|It's not just Creighton: Gregg Marshall and Wichita State are again a national threat. (Getty Images)|
In our preseason outlook of the Valley, we told you this league was on an upswing. The MVC is almost always entertaining. The 10-team setup allows for that perfect 18-game, round-robin scheduling. But this year, coaches in the league were saying things like, "It's the best talent overall this league has seen in more than five years" and "Doug McDermott should be the best player in basketball."
So far, those sentiments haven't proven incorrect. But let's catch you up, dive a little deeper on this league and show you what it's done, plus what's in store over the next eight weeks.
Here's our Missouri Valley reset ...
Teams with work to do: Indiana State, Illinois State
Teams already out, barring a miracle: The rest of the league
Most memorable moment to date: It has been a quiet-but-proud start to the season for the Valley. That said, the biggest moment so far is probably Indiana State's 57-55 overtime win against Miami on Christmas at the Diamond Head Classic. The W gave the Sycamores a solid league win combined with the evidence that the MVC would be more than a two-team league this season. It was also a pretty thrilling game.
Storyline you were too busy to notice: Wichita State is again a huge threat. Gregg Marshall's team is 12-1 and coming off a 66-41 conference-opening win against a Northern Iowa team that's capable of finishing top-four this season. It's not that Wichita State is again a good team -- Marshall has actually had better teams with each successive season since he has been Shockers coach -- it's that this group is fairly green. Most of last season's impact players, the team that played its way to a five seed, are gone.
Coach feeling the heat: I gotta say, there isn't a true candidate here. The team with the worst record -- and the only team below .500 -- is 3-10 Missouri State. But Paul Lusk is only in his second year, and Valley coaches get more time to build their programs. Maybe Drake's Mark Phelps? He's in his fifth year and hasn't made a tournament yet. But he is coming off an 18-win season, the most in his tenure, so even that's a stretch.
Player who needs to step up: Colt Ryan was never viewed as a true dark horse to steal the MVC MVP away from McDermott, but he was/still is seen as a top-five talent in this league. So far, the schemes against him have caused his numbers to slip and Evansville to get off to only a 7-6 start. Ryan is averaging 14.7 points per, down from more than 20 last season. His rebounds and steals are down, too, though he has ticked up in assists, dishing 3.7/game with an overall assist percentage of 33.1. That's one of the nicer rates in the nation.
Team better than its record: Has to be 7-6 Northern Iowa. The team has talent, good coaching and it was stacked against a monster field in the Bahamas (Missouri, Duke, VCU, Louisville, Stanford, Memphis). The Panthers have a decent win over Saint Mary's, but it's their lack of rebounding prowess combined with the tough non-con that has made them look average to the outsider. I think, despite getting waxed by Wichita State a few days ago, UNI ends up with an 11-7 league mark.
Team not as good as its record: At 9-4, Bradley doesn't have a good win to its name (George Washington and Drake are the best). But that doesn't mean it's a bad team. The power ratings of any system -- RPI, KenPom, Sagarin, Massey -- will show you this is a group that has non-calorie Ws. Sometimes that string of easy victories can have good carryover into league play, though.
Three must-see games:
- Creighton at Wichita State on Jan. 19
- Creighton at Illinois State on Jan. 2
- Wichita State at Illinois State on Feb. 17
Player of the Year favorite: Doug McDermott applies to both league and national appeal. We've written about him on the site plenty already -- and more's to come. An offensive machine who's gotten better on D and overall has a good chance to win the awards that he's up for because the talent around him supplements and complements his ability. Great player to watch. Wish he was on TV more.
Freshman of the Year favorite: The MVC is a look into the old-school style in that most of the time, freshmen do not come into this league and take over. You look at the leaders in major categories, and 1 through 10, at least, is almost always occupied by seniors and juniors. So a tip of the cap to Illinois State's Kaza Keane for coming in and putting up a second-best-in-the-Valley 4.8 assists per game. It's even more impressive considering ISU coach Dan Muller admitted in the preseason that the team's biggest weakness was at the point. Keane has been great in making the Redbirds a legit threat.
Probable all-league team: Doug McDermott (Creighton), Grant Gibbs (Creighton), Jackie Carmichael (Illinois State), Carl Hall (Wichita State), Desmar Jackson (Southern Illinois)
Ranking the teams from first to worst ...
- Creighton: This isn't as no-doubt-about-it as you might think, given how much pub Creighton has gotten going back to early October. But the wins and metrics don't lie to this point, nor does the fact the team has the best player and the best starting five. Still ...
- Wichita State: The Shockers are not that far behind. And I'm telling you, this group can and should keep Creighton from running away with the league. I think the Valley will ultimately wind up with three teams in the NCAA this year, the top two being locks by mid-February.
- Illinois State: The Redbirds have a future pro in Jackie Carmichael. But as stated above, the play of Keane at the point has been vital. The inspiring point: ISU is 2-2 on the road, the two losses being a three-point one at Louisville (they're kind of good) and a two-point one to start league play over the weekend against ...
- Indiana State: The Sycamores, who are a win away this Saturday from truly turning heads. That game is on the road against Creighton. Tough task. And, before that, on the road against Northern Iowa. Starting off 3-0 in MVC is unlikely. But if it pulled it off, oh, look out -- what fun that would be.
- Northern Iowa: Have already spoken some in this preview about UNI; let me add that Ben Jacobson's team is hindered only by the fact that it doesn't have a go-to scorer and it's beyond anemic in offensive rebounding. That combination is what keeps UNI from being a realistic tournament team this year, despite the fact it will be a tough out in league play.
- Evansville: The Aces' 1.40 assist-to-turnover ratio is only bested in-league by Creighton. This is not a one-man team. That said, if Colt Ryan doesn't put up 20 in league play, Evansville won't crack the top half of the standings.
- Bradley: Strong start, and I'll admit I'm vulnerable to underrating this team from this standpoint: They have an average experience of 2.27 years, according to KenPom.com, which is the 21st-oldest team in the country. Experience in a league that thrives on play from juniors and seniors. I'm ready to eat my words, should it come to that.
- Southern Illinois: Good movement here for SIU, a team many thought would be last in its first year under new coach Barry Hinson. But Wyoming transfer Desmar Jackson has been the difference that many coaches in the MVC expected him to be.
- Drake: It sounds simple: Ball's gotta go in or they won't win games. Extrapolate that: Drake's one of the best-shooting teams in the league, but it's easily the worst club on the boards. Hey, Bulldogs, time to put a little less faith in your shooters, tough as that might be.
- Missouri State: Long season is halfway done for the Bears. Their two out-of-league wins came against teams that are not in D-I. But -- but, but, but -- the bright side just came with a league-opening W against Southern Illinois. In the big picture, though, I think SIU finishes ahead of Missouri State by season's end.
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