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Power Rankings At The (Sort Of) Midway Point & 2nd Best Players

We’ve reached the scheduled midway point of the MVC season, although we are three games short of the 45 typically required to be considered midway. That is because several postponed early season games remain unplayed, although all are currently scheduled to be made up. If you assume all 90 games get played, and right now that seems like a big assumption, we should reach the midway point of the MVC season around 3pm central time on Sunday when the first game of the day reaches its conclusion. However, we have gone through nine rounds of games, so I am going to go ahead and bust out my midway point power rankings.

Today, in addition to ranking the teams I’ll be looking at each team’s second-best player. This will be determined by my own opinion, which some of you put absolutely no stock in. If you are one of those people, go ahead and read on anyway and let my stupidity grind your gears a little. In the case of most teams, the star player is more-or-less established. So, who is the Pippen to their Jordan? Some teams have dynamic duos that will require a little more thought, more of a Kobe-and-Shaq situation. Who was better? That is what I will be looking at today. That said, let’s get started and Kobe was better.

-Illinois-Chicago (7-11, 3-6 Horizon, NET: 295): The newest announced addition to the MVC is not coming in hot. The Flames, who currently sit in ninth place in the Horizon League, are clearly the fixer-upper of the new additions when it comes to men’s basketball. That fact is compounded by the reality that all six of their top players in terms of minutes played are seniors, and four are super seniors. UIC had a three-game winning streak earlier in the season to get to .500 in the league, before back-to-back home losses to Northern Kentucky and Wright State, followed by a loss at Detroit, knocked them back down a peg. It will be important for them to try and angle for a spot in the 5th-8th range in their league, as the higher seed hosts first round games in the Horizon Tourney. A trip to second-place Oakland on Saturday looms, followed by a midweek game at home against Robert Morris.

-2nd Best Player: UIC has three players that stand out above the rest. The best is probably Damaria Franklin who leads the team in points (17.5), rebounding (7.2) and steals (1.5) per game. He is eligible to return next year. The second best player is probably assists leader Kevin Johnson. He is second on the team in scoring (13.2 PPG), and leads the Flames in assists with 5 per game which would lead the MVC. He also leads the team in minutes played (by far) and is second in steals. He is a super senior so we wont see him in the MVC next year.

-Belmont (16-5, 6-2 Horizon, NET: 48): Belmont has fallen into third place in the Ohio Valley after losses to Murray State and Morehead State, who are both still undefeated in the league. That is a big deal in the OVC, as the top two teams get double byes in the conference tournament. They have continued to destroy the rest of the league though, picking up a 34-point road win over Eastern Illinois earlier this week (although they had to hold off a late charge at Austin Peay yesterday). I think the Bruins and Racers will find that depth will be the biggest difference between the OVC and MVC. Belmont hosts UT-Martin this weekend and travels to Tennessee State midweek next week. If they lose either game it would be a huge surprise. That won’t happen very often in the Valley. In the OVC, right now, you’ve got Belmont and Murray, Morehead who is challenging, and a bunch of mediocrity. I think that these two clubs will likely be two of the better teams in the Valley right from the jump. I also think they’ll also find that most games, even the ones against teams that will finish below them in the standings, will feel more like Morehead than the other OVC teams. They’re going to have to bring it every night.

-2nd Best Player: It is tough to say who is Belmont’s best player. You could make a case for four guys. I am going to give it to Nick Muszynski despite his recent struggles. He can score, rebound and distribute. As for number 2? Well, it could be leading scorer Ben Sheppard, or Will Richard who is a double-figures scorer and nearly their top rebounder. But I am going to give it to Grayson Murphy. Murphy only scores 8.1 points per game, but the 6’ 3’’ guard manages to lead the team in rebounding (6.2), assists (5.8) and steals (2.1) per game. He also recently became Belmont’s all-time assists leader.

-Murray State (19-2, 9-0 OVC, NET: 31): Murray has established themselves as one of the nation’s premier mid-major programs this season. The Racers blasted Belmont by 22 points and has had little trouble dispatching the rest of their OVC brethren since, although yesterday’s win at Tennessee Tech required a second half comeback. MSU is currently an 11-seed in bracketology, which is above the line the last at-large squads are in. That means that Murray would be in the at-large conversation right now if it came to it. A big one looms this week, though. Keeping pace with the Racers in the league, just a half game behind at 8-0, is Morehead State. The Eagles are the presumptive heir to the OVC basketball throne after the departures of Belmont, Murray and Austin Peay (assuming they don’t end up in the Horizon League to replace UIC). They haven’t been as dominant as MSU, but have gotten the same results and are undefeated. This game will be in Murray, so the Racers have the advantage, but if Morehead pulls it off, they’ll have the inside track to the regular season title. Murray will travel to Austin Peay midweek next week.

