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2016-17 MVC Post-Mortem

June 27, 2017 Columns, Conference Notes No Comments

The 2015-16 season was the end of a storied run in the Missouri Valley Conference. The same could be said of 2016-17, too.

One year after Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet concluded outstanding college careers at Wichita State, the Shockers also wrapped up their time in the MVC. Members of the conference since 1949, Wichita State announced in April what had been rumored for months, that it was on its way to the American Athletic Conference this summer, meaning this past season was the final one in the school’s 68-year tenure in the Valley.

The Shockers have been one of the MVC’s signature programs for decades, and it goes without saying they’ll be missed. For all of its historic successes, though (NCAA Final Four in 1965; a regional final appearance as part of boom times in the early 1980s; another Final Four in 2013), and all the notoriety Gregg Marshall’s program has worked hard to earn in recent years, it’s almost surprising to find Wichita State won ‘only’ 11 Valley regular season championships in its time, with almost half of those (five) coming in the past six years.

The Shockers were far and away the MVC’s best and most consistent program in their final years, though, and that was reinforced again last year. Taking some time to jell as it worked to replace veterans Baker, VanVleet and Evan Wessel early on, Wichita State eventually hit its stride, winning 16 straight games to close the season before falling in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Kentucky.

Illinois State was every bit as strong in Valley play, finishing in a dead heat with WSU at the Valley regular season finish line, tying for the title and splitting their first two meetings. The Shockers controlled the Redbirds in the MVC tourney final, though, to make it clear who the league’s best team was.

While experienced ISU also had an exceptional year that deserved to be rewarded with an NCAA tourney berth, the rest of the Valley ranged from middling to flat-out down. The remaining eight teams were separated by just four games in the standings, with none finishing better than 9-9 in the MVC.

Northern Iowa, Evansville and Indiana State all regressed, with only the Purple Aces expected to as much as they did. Loyola and Missouri State were improved, but not enough to get out of the middle of the pack. Southern Illinois was OK. Bradley made progress in the second year of its rebuild. Drake got off to such a bad start that coach Ray Giacoletti resigned, and class act interim coach Jeff Rutter did an admirable job guiding the Bulldogs to a turnaround at the start of Valley play before the team slipped down the stretch.

With or without Wichita State, the rest of the MVC was going to need to pick up its game. In a small way, then, as much as the Shockers’ loss will hurt, it might be a good thing, injecting just a little bit more urgency for the remaining Valley members to do just that.

Final Standings:

MVC Overall
Wichita State 17-1 31-5
Illinois State 17-1 28-7
Southern Illinois 9-9 17-16
Northern Iowa 9-9 14-16
Loyola (Ill.) 8-10 18-14
Missouri State 7-11 17-16
Bradley 7-11 13-20
Evansville 6-12 16-17
Indiana State 5-13 11-20
Drake 5-13 7-24

Conference Tournament
Arch Madness was held in St. Louis for the 26th straight year. The MVC was a distinct two-team race all season, with Illinois State and Wichita State appearing on a collision course to meet in the tourney final since January. Unlike some previous years, though, when upsets in March derailed possible dream matchups, this year’s conference tourney served up just that.

Top seed Illinois State withstood a tough quarterfinal matchup against Evansville, the tourney runner-up a year earlier which looked good in rolling past No. 9 Indiana State 83-72 in the first round. The Redbirds were challenged but eliminated the eighth-seeded Purple Aces 80-69 behind 28 points from their bench. ISU then was frighteningly impressive in dominating No. 4 Southern Illinois 63-50 in the semifinals, the 13-point margin not an accurate representation of just how thoroughly the Redbirds drilled the Salukis in a game Illinois State led by 31 early in the second half and by 28 still with seven minutes left.

Wichita State-the tourney’s second seed to Illinois State based on a tiebreaker-was also devastating in its quarterfinal, drilling No. 7 Bradley 82-56, quickly shutting the door on the young Braves who defeated 10 seed Drake 67-58 in the first round to get to the quarterfinals for just the second time in six years. The Shockers also were too much for sixth-seeded Missouri State in the semifinals, recovering from an early 10-point deficit to take a halftime lead and then slowly pulling away late for a 78-63 win.

Unfortunately, the much-anticipated championship game was a dud. Wichita State shot 38%, but that was still more than enough as Illinois State hit just 29.3% from the field. The Redbirds still were within striking distance down nine with 11 minutes left, but ISU then fell apart, letting a frustrating day take its toll. The Shockers were clearly the tougher team and won 71-51 for their third MVC tourney title in 31 years.

The tourney overall was marked most by a relative lack of close games and upsets. One year after eight of nine games were decided by 10 points or less, this year’s had just three decided by single digits. Southern Illinois’s 55-50 grinder over No. 5 Loyola was the closest game, while Missouri State’s 70-64 victory over Northern Iowa was the only game featuring a higher seed losing.

