The Missouri Valley Conference has shown itself to be one of the better "mid-major" conferences in recent history, with schools representing itself well in the NCAA Tournament with Northern Iowa (2010), Southern Illinois (2007), Wichita State (2006) and Bradley (2006) making the Sweet Sixteen in the past five seasons.
This year, the conference is not up to it's recent form, ranking 12th in conference RPI. Despite this downturn, the conference race is still hotly contested. As we approach the last month of the regular season, it is time to rank the teams and take a look at their post-season chances.
The thud you are hearing are not thousands of blackbirds falling from the sky, but the ISU Redbirds falling from three straight 20-win seasons to the cellar of the MVC. ISU has not won in over a month as their last win was December 20th over UNC-Wilmington (62-60 OT). The wave of optimism following a 8-3 start, albeit with wins against weak opponents (213th ranked strength of schedule) was washed away once conference play started.
Sophomore Jackie Carmichael leads the young Redbirds (nine underclassmen on the roster) with 10.7 points and 4.5 rebounds a game. Coach Jankovich is going to have to work hard to keep the team upbeat as they face the team’s worst Valley start since the 2002-03 season.
Chances to make the dance: Zero. Right now, ISU has to just play for pride and I-74 bragging rights as they play the first of two games against fellow 0-fer Bradley on January 26th.
The Braves season can be summed up in one word: streaky. Bradley started the year out on a high note, winning their first four games, including a 64-63 win over USC. The Braves then went on a five-game skid, culminating in a 83-48 beating at the hands of then No. 1 Duke. Hope was starting to rise as Bradley won two games just before Christmas. Little did the team know that those would be their last wins this season as they have gone on an 8-game losing streak.
Like their neighbors to the southeast, the Braves are a young squad, featuring eight underclassmen and only three seniors. Senior guard Andrew Warren spearheads the Bradley attack averaging 19.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
Chances to make the dance: Zero. Like fellow cellar dweller Illinois State, it is time to play for pride and I-74 bragging rights as they host the Redbirds on January 26th.
Drake seems headed to their third straight bottom-three finish in the MVC after winning it all in 2007-08. Third-year coach Mark Phelps has done a good job recruiting, but has not managed to get the results so far. The Bulldogs results have been predictable as they have done well against inferior competition in conference (64-58 over Bradley; 76-68 over Illinois State) but have suffered some bad losses to poor teams (67-59 to Darthmouth; 59-52 to Iowa) and blown out against better teams (91-43 to Iowa State; 82-39 to St. John's)
Freshman guard Rayvonte Rice leads the Bulldogs with 13.2 points and 4.9 rebounds a game. Considering the fact that Drake is 320th in rebounding (30.0 per game), the fact that dynamic Rice is leading the team is not surprising.
Chances to make the dance: Zero. This young team (12 underclassmen and only one senior) is taking their share of lumps this season, but all signs are pointing to a return to the top half of the conference in 2011-12.
Evansville's record is reflective of their play: up and down. After losing two straight, the Aces beat then No. 23 Butler back in November, only then to lose two more contests. In MVC play, they handed the Sycamores their only conference loss, but then lost by double digits to Northern Iowa and Missouri State in consecutive games.
Sophomore guard Colt Ryan (15.5 ppg and 3.2 rpg) and junior forward Kenny Harris (9.9 ppg and 7.1 rpg) have taken control of this young team (eight underclassmen and only three seniors). Like the schools below them in the rankings, the Aces are looking to be in much better shape for next season.
Chances to make the dance: Very slim. If the team that beat Indiana State shows up, the Aces can make a run in the MVC tourney. If not, with their current RPI (148), a strong finish in conference play may lead to a trip to either the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament or the College Basketball Invitational Tournament.
The Salukis get the No. 6 nod only because of their 67-55 win against Evansville on January 18th. If not for that, they would be lower as they have become the Seattle Seahawks of the MVC, with six of their nine losses being by double digits.
Coach Lowery has to start to feel the heat as this senior class will graduate without a trip to the big dance and only a second round appearance in the NIT on their resume. Senior forward Carlton Fay leads the team with 12.7 points per game, so the Salukis need to have some of the underclassmen to step up to help the team move forward.
Chances to make the dance: Very slim. If the team can channel the 2006-07 Salukis they can make a run in the MVC tournament. If not, they will need some luck to extend their season into mid-March.