-2nd Best Player: The Racers have several good players, but two studs stand out. I think leading scorer Tevin Brown, who is also second on the team in assists and third in rebounding, has just barely earned the title of best player. So, the 2nd best player clearly becomes big-man KJ Williams. Williams is just behind Brown in scoring, averaging 16.7 points per game. He also snags a mammoth 8.7 boards per game. They are truly a dynamic duo with a supporting cast to match.

And now for actual current MVC teams.

10.) Evansville (5-14, 1-7 MVC, NET: 316): The Aces win! The Aces win! After consecutive trouncings by Bradley, Loyola and Illinois State, the Aces put an MVC contest in the win column on Sunday with a hard-fought, extremely messy home victory over Illinois State. The teams combined for 41 (FORTY-ONE!) turnovers, while shooting 40% (ISU) and 38% (UE) from the floor. They shot 18.8% and 25% from deep, respectively. The Aces nearly gave it away, giving up a 12-0 run midway through the second half as part of a six-minute stretch with only one UE basket. They also didn’t score from the 3:20 mark until there were 15 seconds left but hung on in the end. They almost did it again against UNI on Wednesday, coming back from 14 down and keeping UNI from scoring a field goal over the final 9 minutes of the game. The Panthers held on in the end, but UE has looked more competitive in their most recent two games. They are starting to adapt well to their long-possession, defense-first style. Still, there is very little doubt who is the worst team in the league. It will take a lot to get UE out of the cellar. They went 1-4 since my last power rankings with three blowout losses. The Purple Aces will be at Missouri State on Saturday and at Valpo during the week.

2nd Best Player: It is tough to pick between Evansville’s top two players. Shamar Givance and Jawaun Newton score at very similar rates and shoot at very similar percentages. Newton is the better rebounder, but Givance leads the team in assists and steals. At this moment, I’ll give it to Givance, which makes Newton their second-best player. He currently scores 13.5 PPG and gets a team-leading 5.9 RPG.

9.) Illinois State (10-11, 3-5 MVC, NET: 181): It was tough to decide who to put in this spot, but the loss to Evansville coupled with the injury to Sy Chatman left ISU as the choice. The Redbirds have gone 2-4 since my last power rankings and their results have been a real mixed bag. Losses at Drake and Missouri State don’t hurt too much, although they got blown out by the Bears. It is always great to beat your rival, and Illinois State did that in eye popping fashion when they rallied from a 40-26 halftime deficit by outscoring Bradley 31-9 to start the second half and cruise to an easy W. They beat Evansville by 42 points at home, but then turned around and lost to the Aces at the Ford Center two days later (Evansville’s only league win). On Wednesday they lost an extremely fun and competitive back-and-forth game to Drake by one in OT. The news about Sy Chatman isn’t pretty, as their second-leading scorer and leading rebounder is out for the year. They didn’t look like they missed him too much against Drake on Wednesday, but that is a loss that will hurt in the long run. When they’re at their best, Illinois State can compete with anyone in the league. But when they’re at their worst, as they proved last weekend, they can lose to anyone too. The ‘Birds play UNI in Cedar Falls on Saturday then play Loyola in Chicago during the week.

-2nd Best Player: The league’s leading scorer, Antonio Reeves, is probably the Birds’ best player. Especially after the injury to Sy Chatman. If you don’t consider Chatman due to his injury, the #2 spot falls to Josiah Strong who averages 12.3 points per game, while adding 3.5 boards and 2.2 assists per game. Strong is a 46% three-point shooter. In the absence of Chatman, you’ll likely see Kendall Lewis playing a bigger role, and Mark Freeman is a decent scorer and quality distributor. But for now, the title of #2 Redbird belongs to Strong.

