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Missouri Valley Notebook

February 4, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Missouri Valley Conference Notebook

by Neal Heston

Bottoms Up

As the regular season heads into its final full month of action, the conference races are just heating up. And even with an unbeaten Southern Illinois team sitting at the top of the standings, the Missouri Valley is still up for grabs.

Though Southern Illinois was picked to finish fifth in the preseason and received no first place votes, here the Salukis are sitting right where they were last season – in first place. Right behind them, to no surprise, is Creighton. The two squads face off on Saturday in Omaha. Could this marquee matchup be a preview of the championship in the conference tournament next month? The easy answer is yes, but before you do that, consider the noise being made at the bottom of the standings.

Three teams, Bradley, Illinois State and Evansville, entered play last week with just one conference victory. All three nearly reeled off two wins, with no loss by more than five points. Thanks to this play, teams racing for the MVC title took a serious hit. Northern Iowa, Southwest Missouri State and Creighton each found out last week how close the gap now is as the teams at the bottom are turning the corner. Creighton was the only of the three to escape without a loss.

Bradley is quickly turning things around as Philip Gilbert has now returned from his injury. If James Gillingham and Marcello Robinson can continue fighting through their minor injuries, the majority of those conference losses can now shift to the win column in upcoming rematches. Gilbert should provide some momentum to keep Bradley on the winning track as the Braves are 8-3 with him, 1-9 without him.

Illinois State is another team with a misleading record. The Redbirds have dropped several close contests to very good teams. Of their eight conference losses, only two have been by 10 points or more. Imagine what the their resume would look like if a couple more bounces had gone their way in road losses at Utah State and Illinois. The monkey was finally taken off ISU’s back last week in a win at Northern Iowa.

After a horrid start, Evansville has suddenly raised several eyebrows after taking down Southwest Missouri State and nearly upsetting Creighton. Though the Purple Aces probably won’t make as much noise as Bradley and Illinois State, they won’t be easy to put away.

So as you’re watching the SIU-Creighton game on ESPN2 this Saturday, just think twice about their invincibility in St. Louis next month. Though the three squads at the bottom have been eliminated from the regular season title, they will be no picnic to play in the final stretch and could even be the team stealing an automatic bid to the NCAA tourney. Sorry bubble teams.

If the season ended today:

Southern Illinois, Creighton, Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Southwest Missouri State and Indiana State would rest during the first round of the MVC tournament.

Seeds seven through 10, including Drake, Illinois State, Evansville and Bradley, would be in action in the opening round.

Bubble Watch

In: Southern Illinois (17-2 / 11-0), Creighton (16-2 / 8-2)
Bubble Bursts: Wichita State (13-7 / 6-4), Northern Iowa (11-7 / 6-4), Southwest Missouri State (14-8 / 6-5)

Pairings for Bracket Busters II announced

All ten teams in the MVC will be participating in the second year of Bracket Busters on Feb. 21. The Valley went 4-0 in last season’s competition and won all of the rematch games again this season. A few marquee matchups include:

• Creighton at Kent State
• Hawaii at Southern Illinois
• Austin Peay at Wichita State

Player of the Week

Darren Brooks, Southern Illinois

With good reason, SIU’s Darren Brooks was named MVC Player of the Week for the second time this season. Brooks was sensational in both games last week, putting up 25 points in a big win over Wichita State and scoring another 13 against Northern Iowa in addition to grabbing eight rebounds, dishing out six assists and getting three blocks.

Newcomer of the Week

Marcellus Sommerville, Bradley

After a six-week drought, Sommerville received the honor for the fourth time this season. He put up a double-double in a losing cause to Drake and added another 19 points in a win over Illinois State.

Touring the Valley

Bradley (9-12 / 2-8)

Last Week: lost to Drake 62-57 (OT), defeated Illinois State 57-54

Bradley was on both ends of squeakers after losing a heartbreaker to Drake at home and going into Normal for a three-point win over Illinois State. Marcellus Sommerville contributed strong performances as he averaged 17 points in the two games. He put up a double-double against Drake with 15 points and 12 rebounds. James Gillingham also contributed double digit performances in both games. To no surprise against a tough Drake defense, the Braves couldn’t overcome 28 turnovers in Wednesday’s loss.

Senior guard Phillip Gilbert returned to action against the Redbirds on Saturday. He put up eight points as the Braves snapped an eight-game skid. Bradley is now 8-3 in games where Gilbert participates and 1-9 without him.

Bradley returns to action this week against Evansville on Wednesday and then will travel to Wichita State on Sunday. With the starting lineup now intact, Bradley is in good position to pick up a first round bye for the MVC tournament. The Brave’s 2-8 league mark is just two games behind sixth-place Drake and Indiana State. The top six teams in the standings receive a bye.

Creighton (16-2 / 8-2)

Last week: defeated Indiana State 61-44, defeated Evansville 74-70

After surviving a scare in Evansville, Creighton sits alone in second place with two victories last week. Nate Funk and Kellen Miliner scored in double digits during both contests for the Bluejays, including career-highs in Evansville (Funk with 21 points and Miliner with 20). The Bluejays used strong shooting, going 52% from the field and draining eight treys to squeeze past Evansville.

This week will reveal a lot about Creighton as Northern Iowa will stop in Omaha on Wednesday as well as Southern Illinois on Saturday. Saturday’s contest will be televised on ESPN2 at 2 p.m.

Drake (8-10 / 4-6)

Last week: defeated Bradley 62-57 (OT), lost to Wichita State 70-60

Splitting a pair of games this week pulled Drake into a sixth-place tie with Indiana State. After missing four games, Joshua Robinson returned to the Drake lineup and led the Bulldogs to their first win at Bradley since 1993. Robinson led Drake with 12 points in the win.

