Three teams fighting for the crown
Heading into the final month of the regular season, one game separates three teams in the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), led by preseason favorite Wichita State. Northern Iowa and Missouri State – the only two conference losses for Wichita State – are on the Shockers’ heels. A look at the work left to do for each squad during their final six MVC contests:
Wichita State (19-4, 10-2 MVC)
MVC home games left: 3
The tough ones: Creighton (Feb. 23)
MVC road games left: 3
The tough ones: All of them – Northern Iowa (Feb. 12), Evansville (Feb. 15), Missouri State (Feb. 26)
Outlook: A brutal stretch to end the season begins on Feb. 12 at Northern Iowa. The Shockers will have three road games to end the season and a home date against Creighton. Already a game up in the race, though, the Shockers should still be the favorite. Add in the fact that Northern Iowa will be missing a significant role from its roster (Lucas O’Rear is out for the season), and Missouri State has finally shown signs of losing the close games it had been victorious in several times earlier this season. A possible slip-up out of the three road tests may come at Evansville, where the Shockers escaped with an overtime win last season. Evansville is currently riding a four-game winning streak that includes victories over Missouri State and Indiana State.
Prediction: First place, 15-3 in the MVC.
Missouri State (17-6, 9-3 MVC)
MVC home games left: 4
The tough ones: Indiana State (Feb. 5), Wichita State (Feb. 26)
MVC road games left: 2
The tough ones: Illinois State (Feb. 12), Southern Illinois (Feb. 23)
Outlook: The schedule is smiling at Missouri State during its time of need. Having lost three of five games after a 7-0 start in conference play, the Bears will finish with four home contests and two very winnable road games. MSU’s only two games against teams from the upper half of the standings are at home – against a reeling Indiana State team that has lost four straight and against Wichita State on the regular season’s final day. Saturday’s date with Indiana State is pivotal. A win will keep pace in the title race, but a loss will likely knock the Bears out of contention and fighting to stay above the middle of the pack.
Prediction: Second place, 13-5 in the MVC.
Northern Iowa (18-6, 9-3 MVC)
MVC home games left: 2
The tough ones: Wichita State (Feb. 12), Indiana State (Feb. 22)
MVC road games left: 4
The tough ones: Evansville (Feb. 8), Bradley (Feb. 15), Creighton (Feb. 26)
Outlook: Since a 25-point loss at Indiana State on Jan. 7, Northern Iowa has been the hottest team in the MVC with eight consecutive wins. Two ingredients go against the Panthers down the stretch though. First, senior Lucas O’Rear will miss the rest of the season with a fractured ankle. The forward led the team with almost six rebounds per game, and he was a large part of the stingy Panther defense. O’Rear’s absence comes at the worst time for Northern Iowa, which still has road tests at Evansville, Creighton and Bradley and home dates against Indiana State and league-leader Wichita State. Four of those teams are .500 or better in conference competition.
Prediction: Third place, 12-6 in the MVC.
Valley team on the rise this week: Evansville
The Aces have won four in a row, including victories over then-second place Indiana State and an impressive performance over Missouri State on Wednesday. At 7-5 in MVC play so far, Evansville has already more than doubled last season’s conference win total, and looks poised to reach double-digit wins by the end of the season.
Valley teams in trouble this week: Indiana State and Creighton (tie)
After a surprising 7-1 start to conference play, Indiana State had almost everyone on the bandwagon – especially after taking Wichita State to three overtimes during an eventual road loss. However, that defeat was followed by another heart-breaker – a 66-63 home defeat to Evansville. And since then, the Sycamores haven’t been able to get back on track and head into a crucial game at Missouri State this Saturday having dropped four consecutive games.
Creighton not only gave Bradley its first MVC win in 12 tries on Wednesday, but the Bluejays fell into sixth place during the process. With two defeats in its last three games and a 4-6 mark during the past 10 contests, Creighton isn’t quite guaranteed a first-round bye yet in the conference tournament next month.
Game of the week: Indiana State at Missouri State (Saturday, Feb. 5)
Between the two teams, they are 2-6 during the past two weeks, but this is a desperation game. Although Indiana State has likely played itself out of the MVC title race with a four-game skid, the Sycamores are still very much alive to capture the second seed for the conference tournament. Missouri State can keep pace in the Valley race with a win, but a loss could drop it into the jumbled mess with Indiana State, Evansville and Creighton.
Ranking the MVC (through Feb. 2)
- Wichita State (19-4, 10-2 MVC)
- Northern Iowa (18-6, 9-3 MVC)
- Missouri State (17-6, 9-3 MVC)
- Evansville (13-9, 7-5 MVC)
- Creighton (14-10, 6-6 MVC)
- Indiana State (12-11, 7-5 MVC)
- Illinois State (11-12, 3-9 MVC)
- Drake (9-14, 4-8 MVC)
- Southern Illinois (10-13, 4-8 MVC)
- Bradley (7-16, 1-11 MVC)