8.) Indiana State (9-10, 2-5 MVC, NET: 172): It doesn’t seem fair putting ISU this low on this list, as they haven’t been playing with a full deck for most of the league season. Unfortunately, since the last rankings, Indiana State has gone 1-4 with a four-game losing streak. A closer look reveals a prettier picture than that 1-4 record indicates. A 7-man Trees nearly took out UNI in Cedar Falls (and probably should’ve). They played Loyola close, played SIU close in Carbondale for 80% of the game and then lost at home to Valpo on a buzzer beater. Their momentum came to a head on Tuesday when they finally got their big win, 76-72 over Missouri State. Indiana State built up a big lead, nearly blew it, and then held on for a huge W. I think the Trees, more than any other team currently sitting in the bottom four, are a candidate to make a push into the top half by the end of the year. They are finally getting their roster together and have already played some of the toughest games on the schedule. They’ve played Loyola twice, they’ve played Mo State (and won), they’ve played at UNI and they’ve played at SIU. We’ll see if they can parlay a more manageable second half schedule into a play for the top six. ISU is at Bradley on Sunday then hosts Drake during the week.

-2nd Best Player: Cooper Neese is not, statistically, ISU’s best player anymore. But I still consider him to be their top guy due to his role, his experience, and the minutes he plays. ISU has a few solid contributors like Xavier Bledson and Micah Thomas, but I have to go with Cameron Henry as their #2. Henry leads the team in points (15.2 per game) and rebounds (6 per game) and is third in assists (2.8 per game). Statistically, he is already probably their best guy. It may not be long until we are forced to fully recognize he is the man for the Sycamores, not just #2.

7.) Valparaiso (10-11, 3-6 MVC, NET: 201): The Beacons have gone 2-3 since our last rankings. That stretch that included some high-highs and some low-lows. Consider the difficulty of their schedule so far. They played only UNI, SIU, Loyola and Mo State during a tough five-game run. The Beacons won one of those games, the finale against an AJ-Green-less Panther team at the ARC in OT. The four games that preceded it were all losses, although some were worse than others. They got trounced in Cedar Falls by 27 points, took SIU to the wire before falling at home, nearly pulled off an upset at Loyola before blowing a late lead and losing in OT, and got handled at home against Missouri State. After beating UNI, Valpo got a nice road win at Indiana State. They had an eight-point lead with 3:24 to go, then didn’t score again until Ben Krikke made the game winning basket seconds before the buzzer. Most recently, Valpo lost their third home league game, this time getting blown out by Bradley at the ARC. It has truly been a mixed bag, and while their schedule is seemingly a bit easier in the second half, I think Beacon fans can expect more of the same inconsistency for the rest of the year. Valpo heads to SIU on Sunday and hosts Evansville during the week.

2nd Best Player: Let’s start with the assumption that Ben Krikke is Valpo’s best player. If we can agree to that, their second-best player is probably Kobe King. One could make an argument for Sheldon Edwards or even Thomas Kithier. But for my money it is King, who trails Krikke by a tenth of a point per game at 14.3 points per. He is also second on the team in rebounding with 4.3 per game, and shoots at a 48% clip (42% from beyond the arc). I was hoping for more assist numbers from King, but even without them, he appears to be a top two Beacon baller.

6.) Southern Illinois (10-11, 3-6 MVC, NET: 144): The Salukis have lost six out of seven games since we last spoke, albeit against an insanely difficult schedule. SIU played at Mo State, Bradley and Loyola (all losses) and hosted UNI, Drake, and Loyola (also all losses). They got a single a win over Indiana State at home. A team that loses six out of seven games usually falls farther down the standings, but SIU has been the unfortunate bearer of some back luck. This is particularly true for games held in Carbondale, where Bryan Mullins’ team lost by one point to UNI, one point to Drake and by five to Loyola in a game they were leading with five minutes to go. One would expect SIU to perform better in the second half of the Valley season, which includes home games against Valpo, Evansville, Bradley and Illinois State and no games against Loyola. If I was a gambling man, which I am not, I would still bet on this team to avoid Thursday. But it is going to be a dogfight, pun intended. SIU hosts Valpo on Sunday, then hosts Missouri State midweek. After that, they play just one more game against the league’s top three teams.

2nd Best Player: This is probably the easiest call of the bunch. Marcus Domask leads the team in points, rebounds, and assists. He is the best player on the team. His #2 is Lance Jones. Jones is second in points, fourth (but just .1 behind second) in rebounds, third in assists and leads the team in steals. He was forced to be the guy last season when Domask went down with injury and did a satisfactory job, although SIU did not fare well in the standings. The Salukis could be very good the next couple years if they can keep Domask and Jones around.