Postseason Awards
Player of the Year:
 Paris Lee, G, Sr., Illinois State
Defensive MVP: Paris Lee, G, Sr., Illinois State
Freshman of the Year: Landry Shamet, G, Wichita State
Newcomer of the Year: Alize Johnson, F, Jr., Missouri State
Sixth-Man of the Year: Aundre Jackson, F, Jr., Loyola (Ill.)
Coach of the Year: Dan Muller, Illinois State

All-Conference Team
Milton Doyle, G, Sr., Loyola (Ill.)
Alize Johnson, F, Jr., Missouri State
Paris Lee, G, Sr., Illinois State
Markis McDuffie, F, So., Wichita State
Landry Shamet, G, Fr., Wichita State

Season Highlights

  • Wichita State put together a 16-game winning streak and won at least a share of the MVC regular season title for the fourth straight year.
  • Illinois State split the MVC regular season title with Wichita State and set a school record with 28 wins and 17 regular season conference wins.
  • Missouri State’s Alize Johnson averaged a double-double, finishing tied for 15th nationally with 17 double-doubles. He also finished with seven games of 15+ rebounds, including a high of 21 at Drake Feb. 18.
  • Indiana State tied for last in the Valley, but the Sycamores actually had the best non-conference win of any league team, defeating Butler at home.
  • A couple illustrations of how tight the pack of teams from 3-through-10 was: Missouri State (seven) and Loyola (six) both finished among the nation’s leaders in losses by three points or less, and Indiana State and Missouri State (three each) both were among the leaders in Division I in overtime losses.

What we expected, and it happened: Wichita State was a top 25 team-again. This program is bigger now than any one or two players, even two players as great as Baker and VanVleet were.

What we expected, and it didn’t happen: We thought Northern Iowa was equipped to at least remain a contender for the MVC title, but the Panthers’ stops and starts were too much to overcome this time. Also, Indiana State fell way off, as a team good enough to beat Butler but with little margin for error lost 11 games by six games or less.

What we didn’t expect, and it happened: We knew Illinois State would have size and athleticism and would be stingy on defense as usual under Dan Muller. Even so, we’d be lying if we said we expected the Redbirds to nearly run the table in the Valley regular season.

Teams on the rise: Missouri State, Bradley. The Bears may well enter next season as favorites, and no less than an Illinois State-like run at the NCAA Tournament will be expected for an experienced team. The Braves continue to take incremental steps under Brian Wardle, and next year should be when Bradley starts knocking on the door of a top half finish in the Valley.

Team on the decline: Indiana State. The Sycamores have slumped the last two years, a slide even coach Greg Lansing acknowledged after ISU’s MVC tourney loss was unacceptable.

2017-18 MVC Outlook
The Valley will have two major changes, with Wichita State exiting and Valparaiso on board. The Crusaders will be competitive at the very least, though a lot of talent has left the Lutheran school since a 2015-16 team that should’ve been in the NCAA Tournament made the NIT final. Still, there’s no reason why the new addition can’t challenge for at least a top 3-4 finish in its first year.

No one is expecting Valpo to replace Wichita State power-for-power, though, nor should they. The MVC’s bigger question is just which of a number of capable programs are ready to step up and carry the league’s banner. While rumors of the league’s descending into permanent one-bid status were hot and heavy after the Shockers’ announced move, there are plenty of schools left capable of winning at a national level. Shoot, Northern Iowa was knocking on the door of the top 10 just two years ago, and Bradley, Illinois State, Missouri State and Southern Illinois are all capable of being perennial top-50 programs.

Will anyone do so in 2017-18 though? Missouri State appears to be the best bet, with Alize Johnson and three other starters back plus a touted recruiting class. The Bears need to get better at winning close games, though, or just excel enough to not be involved in so many. The same goes for Loyola, which turned into an efficient offensive outfit last year but could’ve been even a lot better than its 18-14 record. The Ramblers will be experienced, but also will miss Milton Doyle.

Illinois State also loses MVC top player Paris Lee but might’ve still challenged until it was one of the latest decimated by the sport’s transferitis epidemic. Now, the Redbirds must hope newcomers like transfers Christian Romine (UTEP) and Milik Yarbrough (Saint Louis) come up big. Northern Iowa and Bradley are among the wild cards-it’s hard to imagine a Ben Jacobson team struggling two years in a row, while the young Braves are due to take another step.

Southern Illinois is another team that will be tough to slot, but the Salukis look decidedly mid-pack for now. Will Indiana State bounce back after two subpar years? Drake will be intriguing to watch under new coach Niko Medved, who turned around Furman and inherits an experienced if backcourt-dominated team led by senior Reed Timmer. Evansville has significant work to do after losing high-scoring Jaylon Brown.

Twitter: @HoopvilleAdam
Email: hoopvilleadam@yahoo.com

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