incredible 71 percent in the first half in jumping out to a 54-32 halftime lead over their instate rival. The Braves hit 11 three point attempts and in doing so set the school for record for threes in a season with 229, besting the previous record of 224 set during the 1987-88 season. Daniel Ruffin recorded his second career double double with 16 points and 10 assists as all five Brave starters reached double figures. Will Franklin added a game-high 22 points and Zach Andrews finished with 19. Bradley then traveled to Springfield Saturday to take on the Missouri State Bears in a must win match up for both teams. The Braves trailed by just 2 at the half but the Bears went on a 7-0 run with just under 12 minutes to play and hit their free throws down the stretch to beat the Braves for the second time this season. The difference in the game was rebounding as the Bears beat the Braves on the glass 39-22. This loss could prove to be very costly for the Braves as they fell to fifth place in the MVC. Ruffin had 19 points and 7 assist and Franklin added 17 points for the Braves as they shot just 41 percent from the field while allowing the Bears to shoot 58 percent. Bradley will once again play a “must-win game” Wednesday against league leading Creighton. A win here and the Braves at-large hopes will stay alive. The Braves will fall to the Bluejays at home before beating Illinois State Saturday in Normal.
6. Wichita State (14-8, 5-6) Last Week: 7th
At 3-6 in the MVC, the Shockers faced desperation this past week if they hoped to resurrect their season that once looked to be very promising. Wichita indeed responded and won both their games to end their 2 game losing skid. The Shockers opened the week with a hard fought 82-77 win over Drake in which they almost blew a 15-point lead with 5 minutes to play. Sean Ogirri scored a career-high 29 points, including 5 three pointers, and Kyle Wilson added 14 points and 7 rebounds. Despite being out rebounded by 8, the Shockers had 19 assists compared to Drake’s 9. The Shockers then took the momentum they had gained from their win against Drake and turned it into a solid road win against an Evansville team who had been playing very solid basketball at home. With the game tied at 25 to start the second half, the Shockers opened the half on a 7-0 run and never looked back. Ogirri had 13 points to lead Wichita State and Wilson had 11 points and 5 rebounds. The Shockers dominated the Aces on the glass, out rebounding them 31-16. This upcoming week for the Shockers could quite possibly define their season. After winning two consecutive games last week, the Shockers will play two “must-win games” this week. First up is a trip to Cedar Falls to take on UNI Tuesday before welcoming league leading Southern Illinois on Saturday. If the Shockers can win these two games, they’ll put themselves back in the NCAA Tournament mix. A split is likely; although as good as they have been playing they could win both games.
7. Evansville (12-10, 5-6) Last Week: 8th
Coming off wins over Southern Illinois and Missouri State last week, the Evansville Purple Aces entered this past week’s action as the hottest team in the MVC. Evansville added to their streak by defeating Indiana State 50-49 Wednesday night. Trailing 47-46, Jason Holsinger picked the right time for his first bucket of the game as he scored to give the Aces a 1-point lead. The Sycamores then took the lead after Gabe Moore hit two free throws with 20 seconds left setting the stage for a dramatic finish. Following an Ace timeout, Holsinger scored on a driving lay up as time expired, giving the Aces the win. Bradley Strickland and Kyle Anslinger each had 12 points for Evansville. The Aces then saw their surprising three game winning streak come to an end when they dropped a game to Wichita State Saturday night 66-61. With the game tied at the half, the Aces gave up 7 consecutive points to start the second half and they were never able to recover as they fell to Shockers for the second time this season. Matt Webster had 15 points and 7 rebounds for the Aces as they were out rebounded 35-19. Strickland and Holsinger added 13 points a piece as the Aces fell to 5-6 in MVC action. Evansville travels to Illinois State Tuesday in a game the Aces should have no trouble winning. The Aces will then travel to Northern Iowa Saturday and lose to a very good UNI team.
