Conference Reset: Wichita State is clear king in the Missouri Valley

The Shockers are still unbeaten. When will that first loss come? (USATSI)
The Shockers are still unbeaten. When will that first loss come? (USATSI)

We once again are doing our midseason catchup on the 11 biggest leagues in college basketball. We’re going to run these on the day leagues start conference play – or at least as close to them as possible. The Missouri Valley gets underway with intra-league play on Wednesday, so let’s take a gander.

Here’s the Missouri Valley reset:

Teams on track to make the Field of 68: Wichita State.

Teams with work to do: Indiana State, Drake.

Teams already out, barring a miracle: Everybody else.

Most memorable moment to date: Who'd have thought Southern Illinois would provide it? But Barry Hinson's postgame screed against his team after a 73-65 loss to Murray State on Dec. 17 went viral, then it went national. It was one of the biggest stories in sports the next day, in part because Hinson was self-deprecating -- but also harsh on his team. He was criticized for that, but he also apologized for singling out one of his players.

Storyline you were too busy to notice: Indiana State has emerged as a solid No. 2 team in this league. The Sycamores have won 18 games the past two seasons, but this year Greg Lansing -- an underrated coach, nationally -- has his team on track to crack 20 wins. If ISU can beat Wichita State at least once, dodge any bad losses in the league and finish with two losses or less, it'll have a chance for an at-large bid. Jake Odum is the star guard, but the offense isn't a concern. Can the D get adjusted and become one of the best in the league?

Coach feeling the heat: This season there probably isn't a candidate for this category in 2013-14. Hinson's SIU team isn't good but he's not in trouble; the administration and fan base very much like him at his post for now.

Player who needs to step up: To me, I keep coming back to Indiana State. Justin Gant is a 6-9 guy grabbing less than four rebounds per game. He's going to need to up his production in just about every facet in order to make the Valley a two-team race at the top. The junior Gant is no waif; he's 230 pounds and still not even getting a block per game, either.

Team better than its record: Considering it has one of the best players in the league, Bradley and its 5-8 mark gets the nod here. Walt Lemon, Jr. can't do it alone. The Braves have dropped six straight and didn't win one game in December. I think the team gets to .500 by season's end.

Team not as good as its record: Missouri State is out in front of things, starting 10-2, but the strength of schedule isn't that great. Paul Lusk's team will definitely be in the top half of the league, but a comedown is coming. That said, this is absolutely your dark horse pick to steal the conference title come Arch Madness, when the league plays its conference tournament.

Three must-see games:

  1. Indiana State at Drake (Jan. 8)
  2. Wichita State at Drake (Jan. 25)
  3. Wichita State at Indiana State (Feb. 5)

Player of the Year favorite: Cleanthony Early of Wichita State. Early's got a lot of talent around him, but he's leading WSU in scoring and was the pick in the preseason. No reason to stray from that projection right now. His game has not gotten significantly better from a season ago, but if you watch WSU play, you'll see how he's as well-rounded a player as this league has.

Freshman of the Year favorite: Loyola's Milton Doyle will win this award going away. He's scoring 15.1 points per game, which is more than six points above the frosh in second place (Blake Simmons of Evansville) and fifth overall in the MVC. Doyle's also grabbing four board, dishing three dimes and swiping more than one steal per. Fantastic debut. He'll be on the conference's preseason First Team next year.

Probable all-league team:

Cleanthony Early (Wichita State); Jake Odum (Indiana State); Ron Baker (Wichita State); Richard Carter (Drake); D.J. Balentine (Evansville)

Ranking the teams from first to worst:

1. Wichita State: There's no doubt. What's going to become a topic of conversation: How long can the undefeated Shockers remain that way? I've a self-imposed ban on seriously talking undefeated season until February, though. So let's talk other things. Like how WSU's already beaten BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee and Alabama. It's unclear if any of those teams will make the NCAA tournament, but no doubt about the fact they help give WSU a solid non-conference resume. The Shockers are scoring an MVC-best 77.4 points and allowing an MVC-lowest 62.1 per game. They also have a 1.3 assist-to-turnover ratio, tops in the conference. The time is now for the Shockers, who have a better team this year than the Final Four club from a year ago. Tekele Cotton and Fred Van Vleet are superb pieces that most teams at this level don't have.

2. Indiana State: The Sycs are shooting 51 percent from the field, making them the most reliable team in that realm in the Valley. The SOS overall is at 169 on KenPom, which is no surprise, but it might be shielding how good this team really is. Who I want to see more of: Khristisan Smith, who is the secret weapon. He only shoots two 3-pointers per game, but his 57.9 percentage from deep is best in the league. Jake Odum could also really get it going here. He's averaging 13.5 points, basically his mark from a year ago, but should boost to 15/game by February.

3. Drake: The Bulldogs are looking swell in their first year under Ray Giacoletti. Concerning: They lack a top-100 offense and defense on, but within the league Drake ranks No. 2 in defensive points per possession (.979). Its 8.3 steals per game is best in the Valley. And the RPI sits at No. 64, which isn't that bad for a Valley team heading into league play. It'll more than likely need to win the conference tournament to earn a bid, but at this point Drake's played above expectations.

4. Missouri State: If Missouri State -- which turns it over just 8.7 times per game, a spectacular rate -- can keep playing responsible basketball, then it will absolutely have a shot at finishing second in this league. The club's yet to lose at home this season. Sophomore guard Marcus Marshall has played above expectations. The team is stacked with guys who crash the glass well. Veteran club. Will not easily be beaten.

5. Northern Iowa: Nate Buss averages 1.36 points per shot, tops in the league. Seth Tuttle averages 7.8 rebounds, top in the league. So why can't Northern Iowa be higher than fifth? The team's allowing 1.03 points per possession and scoring 1.01. That doesn't bode well for the future. Overall, it's a young team. There are flashes of promise, but it's not going to be consistent enough to finish in the top three.

6. Illinois State: One of the youngest teams in the country. A complete roster overhaul. The fact the Redbirds are 7-5 to this point is a testament to Dan Muller's coaching. Not a disciplined team when it comes to fouls. Hacks foes 25 times per game, worst in the league. Best player to this point has been a junior named Bobby Hunter. He's 5-10 and scoring roughly 1.2 points per possession.

7. Evansville: Have the league's leading scorer in D.J. Baletine, currently averaging 22.8. Duane Gibson leads the league in assist rate, dishing a dime in 49 percent of his possessions. I don't know how good this team is. It's lost close ones to Butler, Jackson State, Murray State and Xavier. I think seventh overall is fair. The team isn't exceptional in any major category on a national level, except for free throw rate (51.1 percent of its shots are foul shots).

8. Bradley: The offense has been unbearable at times. It currently ranks 297th on KenPom, which is honestly about 100 spots lower than it should be. A lot of that is Walt Lemon, Jr., who can score but has needed a lot of shots to do it. Tyshon Pickett, also a senior, has led the league in points per possession so far. If the Braves can find a way to score more effectively from inside 10 feet, it will do wonders.

9. Southern Illinois: It's Desmar Jackson's 26.5 points-per-40-minutes ratio that is best in the MVC. Jackson was expected to be this good ... and the team was expected to be in the bottom three in the league.

10. Loyola: It's the first year for the Ramblers as members of this league, replacing Creighton. The group's got a long way to go. Bright spots? It's fifth overall in PPP offense and only fouls teams 17 times per game, second-best in the league. But it's a group that plays SO slowly and isn't able to make offense in the half-court because it lacks play-making ability. Unlikely this team will have more than 10 wins.

CBS Sports Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. He's in his seventh season covering college basketball for CBS, and also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics and... Full Bio

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