A surprising new team can crash the party this week in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC). The Indiana State Sycamores – off to their best conference start in 11 seasons – are riding a five-game winning streak as Missouri State visits Terre Haute, Ind., on Wednesday. It would be an understatement to call this the biggest week of the season for the Sycamores, but victories over Missouri State and Wichita State would put Indiana State in the driver’s seat to chase the conference title.
After losing three starters from last season’s postseason squad – Indiana State’s first postseason since 2001 – the majority had the Sycamores slotted in the conference’s lower half during the preseason. Now the Sycamores are off to the same start the last time they won the Missouri Valley. Skeptics will point to a soft schedule at the beginning of the conference slate, as Indiana State’s opponents have racked up a combined 13-36 MVC record so far this winter.
It is true the final 11 Valley contests will be a tougher test (six games left against Wichita State, Missouri State, Creighton and Northern Iowa). However, the Sycamores will go into that brutal stretch having already achieved some impressive feats this month. On Jan. 7 they breezed past Northern Iowa by 25 points. If that wasn’t enough of a statement, it was the first time the Northern Iowa defense surrendered 70 points since Jan. 3, 2010 – a span of 37 games. During that stretch, not even the potent UNLV, Kansas or Syracuse offenses were able to have as much success against Northern Iowa.
Indiana State has been able to rack up five straight wins without team scoring leader Dwayne Lathan for three of them. The junior guard returned with limited playing time against Creighton on Sunday – a 61-59 comeback win for the Sycamores.
The contests this week will create some interesting matchups, as Wichita State and Missouri State are first and third in the MVC for three-pointers per game. Meanwhile, Indiana State is first in the Valley for offensive and defensive three-point percentage. Victors will probably go to the team that can gain control of the perimeter that night.
Team that helped itself the most last week: Northern Iowa
The Panthers started the week struggling to get a 46-44 home win over Valley cellar dweller Illinois State, but it was an important start to a 2-0 week for Northern Iowa. The close victory was followed by a 72-52 triumph over Southern Illinois, as the Panthers avenged a loss to SIU on New Year’s Day. Senior Lucas O’Rear pitched in one of his top performances of the season with a double-double, contributing to a 21-point effort from Kwadzo Ahelegbe. Northern Iowa will ride its three-game winning streak to Wichita State on Wednesday, where the Panthers lost 60-51 last season.
Team that has trouble brewing after last week: Creighton
A buzzer-beating loss at Indiana State on Sunday spoiled an opportunity for the Bluejays to keep pace in the conference race. Instead, Creighton sits three games back from the lead as Bradley (6-12, 0-7 MVC) visits on Wednesday. It’s a must-win game, as the Bluejays travel to Missouri State on Saturday.
Hoopville Player of the Week: Aaron Carter, Indiana State
The senior guard helped propel the Sycamores into Wednesday’s showdown by sinking 20 points, including six treys, against Creighton. Carter’s 14 points last Wednesday also helped Indiana State squeeze out a victory at Bradley.
Valley games to watch this week: A lot of the teams in the upper half of the standings will face off this week. Here are a few to keep an eye on:
Wednesday, Jan. 19: Missouri State (15-3, 7-0 MVC) at Indiana State (11-7, 6-1 MVC)
The league’s two longest winning streaks will go against each other in a battle for first. Missouri State brings in a nine-game win streak to Terre Haute and has already notched road wins at Northern Iowa, Creighton and Wichita State.
Wednesday, Jan. 19: Northern Iowa (13-6, 4-3 MVC) at Wichita State (15-3, 6-1 MVC)
The margin of error is slim to none for Northern Iowa, as it already sits three games back from the conference lead. Whether the game is a barn burner or a blowout will depend which Panther offense steps on the floor. In its past four games, Northern Iowa has been sporadic with 45, 83, 46 and 72 points.
Saturday, Jan. 22: Creighton (12-7, 4-3 MVC) at Missouri State (15-3, 7-0 MVC)
After a rough week, another team that can’t afford many more losses also has a tough road contest. The Bluejays will aim for revenge after Missouri State snatched a road victory against them two weeks ago.
Saturday, Jan. 22: Indiana State (11-6, 6-1 MVC) at Wichita State (15-3, 6-1 MVC)
Wichita State has won the past four meetings in this series, but there wouldn’t be any better time for the Sycamores to snap that. Indiana State faces its first big road test of the season, after recent solid home victories against Northern Iowa and Creighton.