8. Indiana State (11-9, 4-6) Last Week: 6th
After starting 4-1 in conference play and being one of the biggest surprises in the league, the Indiana State Sycamores have dropped their last 5 MVC games and have fallen all the way down to eighth place in the league. The Sycamores lost a heartbreaker Wednesday as they fell to Evansville 50-49 after the Aces hit a game winning shot at the buzzer. Gabe Moore gave ISU the lead with 20 seconds to go but Jason Holsinger ended the game with a lay up as time expired sending the Sycamores to their fourth consecutive conference defeat. Jay Tunnell and Gabe Moore led ISU with 10 points each and Adam Arnold pulled down 11 rebounds. Indiana State then went to Omaha to take on league leading Creighton in a game they had no chance at winning. The Bluejays sent ISU to their fifth consecutive conference defeat, beating the Sycamores 71-55. After falling behind 17-7, the Sycamores closed the gap and trailed by just 5 at the break. However, the Bluejays pushed the lead to 10 early in the second half and led by double figures the rest of the way. Trent Wurtz led ISU with 16 points and Tunnell added 13 as the Sycamores shot only 37 percent from the field while being out rebounded 40-27. In what once looked to be a turn around year for Indiana State has suddenly changed into another year of struggles in the MVC for the now 4-6 Sycamores. The Sycamore’s losing skid will likely hit 7 games this week as they play at Southern Illinois on Wednesday. Indiana State will then welcome Missouri State Saturday, a team they lost to by 20 points in their conference opener.
9. Drake (12-10, 3-8) Last Week: 10th
The MVC conference hasn’t been very kind to the Bulldogs as of late as they entered this past week’s action 2-7 in the Valley. Drake opened up the week going to Wichita to take on the Shockers and the Bulldogs came out on the wrong end of an 82-77 game. The Bulldogs trailed by 5 at the half and fell behind by 15 with 5 minutes to go before going on a run and narrowing the gap to just 2 points. The Shockers, however, hit their free throws down the stretch and Drake’s comeback effort came up short. Aliou Kieta and Josh Young, the MVC Newcomer of the Week, each had 15 points to lead Drake. The Bulldogs then entered their game Saturday against Northern Iowa Saturday as the underdog and they certainly enjoyed that role. Behind 23 points from Klayton Korver, the Bulldogs picked up their biggest win of the conference season, a 74-61 win over UNI. The Bulldogs trailed at the half by 1 but outscored the Panthers by 14 points in the second half to pick up their third win in as many tries against Division I teams from Iowa. Young added 15 points and Ajay Calvin had 13 more, to go along with 8 rebounds as the Bulldogs hit 10 three pointers in picking up their third MVC victory. Coming off a huge win last Saturday against UNI, the Bulldogs will welcome two more of the Valley Conference champion contenders. The Bulldogs will play the Missouri State Bears for the first time Wednesday in Des Moines before taking on league leader Creighton Saturday night. The Bulldogs will give both the Bears and Bluejays fits but will drop both games and in doing so remain in last place in the MVC.
10. Illinois State (11-11, 3-8) Last Week: 9th
After a very successful week the week before, the Redbirds of Illinois State took a huge step back this week and now find themselves in a tie for last place in the Valley. After a short lived two game winning streak, Illinois State went on the road for both their games this past week and came back to Normal with 2 losses and a 3-8 conference record. First, the Redbirds traveled to Bradley and suffered a 21-point loss to the Braves 88-67. Greg Dilligard led the Redbirds with 18 points as he hit all 8 of his field goal attempts. Levi Dyer had 11 points as the Redbirds fell behind early as they allowed Bradley hit 13 of their first 14 shoots. The Redbirds looked to bounce back from the blowout loss to Bradley Saturday and accomplish something nobody has done all year in beating Southern Illinois in Carbondale. The Redbirds gave the Salukis all they could handle before falling short in their upset bid losing 73-62. The Redbirds built a 5-point halftime lead after holding the Salukis to 37 percent shooting in the first half, but the Salukis caught fire in the second half shooting 64 percent and hitting 6 of 10 threes which destroyed the Redbirds hopes of an upset. Dyer led ISU with 18 points while Osiris Eldridge had 17 points and 8 rebounds. The Redbirds return home this week for a two game home stand before hitting the road again for 3 consecutive games. Illinois State will welcome a hot Evansville squad Tuesday before hosting Bradley on Saturday. Look for the Redbirds losing streak to hit 4 as they drop both their games this week.