The end of the 2015-16 season marked the end of an era in the Missouri Valley Conference, and that’s saying something.
History is not made easily in the 109-year old MVC, the second-oldest NCAA Division I conference in the country and a place where names like Oscar Robertson, Larry Bird, Wes Unseld and Ed McCauley grace the list of former stars. Yet there’s no doubt that Wichita State’s backcourt of Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet-plus hard-nosed teammate Evan Wessel-will forever be mentioned among the all-time greats in the venerable conference.
The trio led a proud program to its greatest heights yet, with a list of accomplishments including a Final Four, an undefeated regular season and No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. There also was another Sweet 16 trip and nine NCAA tourney victories in all, as well as three consecutive MVC regular season championships.
Baker, VanVleet, Wessel and the Shockers were expected to dominate the Valley one more time this past year, and they did. Mostly. After a disappointing non-conference season clouded by an inconvenient injury to VanVleet when it happened to be playing in a made-for-TV Thanksgiving tournament, Wichita State steamrolled through the MVC with a 16-2 mark, on average nearly 20 points per game better than league foes.
If there was one spot where the Shockers have been vulnerable the past two years, though, it was Arch Madness. Indeed, WSU narrowly avoided one of the biggest upsets in MVC tournament history when it rallied late to top eighth-seeded Loyola, but the Shockers were done one round later when Northern Iowa knocked them out in overtime, leaving Wichita hoping for an at-large bid to the NCAAs while UNI went on to beat Evansville at the buzzer in a stirring tourney final.
Wichita State did grab one of the final bids, then proceeded to nearly complete a 4 1/2 day triple play to make its third straight Sweet 16. The underseeded Shockers pulled away from Vanderbilt late, hammered Arizona and then nearly topped third-seeded Miami (Fla.) despite a ridiculous schedule that included a pair of late night games followed by an early Saturday tip. Though not advancing as deep as the year before or their freshman seasons, the two wins, not to mention a rally from 21 points down to take the lead late against Miami, were still a fitting finish for the careers of the WSU seniors.
Besides Wichita State, it was an uneven year for the Valley. Northern Iowa posted two huge wins early but blew any chances of an at-large bid with a 2-6 start to conference play. Evansville was very solid. Southern Illinois surprised. Indiana State and Loyola disappointed. Bradley and Drake battled, but the results often weren’t pretty-the Braves’ 5-27 mark was the worst by an MVC team in 18 years.
By the end of the year, though, the Valley was performing well in the NCAA Tournament, and with room for even more. Wichita State was certainly good enough to be in the Sweet 16, yet it was Northern Iowa that all but boarded the flight to regionals before coughing up a huge lead in the final minute and eventually losing to Texas A&M in double overtime. It was another example of the fact that, while players like Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet were the ones who deservedly brought national attention to the conference again, the Missouri Valley’s underrated depth continues to make it a formidable league just on the outside of college basketball’s top layer.
Only once in its 40-year history-and not since 1999-has the MVC Tournament produced such consistently close games from start to finish. Eight of the nine games were decided by 10 points or less, and only second-seeded Evansville’s 68-42 semifinal blowout win over No. 6 Indiana State was in doubt before the final two minutes.
The tourney will ultimately be remembered for Northern Iowa pulling one game out of the fire after another. The fourth-seeded Panthers defeated No. 5 Southern Illinois 66-60, top seed Wichita State 57-52 in overtime and then Evansville 56-54, the last on a buzzer-beating jumper by Wes Washpun that memorably bounced off the back of the rim, went straight up in the air and settled into the basket for the winning points. All three games were heart-pounding, every-possession-counts drama, and Washpun hit big shots in all three in receiving tourney MVP honors.
The Panthers were not the only team to make a mark in the event, though. Evansville nearly won its first Arch Madness title, rallying from 17 points down against UNI before losing in agonizing fashion. Indiana State’s upset of third-seeded Illinois State 65-57 in the quarterfinals took some of the sting out of a disappointing year for the Sycamores.
Loyola’s 74-66 win over Bradley in the tourney opener was a surprisingly good 8/9 game, and the Ramblers nearly pulled off what would’ve been maybe the biggest Valley tourney upset ever when they led late before falling to Wichita State 66-58. Even seventh-seeded Missouri State and No. 10 Drake showed fight, first in their opening round game won by the Bears 69-67, then when MSU came back and gave Evansville a battle before falling 66-56 in the quarterfinals.
