Of all the leagues in the college basketball landscape, few are as much fun to follow as the Missouri Valley Conference.
The MVC is a true conference that makes sense, not a conglomerate thrown together for football interests that has sold out to TV executives. It plays a double round-robin schedule, which means it produces a real regular season champion that has to prove its worth home and away against every opponent in its conference. No worries about unbalanced schedules furnishing debatable division champions here, and for those who think a true conference regular season title doesn’t mean anything, ask members of the teams that win them.
As have touched on earlier this week, though, the MVC also has a tendency to eat its own, and we’ve already seen a couple instances of that this week in the opening games of the conference slate. We saw it again on New Year’s Day night, as Evansville pinned nationally ranked Northern Iowa with just its second loss of the season, coming back for a 52-49 win.
It didn’t matter that Evansville came in averaging 79.2 points per game and UNI 68.7 points. A typical Valley game is a physical, slow-down, defense-oriented grind, and these two teams dragged each other into such a game here.
The Panthers built a 16-point first half lead on the strength of some efficient offense, while the Purple Aces were stagnant the first 20 minutes. Evansville got within 30-20 at the half, then came out with better energy in the second half and got back in the game. When both were back on equal ground this one was destined to go to the wire. UNI was hurt badly on a debatable offensive foul call with 43 seconds left that was the fifth foul on big man Seth Tuttle (easily its most consistent offensive weapon in this one with 18 points), and the Aces took the lead for good with under two minutes to play and made all six of their free throws in the final 1:47.
Quietly, Evansville is now 11-2 this season, which is huge for the Aces and coach Marty Simmons, the former UE star in his eighth year who has been given time and appears to be rewarding the patience of administration there. The Purple Aces did a terrific job defensively of clogging the inside, then getting out to challenge three-point shooters (UNI was 1-for-8 from behind the arc in the second half, 5 of 18 for the game), while D.J. Balentine (17 points) and Egidijus Mockevicious (12 pts and 13 rebounds, six of them offensive) provided just enough offense. Evansville also won despite missing starting guard and defensive stopper Adam Wing for the second straight game due to a quadriceps injury.
As MVC road trips go, this one figures to be one of the tougher ones for Northern Iowa, so all should take a breath before labeling this a bad loss. The Panthers are a very deep team, better offensively than they showed in this one, and should be fine. UNI should be on alert, though, that everything it accomplished in their non-conference schedule (and it was a lot) means nothing in conference play. Hard-fought, slow-paced, competitive games home and away are how it is throughout the Valley schedule.
Thursday’s action: A tiny schedule, but one loaded with career highs and outstanding individual performances
- Tyler Harvey of Eastern Washington provided one of the best individual offensive performances of the season, scoring a career-high 39 in the Eagles’ 84-78 Big Sky win over Weber State. Harvey hit 12 of 19 from the field, including 7 of 10 from long range, and also made 8 of 8 from the foul line. Special mention also goes to Weber’s Ryan Richardson, who scored a career-best 22 off the bench and hit 6 of 8 three-point tries.
- St. Mary’s is now 3-0 in the WCC after a nice 68-59 win at Pepperdine. Gaels coach Randy Bennett went with a tight seven-man rotation, but five scored in double figures. St. Mary’s also made 9 of 17 from three-point range, out-boarded the hosts 32-19, and has now won 17 straight over the Waves.
- BYU blew out Santa Clara 81-46 on the road in a game that was never close, a demolition so impressive and thorough that 14 Cougars played, none more than 29 minutes.
- Belmont held off SE Missouri State 78-77 in both teams’ Ohio Valley openers as Craig Bradshaw scored 25 and Reece Chamberlain had a nice all-around line with 10 points, nine boards and nine assists.
- Ron Verlin is doing a nice job at Pacific, which had to replace all five starters entering this season but is now 9-6 after a 77-63 win at Loyola Marymount. Another career high in this one for the Tigers’ David Taylor, who scored 20 and hit five three-pointers.
- Christopher Anderson scored the winning layup with 25 seconds left as San Diego edged San Francisco 57-56. Interestingly enough, road teams went 4-0 in the WCC today.
- Eastern Illinois edged Tennessee Tech 61-59 as Dylan Chatman hit two free throws with two seconds left for the winning points.
- In a battle of state rivals, Idaho easily handled Idaho State 77-54 and the Vandals’ Connor Hill gave us one more terrific outing, scoring a career-best 32 points and drilling eight three-pointers.
- Washington coach Lorenzo Romar announced Thursday that sophomore guard Jahmel Taylor is transferring. Taylor had played just seven minutes this season. The Huskies are now down to 10 scholarship players.
UCLA at Colorado (10 p.m. EST, FS1) The Buffaloes need to hold serve at home in this one. Both have absorbed enough losses out of conference.
Washington at California Both teams are coming off bad home losses, which should only add to the urgency for this one.
North Florida at Alabama The Crimson Tide, while getting up for big games, has struggled with lesser opponents than the Ospreys, who already have won at Purdue.
UTEP at North Texas Tricky game for the Miners, who need to have a very strong showing in Conference USA if they want to be in the discussion for an at-large bid. The Mean Green is 6-2 at home.
South Dakota State at Denver Two teams expected to be among the top challengers in the Summit League.
Have a terrific Friday.