The Bluejays are at a crossroad 20 games into the season. Currently, they are sitting at 13-7, losers of two of their last three and the No. 126 RPI. However, they can put themselves back into the conference title hunt the next eight days as they hit the road to player Missouri State and Northern Iowa and then host Indiana State. Going at least two for three is needed to keep their regular season dreams alive. Anything less, and Creighton will be back in the middle of the MVC pack.
Keeping with the theme in the MVC, Creighton is a young team with 12 underclassmen on their rosters.The Bluejays are lead by Freshman forward Doug McDermott, who is averaging 13.6 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.
Chances to make the dance: Very slim. If the team can turn the clock back to 2008-2009, the Bluejays can make a run for the regular season and tourney titles. If they can't accomplish that, they will be looking for a trip to the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament or the College Basketball Invitational Tournament.
The Shockers are not shocking anyone this season as they are following up last season's 25-10 record with a solid 15-4 start. While they have dropped two of their last four (56-56 to Missouri State and 77-74 to Northern Iowa), Wichita State still has a good chance of winning the regular season title. Looming in the next month are return dates with two teams that beat them and two matchups with Indiana State.
This seasoned team is lead by Senior guard David Kyles (11.7 ppg) and Junior forward J.T. Durley (11.5 ppg). Also playing a major role is Junior guard Toure' Murry, who is leading the team with 3.5 assists per game, while chipping in 9.9 points and five rebounds per game.
Chances to make the dance: The Shockers are on the bubble at this point. Currently, WSU sits at No. 54 in the RPI, though Joe Lunardi currently has them as a No. 10 seed in his latest Bracketology. If the Shockers do not step it up down the stretch, with upsets looming in conference tournaments, a trip to the NIT seems more likely than the big dance.
While this is not the same Panther team that grabbed Cinderella's slipper last season, this year's edition is still a quality club. Some non-conference struggles (65-63 loss to Milwaukee and 51-39 loss to Iowa) was replaced by a five-game winning streak to enter conference play. Two heartbreaking losses (58-57 to Missouri State and 57-55 to Southern Illinois) and a blowout loss to Indiana State left the Panthers at 1-3.
While the Panthers lacking in experience (12 underclassmen), they are led by Seniors Kwadzo Ahelegbe (12.7 ppg) and Lucas O'Rear (7.1 ppg and 5.9 rpg). Coach Jacobson appears to have reloaded as he is trying to lead his young Panthers a conference regular season and postseason three-peat. As the season is moving along, UNI is starting to hit their stride and is going to be a hard out the rest of the way.
Chances to make the dance: Northern Iowa is on the bubble at this point, sitting with the No. 66 RPI. If they play like they have in their last four games, they can win against the teams ahead of them in the next month, giving them a chance to move into the field and compete for the conference title. If not, a trip to the NIT is in their future.
The Bears were about ready to run away and hide with the MVC until they stumbled Wednesday and lost 70-69 at Indiana State. Even with the loss, the Bears are looking to be one of the teams to beat as the conference schedule prepares for the second half. Prior to their loss, the Bears were on a roll, winning 13 of their last 14, only losing 84-70 at Oklahoma State in December.
Junior forward Kyle Weems leads the veteran squad in points (16.1 ppg) and rebounds (6.7 rpg). The Bears, who won last year's CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament (CIT), have responded wonderfully to the work of Coach Martin, turning the Bears into a winner in just his third season.
Chances to make the dance: Right now, Missouri State is in the best shape to make the dance without winning the conference tournament (No. 39 RPI). Unless they are massively snubbed, this team will not have to worry about the NIT or having to defend their CIT title.
The Sycamores have been a team of two seasons. Struggling in their non-conference schedule, ISU entered 2011 at 6-6. Following a five-point loss at Evansville on New Year's Day, Terre Haute's finest have not looked back as they have reeled off six straight conference wins. Wednesday's win over conference co-leader Missouri State is what has pushed ISU to the top of the rankings.
ISU's continuing success can be placed on the back of a pair of juniors, guard Dwayne Lathan (12.4 ppg) and forward Carl Richard (10.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg). They will both need to step up Saturday at Wichita State, which will be an indicator if the Sycamores are for real or just a tree ready to be toppled.
Chances to make the dance: ISU's No. 93 RPI makes winning the MVC Tourney a must. Otherwise, a trip to the NIT or a return trip to the College Basketball Invitational Tournament may be in order.