Player of the Year: Fred VanVleet, Sr. G, Wichita State
Defensive Player of the Year: Egidijus Mockevicius, Sr. C, Evansville
Newcomer of the Year: Dequon Miller, Jr. G, Missouri State
Freshman of the Year: Markis McDuffie, F, Wichita State
Sixth Man of the Year: Mislav Brzoja, Jr. G, Evansville
Coach of the Year: Barry Hinson, Southern Illinois
Ron Baker, Sr. G, Wichita State
D.J. Balentine, Sr. G, Evansville
Anthony Beane Jr., Sr. G, Southern Illinois
Egidijus Mockevicius, Sr. C, Evansville
Fred VanVleet, Sr. G, Wichita State
- Wichita State once again was nationally ranked much of the season, won 26 games and made its fifth straight trip to the NCAA Tournament.
- Northern Iowa defeated a pair of top-5 teams out of conference-North Carolina and Iowa State-rebounded from a midseason slide to win the MVC Tournament with three dramatic finishes, and then beat Texas in the NCAA Tournament on Paul Jesperson’s halfcourt shot at the buzzer.
- Evansville had its best season in 17 years, winning 25 games and advancing to the Arch Madness final for the first time.
- Southern Illinois had one of the best turnarounds in the country, going from 12 wins to 22, and won its first eight true road games.
What we expected, and it happened: Wichita State was a heavy favorite in the Valley again, and the Shockers did not disappoint, winning league games by an average of 19.1 points.
What we expected, and it didn’t happen: Loyola looked primed to challenge for at least a first-division finish and at least an NIT bid, if not making a run at the NCAA Tournament. Instead, the Ramblers slipped back to eighth in the standings, plagued by cold shooting much of the year, before giving Wichita State a big scare in the Arch Madness quarterfinals.
What we didn’t expect, and it happened: No one had Southern Illinois getting off to an 18-3 start to the season, winning 22 games and posting an undefeated record on the road until almost February. For that, Barry Hinson was a very deserving MVC Coach of the Year award winner for the first time.
Teams on the rise: Southern Illinois, Missouri State. Maybe? The early outlooks for most Valley teams next year include static-to-slightly reduced expectations, but the Salukis should return seven of their top eight scorers, though the one missing-Beane-is a big one. The Bears might be the best bet to surprise. The overall record doesn’t necessarily show it, but Missouri State was better this year, even while playing through a boatload of injuries, and they’ll have one of the premier returnees in the league in Dequon Miller, a guy who could carry MSU to some wins in Beane-like fashion.
Team on the decline: Evansville. There’s no way around it: the loss of four-year stars D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius, plus all-hustle players Mislov Brzoja and Adam Wing, will result in serious retooling for the Purple Aces after they just missed out on an NCAA Tournament bid this year.
2016-17 MVC Outlook
There’s little question that the Valley will have a different look next year. Nine of the 10 players on the all-conference first and second teams have completed their eligibility, which means 2016-17 will see a changing of the guard as far as the conference’s premier individual talent. Players like Missouri State’s Miller, Northern Iowa’s Jeremy Morgan, Drake’s Reed Timmer and Illinois State’s MiKyle McIntosh will carry the banner after lurking in the shadows of names like Baker, Balentine, Mockevicius and VanVleet.
While the individual names will see great change, though, at first glance it appears the conference standings won’t. Wichita State will again be the favorite, and rightfully so. The Shockers have been a consistent top 25 program for five years now, and don’t be surprised if they’re back up there, even with a new backcourt. Morris, McDuffie and Landry Shamet are among the players poised to take on bigger roles.
Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois are the early picks as the biggest challengers to Wichita. The Panthers will be Jeremy Morgan’s team, and the future senior could be one of the national breakout players of the year, while SIU may be even better than this year if Beane’s production and leadership can be accounted for. Illinois State will be long and athletic, as usual, and McIntosh bears watching as a potential future star. The Redbirds and Indiana State will remain stubborn, while Missouri State could step up to be the best of the second division. Evansville is an unknown-Jaylon Brown will need to take on a lead scoring role. Loyola also is a wild card, capable of significantly improving on its eighth-place finish if it can shoot straight. Bradley and Drake are still building.