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State of the Valley 2023-24 - Midway Point



Is this the best Valley in years?  I think so!  We have some separation at the top, competitiveness in the middle, and the teams at the bottom are (for the most part) not in the abyss.  There is nary a 300+ NET team, and only Valpo has a ranking below 222.  That puts eleven of the twelve Valley teams in the top two-thirds of the country.  Eight teams are in the top half of the nation, and five teams sit in or just outside the top 100 (all are at least 106). The league’s average NET ranking is currently 10th in the country, just a smidge behind the ninth place American Conference (we are ahead of the AAC if you don’t count departing member SMU) and well in front of the 11th place WCC.  Compare that to last year when the league finished 15th overall, and I think it is fair to say that it has been a good year in the MVC.  Not quite “back-to-the-glory-days” good, but certainly in the realm of the acceptable.  And perhaps the most interesting thing about it is, the success has been led by “core” MVC teams from the pre-expansion era.  The top five teams in the standings have all been in the Valley for multiple decades, and all eight of the core teams are in the top ten.  Not to disparage the new additions, but it is the old school MVC that is carrying the banner right now.

 

While life has not allowed me to update this blog like I used to, I will continue to do my “State of the Valley” posts.  I have been writing them for my friends at the 50%, 75%, 90%, 95% and 100% points of the Valley season for years, well before this blog was founded, and decided that I might as well let others see them if they are interested.  So, I am back for my first “SOTV” of 2024.  I still hold out hope that one day I will be able to run this blog at full strength again like I did a few years ago.  But so far that has proven too much to handle with my real-life duties as a father, husband and employee. 

 

That said, here is my take on where we stand in the MVC at the midway point.  Friendly reminder that these are not power rankings.  Instead, it shows where each team would be seeded at Arch Madness if the tournament started today.  When I refer to a team’s “Hackman Projected Seed”, I am referring to their average projected Arch Madness seed based on the latest projections by the venerable Matt Hackman.  The computed average is listed first, followed by where that ranks them in the league out of twelve next. 

 

With that said, let’s jump right in.  As usual, I will start at the bottom and work my way up.  Go Valley!

 

12.) UIC Flames (1-9, 8-13, NET: 193, Hackman Projected Seed: 10.78-11th):  UIC’s MVC season has been a full-on bummer.  The Flames had an impressive non-conference season (grading on a curve of course) that included wins over the likes of Loyola on the road (currently 3rd in the A-10) and George Washington on a neutral floor (14-6 in the A-10).  They had a hard-fought loss to Cincinnati and a one-point loss to a 15-6, second-in-the-tough-SoCon, UNC Greensboro.  The Flames were a top 100 NET team until December 20, and remain in the top 200 by virtue of their decent noncon performance.  So, what the hell happened in MVC play?  There really isn’t a great explanation.  It isn’t like they’ve had a bunch of injuries.  The same guys that got them that 7-4 noncon have been the perpetrators of the 1-9 league slate.  Colorado State transfer Isaiah Rivera (14.2 points, 3.7 rebounds) remains their top scorer, with sophomore CJ Jones (11 points, 3.6 rebounds) and senior Toby Okani (10.8 points, 7.1 rebounds) the next two on the docket. They’ve lost six in a row since their lone MVC win at home over Valpo on January 6th, and 12 of 15 overall dating back to their win over GW in November.  It is tough to explain, but the wheels have certainly fallen off for Coach Yaklich and UIC in league play.  The Valley is tough, no doubt.  And no one would have been surprised preseason if you had said UIC would be in last place at the midpoint (they were picked 10th).  They did play a little better last week, with hard-fought, single digit losses at home to league leading Indiana State and at Belmont.  Perhaps they are showing signs of getting the ship back on course.  They won’t win the league or challenge for a top four spot, but they can still steer themselves out of the cellar and possibly better their 11th place finish in their first Valley season last year.  Hackman says they have a 33% chance to improve on their previous finish and get into the top ten, and a 73% chance to avoid the cellar.  (Sidenote: Is it just me or does it seem like no one that goes to a UIC game wears UIC stuff?  Look at the stands the next time you have a Flames home game on.  No one wears UIC stuff.  They all just wear generic clothes.  It is bizarre.)     

 

11.) Valparaiso Beacons (2-8, 6-15, NET: 282, Hackman Projected Seed: 11.52-12th): It is not surprising to see the Beacons near the bottom of the league at the midpoint.  In fact, it is kind of surprising Valpo isn’t at the bottom of the league.  Not only did new head coach Roger Powell Jr. have to build this roster nearly from scratch, but he had to do it late in the game with players that were still available in April.  JUCO transfer Isaiah Stafford has been the Beacons’ best player (the junior averages 16.7 points, 4 rebounds a game).  Their next two top scorers are both freshmen in Cooper Schwieger (11.5 points, team leading 5.8 rebounds), and Jahari Williamson (9.1 points per game).   The Beacons were picked last in the MVC preseason and while they have avoided last place in the standings so far, all told they have been the league’s worst team.  They’re the only team in the league in the bottom third in the nation in NET ranking, and after a surprising 4-2 start, they reeled off ten consecutive losses from November 29th through January 10th.  But here is the thing.  Valpo is playing better lately.  After ending their losing streak with a 59-50 win at Illinois State on January 14th, they lost a close 78-75 game at Evansville before following that up with another win, 84-77, at home against UIC.  Valpo lost their next two, but played tough with SIU in Carbondale and had a good first half back at home against Missouri State.  You would expect improvement as the season goes on from a team that is so inexperienced.  Will it be enough to keep them out of the cellar? Could they maybe even put themselves in position to win a game at Arch Madness?  Hard to say, but Coach Powell has them excited for the future in northwest Indiana and the Beacons are playing with house money this year.   Hackman says they are likely to finish last but are far from a lock.  They have a 37% chance to avoid the cellar.      

