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Missouri Valley Notebook

February 18, 2004 Conference Notes No Comments

Missouri Valley Conference Notebook

by Neal Heston

Takin’ care of business – again

Two weeks still remain in the regular season, and Southern Illinois already has at least a share of the Missouri Valley Conference title wrapped up. Just one more victory or a loss by Creighton will give SIU sole possession of the title. The Salukis had to share the crown with Creighton last season.

A thrilling win over Southwest Missouri State coupled with a Creighton loss at Drake on Saturday sent the Salukis to a third consecutive conference championship. It is the first time an MVC team has captured three consecutive crowns since Drake accomplished the feat from 1969-71. The previous two titles may have put SIU on the basketball map, but this one might be the sweetest.

The Salukis weren’t even supposed to be here as they were tabbed for fifth place by the league media during the preseason. Every team picked to finish first through sixth received at least one first place vote – except the Salukis. Losing the head coach and the top two scorers from last season’s squad, which lost only two conference games, didn’t keep the 2003-04 Southern Illinois team from quietly taking charge as the season progressed though.

Forgetting the 96-spot SIU put on Drake last week, this season’s Saluki squad has taken a different route than last year and has proven that defense really does win championships. The league’s top scorer, Darren Brooks, is the only Saluki averaging double figures this season. The junior guard is putting up 16.6 points per contest.

Missouri Valley offenses have continuously gone up against the Salukis only to scratch their heads 40 minutes later, wondering why a basket was so hard to come by. The Salukis have held nine opponents to sixty points or less, all of course being victories. The most notable victim included Creighton, the league’s top scoring offense – in Omaha at that.

First-year head coach Matt Painter has done a fantastic job at keeping Southern Illinois on top of the MVC. Painter and the Salukis (20-2) are less than 10 points away from being the third undefeated team left in college basketball. Their only two losses have been to Murray State and Charlotte – NCAA Tournament caliber teams.

Next step for the Salukis: win the MVC Tournament in St. Louis next month. Southern Illinois hasn’t been able to accomplish that after winning its last two league titles.

The MVC Tournament if the season ended today:

First round byes would be dealt to seeds 1-6: Southern Illinois, Wichita State, Creighton, Northern Iowa, Southwest Missouri State and Drake.

Bradley, Indiana State, Evansville and Illinois State would be seeds 7-10 and would see action in the opening round.

Bubble Watch

In: Southern Illinois

Bubble Bursts: Wichita State, Creighton

Player of the Week

Lonnie Randolph, Drake

Randolph and the Bulldogs played the spoiler role while taking down Creighton in double overtime Saturday. Randolph is the second Drake player to take the honor this season. He led the Bulldogs in scoring during both games last week, putting up 13 points against Southern Illinois and 19 points and 12 rebounds against Creighton.

Newcomer of the Week

Marcellus Sommerville, Bradley

For the second time in three weeks and the fifth time this season, Sommerville has been named Newcomer of the Week. That should come as no surprise as he led all scorers with 25 points during the Braves win over Northern Iowa on Saturday.

Games to keep an eye on this week:

Wichita State at Northern Iowa, Wednesday, 7:05 p.m.

The Shockers are playing as well as anyone in the conference right now, having won five straight. That could all change in the blink of an eye though as the UNI-Dome is no easy place to play. Northern Iowa is 11-3 at home this season, and the Panthers will be looking to rebound from a loss to Bradley on Saturday. Wichita State has dropped the last five meetings between these two teams in Cedar Falls.

Creighton at Kent State, Saturday, 11 a.m., ESPN2

Every team will step out of conference play on Saturday to participate in Bracket Busters II. This appears to be the strongest matchup with the loser most likely having to depend on winning its conference tournament next month. Creighton desperately needs a strong road win, and Kent State really can’t afford a home loss.

Touring the Valley

Bradley (11-14 / 4-10)

Last week: lost to Creighton 74-56, defeated Northern Iowa 72-64

After getting pushed around in Omaha, the Braves rallied to beat Northern Iowa on Saturday. The shooting wasn’t spectacular against UNI, but it was just enough to take advantage of dismal shooting from the Panthers in the first half. Marcellus Sommerville led all scorers with 25 points, and Phillip Gilbert finally came out of his shell since returning from an injury five games ago. After averaging just over five points a contest since coming back, Gilbert tacked on a 15-point effort – against the wishes of Northern Iowa.

The schedule this week is favorable for the Braves to climb closer to the .500 mark as they host Illinois State on Wednesday and host Northern Illinois on Saturday in ESPN’s Bracket Busters II.

Creighton (18-4 / 10-4)

Last week: defeated Bradley 74-56, lost to Drake 78-73 (OT)

The Drake Bulldogs took a bite out of Creighton’s NCAA Tournament hopes by handing the Bluejays a double overtime loss in Des Moines last Saturday. Now Saturday’s matchup at Kent State is all the more critical. The Bluejays must win there to at least keep the life support running. A loss definitely means full dependence on winning a third consecutive MVC Tournament next month.

Kellen Miliner did come off the bench to give Creighton two strong performances last week. He averaged 19.5 points in the contests.

Before heading to Kent State, the Bluejays will host Illinois State on Wednesday. Though the contest will be at the Qwest Center, it would be dangerous to look past the Redbirds.