5.) Northern Iowa (10-9, 6-3 MVC, NET: 120): Things were looking dang good for the Panthers until they weren’t anymore. UNI has gone 3-2 in the time since the last rankings. That includes polishing off a five-game winning streak that featured two blowout home wins over Valpo and UE, one point away wins against Missouri State and SIU, and a (quite frankly) lucky home win over a shorthanded Indiana State team. The Panthers were flying high, but they must have flown too close to the sun because things have gone south since then. Forced to play without AJ Green at Valpo, UNI built a nine-point lead with ten minutes to go but scored just four points over the next eight minutes, getting outscored 20-4. They rallied late to force OT but lost in the extra frame. Against Drake at home, UNI held a 69-59 lead with 3:37 to go, but were outscored 11-1 over the rest of regulation to force OT and failed to score a basket until garbage time in the extra period (an overall run of 21-3 for Drake). On Wednesday against Evansville, UNI built a lead as big as 14-points in the second half but did not score a basket for the last nine minutes of the game. They had to hold on for dear life to avoid a third straight collapse, although they did beat the Aces. The Panthers are currently tied for third and still in good position for a top-three spot, but their schedule is extremely backloaded. Their final seven games include both contests against Loyola, a trip to Drake, Mo State at home and trips to Illinois State and Indiana State (along with a home game against SIU). They’re going to have to play much better to stay amongst the top squads of the league. The Panthers host Illinois State on Saturday and Bradley midweek next week.

-2nd Best Player: The Panthers are extremely dependent on AJ Green. So much so, that it is hard to say who their #2 player is. On any given night it could be Nate Heise, Trae Berhow, Austin Phyfe or Bowen Born. That said, even though he has struggled recently, I have to give the #2 spot to Noah Carter. Carter is capable of scoring in bunches, can play in the perimeter or post and put his team on his back when they had to play without AJ Green at Valpo (albeit in a losing effort). UNI will be a different team next year without AJ Green, and Carter will have a huge say in how good they can be.

4.) Bradley (11-10, 5-4 MVC, NET: 104): When I last did my power rankings, Bradley was 1-3 in the league with some tough, hard luck losses. I said in my write up that, “One has to assume the ball has to start bouncing their way soon”. And it has. Bradley has gone 4-1 since that time and is currently on an impressive three-game winning streak. After beating Evansville at home, BU blew a 14-point halftime lead during a miserable second half at archrival Illinois State. Since then, they’ve put up three impressive performances. First, they went on the road and handled Drake by a score of 83-71. They never trailed in that game from the midway point of the second half on. Next, they scored an eight-point home win over SIU in a game that was not as close as the score (70-62) makes it seem. Finally, they got a blowout road win at Valpo, 71-56, that was never competitive in the second half. BU is on a roll and looking to crack the top three or four in the MVC. The Braves host Indiana State on Sunday before visiting UNI midweek.

2nd Best Player: Terry Roberts is the Braves’ best player, and sophomore big-man Rienk Mast has emerged as an easy #2. Mast is rapidly improving as the season continues and if he sticks with Bradley for three more years it seems like the big guy could become the most dominant post in the Valley. In fact, he’s already pretty high on the list. Mast is averaging 11.2 points per contest, and a nearly-league-leading eight boards per game. He shoots 48% from the floor and can even score from deep, shooting 30% from beyond the arc. Mast has stepped up big-time of late, scoring no less than 17 points in each of his last six games.

3.) Drake (15-6, 6-2 MVC, NET: 102): It was a tough call between #2 and #3 on this list but in the end, I have MSU the slight nod over the Bulldogs due to their head-to-head victory. As a fan or a as a coach you’d like to see your squad get more separation than Drake has been getting. They’re winning by the skin of their teeth. Among Drake’s six league victories so far this season are a one-point win over Evansville, a one-point win at SIU, an OT win at UNI and a one-point win at Illinois State. Some might see that as a sign the Bulldogs are lucky. The other way of looking at it, and the way I choose to look at it, is that the Bulldogs are a veteran team that knows how to win. It isn’t luck that is getting Drake these close victories, it is talent and experience. Their showdown with Loyola at the Knapp Center on Sunday, which will be (deservedly) live on ESPN2, will go a long way to determining whether Drake can still make a run at the league title. Whether they win the regular season league championship or not, they’ll be one of the favorites at Arch Madness because they do not give up and just effing win. That’s the bottom line. They also play at Indiana State midweek next week. Can’t wait for the game on Sunday.

