The Missouri Valley sent just one team to the NCAA Tournament in 2014, but that team was pretty good – and it brought a lot of attention to the conference. It was a good thing since the conference as a whole has had better years than this one.
Wichita State became the first team to go 34-0 before the NCAA Tournament. The Shockers’ pursuit of an undefeated regular season was a big storyline for much of conference play, especially once it became clear that there weren’t many teams in the Valley that could beat them this year. They pulled it off, including convincing wins in the conference tournament, and then reached 35-0, the first team ever to do that. Their season ended in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in a classic against eventual runner-up Kentucky.
With Creighton off to the Big East, the conference lost a lot. The Bluejays would have contended for the conference title and given the conference more attention because they had the national Player of the Year. The Valley would almost certainly have been a two-bid conference this season as well. Two, possibly three, matchups between the Bluejays and Shockers would have been classics.
Loyola took Creighton’s place and had a tough first year in the conference. But Porter Moser’s team has good young talent, led by conference Rookie of the Year Milton Doyle, and should get better from here, although a couple of younger players transferred after the season.
The Ramblers are symbolic of the conference as a whole in that there is much to look forward to. Wichita State will still be a powerhouse, and might be a prohibitive favorite again next season. But others behind them will be better, as the conference has a lot of talent that will return next year. Only two first team all-conference members were seniors, and none of the underclassmen are leaving school early. More than 70 percent of scoring and rebounding came from non-seniors this season.
The opening round saw both lower seeds win, as Evansville beat Drake 69-61 and Loyola edged Bradley 74-72. Both would bow out the next day by double digits, with Evansville being Wichita State’s first victim by an 80-58 count, then Missouri State edging Illinois State 53-58 before Indiana State took out Loyola 75-62. Southern Illinois closed out the day with a 63-58 win over Northern Iowa.
Wichita State blew out Missouri State 67-42 in the first semifinal. Indiana State had a much tougher time against Southern Illinois, having to hold off the Salukis 62-59 to advance to play Wichita State.
Indiana State gave the Shockers a battle, not unlike when the two teams met in Terre Haute in the regular season. But conference Player of the Year Fred VanVleet and the Shockers were a team on a mission, and made late plays to seal an 83-69 win to take home the conference championship.
Player of the Year: Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
Rookie of the Year: Milton Doyle, Loyola
Coach of the Year: Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
Defensive Player of the Year: Tekele Cotton, Wichita State
Sixth Man of the Year: Khristian Smith, Indiana State
Ron Baker, So. G, Wichita State
D.J. Balentine, So. G, Evansville
Cleanthony Early, Sr. F, Wichita State
Jake Odum, Sr. G, Indiana State
Seth Tuttle, Jr. F, Northern Iowa
Fred VanVleet, So. G, Wichita State
- Wichita State won all 34 games during the regular season and conference tournament to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
- Indiana State reached the NIT to make its fifth consecutive postseason appearance.
- Four teams made postseason play, with one team in each of the four tournaments. That marks the tenth straight season that at least four teams made it to a postseason tournament.
- After five straight seasons in the bottom four, Southern Illinois broke out of its long slump to rise to a tie for fourth in the standings at 9-9.
What we expected, and it happened: Wichita State was the class of the conference. Nothing more needs to be said there.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Though young, Evansville was thought to be a contender for the first division. Instead, the Aces finished ninth, though they did win a game in the conference tournament before losing to Wichita State, and that bodes well for this young team.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: Illinois State finished tied for fourth despite being the least-experienced team in the country.
Team(s) on the rise: Illinois State. Dan Muller has his alma mater going in the right direction, navigating through this season with good results despite a very inexperienced team. Also: Evansville, as the Aces have a lot of good young talent and won a game in the conference tournament.
Team(s) on the decline: Indiana State. Tough call here, as no team seems headed for anything remotely resembling a steep decline, but the Sycamores will lose three senior starters and thus be hard-pressed to give Wichita State the same challenge they did this year, especially with teams behind them returning more.
2014-15 Conference Outlook
Wichita State will remain a nationally elite team. With VanVleet and Ron Baker returning, they’ll have the best backcourt, and they have plenty more returning as well. The big question is who their biggest challenger will be.
Indiana State can’t be dismissed out of hand with the job Greg Lansing has done, but the Sycamores lose three key starters, including Jake Odum. At first glance, Northern Iowa and Illinois State look like the leaders, but they aren’t alone. Southern Illinois returns enough to potentially continue their rise, Missouri State loses some pieces and returns others, while among teams that finished near the bottom, Evansville and Loyola have good young talent.
In all, next season should look quite a bit like the one that just ended in one respect: no one should beat the Shockers for the top spot. The development of teams elsewhere in the conference will be well worth watching.