Drake (10-12 / 6-8)

Last week: lost to Southern Illinois 96-76, defeated Creighton 78-73 (OT)

Drake broke even in its tour of the top two teams in the league. The Bulldogs managed an impressive offensive showing against a tough Southern Illinois defense, but they weren’t relying on SIU to strike gold with nearly every shot. The Salukis managed 50 percent from the field during the entire contest and nailed 11 treys while having five players hit double figures in scoring. Drake had three players of its own reach double figures, led by Lonnie Randolph with 13.

With a 6-8 MVC mark, the Bulldogs are still clinging on to the sixth and final spot for a first round bye in the conference tournament next month. That won’t be easy to hold on to with a road trip to Southwest Missouri State on Tuesday. The Bears will be itching for a win after suffering two close losses last week. From there, Drake will head to Akron for a date with the Zips on Saturday.

Evansville (5-17 / 4-10)

Last week: defeated Illinois State 79-48, lost to Wichita State 90-73

The Purple Aces put up a couple of nice offensive performances but completed the week with one win and one loss. Evansville stormed out to a 19-point lead at the half against Illinois State en route to a lopsided victory. UE hit nine of 16 treys and dished out 26 assists compared to 31 field goals. Clint Cuffle tallied 21 points in the win. Cuffle put up another 20 points against Wichita State on Saturday, but that wasn’t enough for a WSU offense that was clicking perfectly.

UE will try to snap Southern Illinois’ perfect MVC record on Wednesday as the Salukis visit Roberts Stadium. From there the Purple Aces will hit the road to take on a struggling Central Michigan team on Saturday.

Illinois State (7-15 / 3-11)

Last week: lost to Evansville 79-48, defeated Indiana State 63-37

After suffering through a four-game skid and three uncharacteristic performances, the Redbirds got a much-needed win over Indiana State on Saturday. Trey Guidry sunk 21 points and Marcus Arnold added another 14 in the blowout. After shooting just 29 percent in the loss to Evansville, ISU was good for 51 percent on Saturday.

The Redbirds will have to improve on their 1-10 road record as a trip to Bradley is on the slate for Wednesday. Loyola-Chicago will come to town for a non-conference matchup on Saturday.

Indiana State (8-14 / 4-10)

Last week: lost to Wichita State 67-53, lost to Illinois State 63-37

The Sycamores are reeling and have gone from the middle of the pack to the bottom of the standings after seven consecutive losses. Points have been hard to come by as ISU has failed to reach 60 points in five of the seven defeats. David Moss was the main source of offense during the week as he averaged 11 points.

Putting a stop to the losing ways won’t be easy with a road contest at Creighton Wednesday and a home date with Buffalo Saturday.

Northern Iowa (13-9 / 8-6)

Last week: defeated Southwest Missouri State 64-59, lost to Bradley 72-64

After getting a huge win against SMS on Wednesday, UNI suffered “a tale of two halves” in a loss at Bradley over the weekend. Bradley stepped on the court to miss its first eight shots, but the Panthers couldn’t take advantage as they missed their first 10 of 11. The Braves were able to recover from their shooting mishaps midway through the first half, but it took Northern Iowa until the second 20 minutes to get hot from the field. By then it was too late as the Braves wouldn’t let UNI get any run going.

UNI will host Wichita State on Wednesday. The Shockers come into the UNI-Dome tied for second in the MVC, but the Panthers have won their last five home meetings over WSU. Saturday will begin a three-game road trip as the Panthers head to Wisconsin-Green Bay. UNI is just 2-6 on the road this season.

Southern Illinois (20-2 / 14-0)

Last week: defeated Drake 96-76, defeated Southwest Missouri State 59-58

SIU, now ranked 20th in the nation, became the first team since 1971 to capture three consecutive MVC titles, and two weeks are still remaining in the regular season. In addition to finishing out the slate on a strong note, the next step will be to take the championship in the conference tournament next month. Creighton has spoiled that for the Salukis in the previous two campaigns.

The Salukis will head to Evansville on Wednesday, a place where a top 25 team went down last year (then No. 9 Creighton). From there SIU will host Hawaii on Saturday at 11 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN.

Southwest Missouri State (15-10 / 7-7)

Last week: lost to Northern Iowa 64-59, lost to Southern Illinois 59-58

The Bears entered last week in a tie for fourth place. Six points and two heartbreaks later, SMS sits at .500 in the standings with a stingy Drake defense coming to town on Tuesday. The Bears overcame a 12-point deficit at Northern Iowa last Wednesday to grab a brief 47-46 lead late in the game, but UNI came back for the win. Southern Illinois rallied to keep SMS from spoiling its perfect season on Saturday. It was the worst possible time for Blake Ahearn’s MVC-record of consecutive free throws converted to come to an end. Ahearn went 2 for 4 at the line.

After hosting Drake on Tuesday, the Bears will head to Miami (OH) in part of Bracket Busters II on Saturday.

Wichita State (17-7 / 10-4)

Last week: defeated Indiana State 67-53, defeated Evansville 90-73

Wichita State took advantage of a favorable schedule last week and now have themselves in a tie for second place with Creighton. Jamar Howard took charge for the Shockers in both contests, putting up 14 points against Indiana State and 22 against Evansville. Randy Burns also pitched in a 22-point effort against the Purple Aces.

The Shockers will try to extend their five-game winning streak, but two strong opponents are in store for this week. A trip to Northern Iowa is in store for Wednesday and home date with Austin Peay will be the Shocker’s Bracket Buster II opponent on Saturday.


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