-2nd Best Player: This may be the toughest one to peg of any of the teams. Drake is such an ensemble group that parsing out who is best, and second best is a real chore. Tucker Devries is the best freshman in the league and the Bulldogs’ leading scorer. Tremell Murphy is a guard that can rebound, score and defend. Roman Penn can score and distribute. And Garrett Sturtz just gets in there and makes it happen. I’ll go with DeVries, who is the leading scorer by over 2.5 points (and can also rebound) at the #1 spot. As for #2, Roman Penn and Tremell Murphy make a great argument, but I am going with Garrett Sturtz. He has moved himself into #2 on the team’s scoring list with 10.9 per game and is by far the best rebounder with 7.4 a game. In fact, he is one of the best rebounders in the entire league at all of 6’ 3’’. He also leads the team in steals.

2.) Missouri State (15-7, 6-3 MVC, NET: 65): It was a tough call between Drake and Mo State for the #2 spot, especially after the Bears fell to Indiana State midweek. But I went with MSU due to their win over Drake and their superior computer rankings, coupled with their win at Loyola. Until they lost unexpectedly in Terre Haute, the Bears were fricken rolling. They had won seven out of eight games and had won four straight since the last round of power rankings. Those four consecutive wins included home wins over SIU and Illinois State and away victories at Valpo and Loyola. The Bears dominated both the Beacons and the Ramblers on the road, and the game in Rogers Park remains the Ramblers’ lone league blemish. The story has been Isiaih Mosley, who is looking more and more likely to win the Larry Bird Trophy even if the Bears don’t win the league title. Mosley has pushed his PPG average above 21 and has averaged an eye-popping 32.8 points per game over his last six contests. He has scored no fewer than 24 points in any one game during that stretch. He isn’t doing it alone, either, as his supporting cast has improved year-over-year as well. The Bears join Loyola and Drake as contenders in the MVC. Missouri State hosts Evansville on Saturday and visits SIU midweek.

2nd Best Player: A year ago it would have been difficult to determine who was best between Mosley and Prim. Mosley has emerged as the Bears’ top dog bear this year, but that doesn’t change the fact that Gaige Prim is a still a hell of a player. Prim averages 13.2 PPG while shooting 56.6% from the field. He also leads the league in rebounding (currently tied with Rienk Mast) with 8 rebounds contest. One could make a strong argument that Gaige Prim is the best big in the league right now.

1.) Loyola (16-3, 7-1 MVC, NET: 26): It hasn’t been pretty, but Loyola just keeps winning. With a NET ranking of 26 and currently sitting as an 8-seed in bracketology, Loyola would likely be comfortably in if the season ended right now. Even without the automatic bid. Due to the fact they play in the Valley, they still need to win a very high percentage of their games moving forward to keep their at-large candidate status alive. But so far, with the exception of an ugly home loss to Missouri State, they’ve been able to find a way to win every MVC game. They have not dominated, however. The Ramblers’ 5-1 mark since the last set of power rankings includes an OT home win over Valpo, a hard-fought road win against Indiana State, the loss to Missouri State and two battles against SIU. The last LUC-SIU game, in Carbondale, was a particularly ugly 44-39 victory. If Loyola is in at-large position come Arch Madness time, they will have earned it. They still have to play Drake twice (starting this weekend in Des Moines), at Missouri State, at Bradley, and UNI twice. Not to mention tricky trips to Valpo and Normal. It is all right there for Loyola, but they are going to have to earn it.

-2nd Best Player: Loyola is another tough one to evaluate here since they have such an ensemble cast. I am giving the #1 spot to Lucas Williamson, which is somewhat debatable, but I think he deserves it. So, who is number 2? Several could make an argument, but I think Braden Norris is the choice here. Besides being the Ramblers’ only other double-figures scorer besides Williamson, Norris runs the Loyola offense and averages 4.2 assists per game. He also shoots the ball at a 42% clip, and an even better 44% from three. Norris also brings a solid defensive game to the table. When you watch Loyola, it feels like Norris makes the offense go. And he appears to be a leader on the floor as well. So, with apologies to Aher Uguak and Marquise Kennedy, I am going with the kid from Hillard, Ohio as Loyola’s #2.

And that is it for these power rankings. I have a few things cooking right now that I am excited about that I am hopeful I’ll be able to share with you soon. I also still owe you my list of the top ten super seniors in the league. All that should be coming soon. Until then, GO VALLEY!

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