Missouri Valley's 10 Best Opportunities for Statement Wins in 2012

Andrew SteierContributor IIINovember 13, 2012

Missouri Valley's 10 Best Opportunities for Statement Wins in 2012

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    The Missouri Valley Conference is off to a solid start after a few days of the 2012-2013 season.  The conference’s overall 9-2 record includes numerous victories against over-matched teams and two losses to top 20 teams.

    Despite this sufficient early season mark, there are plenty of opportunities for Missouri Valley teams to claim valuable wins for their own resumes as well as to improve the overall strength of the conference.

    Let’s take a look at the ten best opportunities for Missouri Valley Conference teams to register quality non-conference wins in the 2012-2013 season.

Honorable Mention

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    Missouri State vs. South Carolina, November 24

    Northern Iowa vs. George Mason, December 8

    Illinois State vs. Dayton, December 19

    Evansville vs. Butler, December 22

    Wichita State vs. Southern Miss, December 22

10. Illinois State vs. Drexel

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    This is admittedly a difficult matchup for Illinois State.  While the Redbirds were lost in the large cluster of middle teams in the Missouri Valley last year, Drexel was dominant in the CAA.  And after missing the NCAA tournament thanks to a three-point loss to VCU in the CAA tournament, expect Drexel to be on a mission to finish the year strong this time around.

    The good news for Illinois State is that Kent State exposed some of Drexel’s weaknesses in their season opener.  If the Redbirds are able to take advantage of the same Drexel shortcomings, they will be on their way to a strong non-conference record.  But don’t expect Drexel to accept an 0-2 mark easily to start the 2012 campaign after their run of success last year.

9. Indiana State vs. Ole Miss

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    The Sycamores were clearly outclassed in their season-opener against the upstart UCLA Bruins, even without Shabazz Muhammad.  The Bruins shot better from the outside, shot better from the free-throw line and destroyed Indiana State on the boards.

    The Sycamores will be much better suited for their December 22 matchup with Ole Miss.  Indiana State will likely match up much better with the less athletic Rebels and will have a much more cohesive offense deeper into the season.  However, if Indiana State can perform well in the rest of their non-conference games, the question remains whether they can follow it up with a better conference run, which is what let them down a year ago.

8. Northern Iowa vs. St. Mary’s

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    On December 22, Northern Iowa finishes off its tough non-conference schedule with a home game against the St. Mary’s Gaels.  While their matchup with Louisville provides an extraordinary upset opportunity, this game against the Gaels could be a virtual tournament play-in game by season’s end.

    Both of these teams find themselves in similar situations going into this season.  Despite taking center stage in their conferences a couple years ago, both now live in the shadows of conference giants Creighton and Gonzaga.  With both unlikely to capture their conferences’ automatic bids, this game could be crucial when the committee sorts through mid-major resumes in March.

7. Drake vs. Iowa State

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    A season ago, the Drake Bulldogs endured one of the hardest seasons of ups and downs one could imagine.  They began their conference schedule with a 5-3 start, fell to a 6-8 mark and eventually finished at 9-9.

    Their non-conference performance was no different.  Despite falling to Boise State by 44 and being the only Valley team to fall to Iowa, they registered a quality win against Iowa State, the eventual third place team in the Big 12, in their second game.  Drake may be a middle-of-the-road team in the Missouri Valley, but they once again have the opportunity to make a splash and secure a quality win for themselves and the rest of the conference on December 15.

6. Wichita State vs. Depaul

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    The Shockers are going to look like an entirely new team this season.  Having lost their top five scorers from a year ago, Wichita State is going to have to start from the ground up and find points from somewhere else in their ranks.

    So while making a big splash in a game at Tennessee is rather unlikely, this game against Depaul November 20 will offer the Shockers with their best opportunity to tally a win over a major conference team.  Depaul may be improved in 2012, but it is doubtful they will have made enough progress to put this victory out of reach for Wichita State.

5. Northern Iowa vs. Iowa

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    While their games against Louisville and UNLV are quality wins that can really earn a tourney bid for the Panthers, their December 15 game against Iowa may be more about avoiding a bad loss.  Truth be told, a win over Iowa will not impress the committee.  But a loss to a poor Big Ten team could hurt the Panthers if they find themselves on the bubble in March.

    Northern Iowa can and should win this game.  In last year’s matchup, the Panthers embarrassed the Hawkeyes by 20 points.  Don’t expect Iowa to forget that.  This will likely be a much closer encounter.

4. Creighton vs. California

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    The second-biggest non-conference test for the Bluejays will come on December 15 when Creighton heads to California.  The Golden Bears tied for second in the Pac-12 in the regular season last year and was knocked out by South Florida in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

    Despite losing a couple of the major contributors from their 2011-2012 rosters, California returns a strong corps of players and is poised to contend again in the Pac-12.  The Bears play extremely well at home where they remained undefeated last year until February.  The Bluejays will have to perform well to add this quality win to their tournament resume.

3. Northern Iowa vs. UNLV

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    Early in the 2012-2013 season, the UNLV Rebels are a very fashionable mid-major pick, having already risen to an 18th national ranking in both polls.  Many are touting UNLV as one of the best teams on the west coast, even ahead of many Pac-12 teams.  But Northern Iowa is also gaining respect, albeit much more quietly than the Rebels.

    These two teams with high expectations for the year will take the floor in Las Vegas December 19 and provide a perfect measuring stick for the Missouri Valley and the Mountain West.  Last year, the Missouri Valley won the battle as Wichita State handed UNLV their first loss and Creighton knocked off San Diego State.   Expect another hard-fought battle here as the Valley’s No. 2 takes on the Mountain West Conference’s best.

2. Wichita State vs. Virginia Commonwealth University

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    This November 13 matchup is intriguing on many levels.  VCU is perhaps the most notorious of all mid-majors after their historic tournament run a couple years ago that propelled their school and their iconic coach, Shaka Smart, into the national spotlight.

    Yet more important than that is the revenge that the Shockers must have in mind after being upset by the 12-seeded Rams in last year’s tournament.  In a season-long assessment of mid-major conferences, this game between Missouri Valley and CAA heavyweights could have large implications for the national perceptions of each conference.

1. Creighton vs. Wisconsin

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    On November 23 Creighton squares off against Wisconsin in the most high-profile non-conference matchup for the Missouri Valley all year.  Creighton’s highly experienced squad will receive its toughest test of the season from a Badger team that finished one game out of the Big Ten lead a year ago.

    And the good news for the Jays: this is a much better matchup than their last major test, a season-ending loss to North Carolina last year.  While the athleticism and multitude of scoring threats of the Tar Heels caused obvious problems for an already suspect Creighton defense, Wisconsin is a completely different type of team.  Built around efficient but not explosive offense and staunch defense, Bo Ryan’s slow and systematic style of basketball will be a very intriguing matchup for the high-scoring Bluejays.  And if Creighton can pull out a victory, it will not be forgotten come selection time in the spring.