Wichita State made its way into Des Moines over the weekend to get revenge over the Bulldogs. Lonnie Randolph put up 18 points and eight rebounds in the defeat.

A pair of tough, contests are on the slate for this week. Indiana State will visit Des Moines on Wednesday, with the victor moving alone into sixth place. The Bulldogs head into Evansville on Saturday, whose 3-15 record is very misleading.

Evansville (3-15 / 2-8)

Last week: defeated Southwest Missouri State 68-66, lost to Creighton 74-70

Evansville remains in a tie for last place in the conference, but February will not be meaningless. At 2-8, the Purple Aces are still only two games out for clinching a first round bye in the MVC tournament next month. The play last week against teams in the upper half of the conference should give UE confidence in accomplishing that.

Southwest Missouri State’s attempt to keep pace with Southern Illinois and Creighton was spoiled by Evansville last Wednesday, and the Purple Aces turned around to nearly upset Creighton on Sunday. Both games were well played by UE, and four players reached double figures in both contests. Deywane Lee and Clint Cuffle recorded double-doubles in the win over SMS.

The path to clinching that sixth place spot for the bye next month won’t get off to an easy start with a road date to resurging Bradley on Wednesday and a home contest with Drake on Saturday.

Illinois State (6-12 / 2-8)

Last week: defeated Northern Iowa 68-60, lost to Bradley 57-54

Illinois State made a statement to every team in the Missouri Valley last week: Don’t take the Redbirds lightly. ISU stepped on Northern Iowa’s court and snapped the Panther’s seven-game winning streak at home. The week was nearly perfect, but the Redbirds couldn’t overcome the return of Bradley’s Philip Gilbert on Saturday and dropped another close one. Trey Guidry gave strong performances with 17 points against UNI and 14 against Bradley.

ISU has more chances to play spoiler this week and also move themselves in position for a first round bye in the conference tournament. Wichita State visits Normal on Wednesday, and a road trip to Southwest Missouri State is set for Saturday. Both opponents can’t afford more losses if they are to keep pace with league leader Southern Illinois.

Indiana State (8-10 / 4-6)

Last week: lost to Creighton 61-44, lost to Southwest Missouri State 52-39

Defense was good all week for the Sycamores, but ISU failed to score more than 44 points in two losses. Indiana State played well in both contests but just couldn’t connect. The Sycamores managed just 41 percent shooting against Creighton and 20 percent against SMS.

A trip through Iowa this week leaves the Sycamores with an opportunity to move into sixth place alone in the MVC standings. Two losses could knock them down to last place by the weekend. Road dates to Drake on Wednesday and Northern Iowa on Saturday are slated this week.

Northern Iowa (11-7 / 6-4)

Last week: lost to Illinois State 68-60, lost to Southern Illinois 63-53

Northern Iowa was rolling until Illinois State took the wheels out from under the Panthers last Wednesday. The outcome was shocking to both sides as the Redbirds claimed their first road victory of the season against a UNI team that had won seven straight at home. The Panthers tried to pick up the pieces as they traveled to Southern Illinois on Saturday. A well-played game, especially on the defensive end, kept UNI within striking distance until the end. Southern Illinois was too strong though and held on for the close win.

This week won’t be any easier for UNI. A trip to Omaha is on tap for Wednesday against a Creighton team that will be looking to get revenge against the Panthers. Indiana State will stop in Cedar Falls on Saturday.

Southern Illinois (17-2 / 11-0)

Last week: defeated Wichita State 84-79, defeated N. Iowa 63-53, defeated SMS 59-52

The Salukis continue to get snubbed out of the top 25 in the AP and Coaches polls, but that could possibly be a good thing after all the upsets last week. Southern Illinois kept cruising and avoided upsets against Wichita State and Northern Iowa. The Salukis got the job done against Wichita State with offense, led by 25 points from Darren Brooks and another 18 by Stetson Hairston. Defense was the key against Northern Iowa on Saturday as SIU held the Panthers to 38 percent from the field.

The Salukis kept on rolling Tuesday after jumping out to a 14-point lead at halftime against Southwest Missouri State. They held on for the 59-52 win and now sit 2 ½ games ahead of Creighton for the league lead. Speaking of Creighton, the Bluejays will be SIU’s next opponent as the two face off in Omaha Saturday. The game will be televised on ESPN2 at 2 p.m.

Southwest Missouri State (14-8 / 6-5)

Last week: lost to Evansville 68-66, defeated Indiana State 52-39, lost to S. Illinois 59-52

The defense continues to click, but SMS is still struggling to put up points. The Bears have failed to reach 60 points in five of the last six contests. Yet, the defense has only allowed more than 70 points in one of their last 12 games.

At 6-5 in the league, the Bears are likely just fighting for a high seed in the conference tournament. A five-game deficit should be too much to overcome, considering how Southern Illinois keeps rolling.

Overcoming the shooting woes won’t be easy this weekend as a stingy Illinois State defense enters Hammons Student Center. The Bears managed just 42 points in the teams’ first meeting on Jan. 18.

Wichita State (13-7 / 6-4)

Last week: lost to Southern Illinois 84-79, defeated Drake 70-60

Wichita State nearly overcame a 13-point deficit to Southern Illinois, but there just wasn’t enough left. Jamar Howard contributed a double-double in the loss with 25 points and 10 boards. Randy Burns added another 18 points in the loss.

Revenge was the name of the game as WSU took down the Bulldogs on Saturday. Burns and Howard each scored in double figures again as both recorded double-doubles. The Shockers were able to overcome 28 turnovers by hitting nine of 20 from behind the arc and 19 of 22 free throws.

Contests against the bottom of the conference are on the schedule this week. It won’t be easy though with a road contest at Illinois State on Wednesday and a home game against Bradley on Sunday.


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