 

10.) Evansville Purple Aces (3-7, 12-9, NET: 200, Hackman Projected Seed: 9.89-10th): No matter what happens in February and March, year two for Coach David Ragland at Evansville is already better than his debut.  The Aces are currently 12-9 overall and 3-7 in league play after finishing 5-27 and 1-19 (respectively) last year.  They weren’t exactly world beaters in amassing a 9-2 non-conference mark against a weak schedule.  But given that UE had 11 total wins over the previous two seasons, it doesn’t really matter who they were beating just that they were getting wins.  They did topple a good Chattanooga team (14-7, second in the SoCon) and did not take any bad losses (their Ls were to Cincinnati and BYU in the road).  They even won an early December non-conference game against UNI in overtime.  So, it was a big bummer when, after putting together a 10-2 start, the Aces lost seven out of eight games.  Their only win during that stretch was a three-point home win over Valpo.  And they really took it on the chin a few times during that stretch too including a 22-point home loss to Murray, a 36-point loss at Bradley, and a 49-point loss at Drake.  UE rebounded with a crucial 58-54 home win over Illinois State last weekend to pull ahead of the bottom two teams and more-or-less get themselves pointed in the right direction again.  And as bad as it sounds, sitting two games above the cellar is a substantial improvement over just straight up owning the bottom spot like Evansville has each of the last four non-COVID seasons.  One of UE’s problems has been getting their leading scorer, Ben Humrichous, on the floor.  The NAIA transfer averages 15.6 points, 5.2 rebounds a contest and has only played in 13 of UE’s 21 games (and only one since December 20th).  UE is 11-2 when he plays and 1-7 when he doesn’t, so if they can get him back on the court their future looks a lot brighter.  The Purple Aces roll nine deep with guys that play at least 15 minutes a game, and no one averages more than 30 minutes a contest.  Senior Yacine Toumi averages 11.6 points and a team-leading 6.6 rebounds per game.  Freshman Chuck Bailey averages 9.7 points off the bench.  Kenny Strawbridge is probably UE’s most experienced player with 98 career starts between two years at UE and two at Alcorn State.  He averages 9.6 points, 3.4 rebounds a game.  Evansville was picked 11th preseason, and it is not surprising to see them where they are at the midway point.  They still have three games against the two teams behind them, starting this week with a home game against UIC and a road tilt with Valpo.  If they can go 2-0 this week, they can start to think about how far they might climb the Valley standings.  Could they be wearing white for the first round at Arch Madness?  It is unlikely, but possible.  Hackman gives them an 11% chance to finish in the top eight and be the better seed on Thursday (there were even 13 out of 100,000 scenarios where the Aces got a bye…..so you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance).  Avoiding the cellar for the second time in six years (and the first in five non-COVID seasons) would be a good first step in the rebuild for coach Ragland.  And they are in great shape to do it, with only an 8% chance they fall to last place according to Hackman.             

 

9.) Missouri State Bears (4-6, 12-9, NET: 141, Hackman Projected Seed: 7.35-8th): And now we move from the bottom tier of the MVC to the “what exactly is your deal?” tier.  The MVC coach most on the hotseat, I would argue, is Missouri State’s Dana Ford who always seems to put together a very competitive roster but can’t seem to put it all together on the court.  MSU has another talented team that has shown flashes of greatness but seems destined to ultimately be mired in mediocrity.  MSU nabbed probably the league’s best non-conference win by beating Saint Mary’s on the road (NET #21), one of only two Q1 nonconference wins the league had this season.  That took place a few weeks after the Bears lost to #302 Middle Tennessee and just before MSU would lose five of six league games including home losses to UNI, Murray State (by 24) and Illinois State.  That, in turn, took place before they came back to beat Drake at home.  So, what is your deal Mo State?  Are you good or not?  The answer, as has become the norm for MSU, depends on the day.  They don’t lack talent, and they spread the wealth.  They have ten guys who average at least 13 minutes per game, although they have had varying levels of health with most of them.  Alston Mason, a junior playing in his second year with MSU after transferring from Oklahoma has developed into one of the better players in the Valley.  He averages 18.4 PPG with 3.2 rebounds and 3.9 assists.  Veteran Donovan Clay, who is has started 142 MVC games in his career (at the time of this writing) with five years between Valpo and Mo State, averages 13.7 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game.  Chance Moore, a junior who is also a transfer (from Arkansas) but has been in the program multiple years averages 10.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per game.  Sophomore NJ Benson is 4th in the league in rebounding (7.3 RPG) and second in blocks (2 BPG).  What you can see consistently when you look at the Bears’ roster is that most of these guys are transfers, but they’re all in at least their second year with the program.   With multiple years under their belt, you’d think if nothing else they’d be more consistent.  After winning their last two games (including their win over Drake), the Bears have pushed the league record back up to 4-6, and their odds of a bye (according to Hackman) improved from 1% to….well…..3%.  That isn’t where they want to be, but they are also just two games shy of fourth place.  They are most likely to finish somewhere in the middle, with an 84% chance they finish 6th through 9th.  They’ll probably need to win at least eight of their last ten to get a bye, and that probably would have to start with a win this week at Southern Illinois.  In fact, four of their next five are against teams currently between them and fourth place (@SIU, Belmont, @UNI, Indiana State (the exception) and at Murray).  So, when I do my next SOTV after round 15 we should know a lot more about their chances.

 

8.) Illinois State Redbirds (4-6, 10-11, NET: 222, Hackman Projected Seed: 9.06-9th):  The Redbirds are eighth in the standings but eleventh in the NET rankings amongst MVC teams.  And that is because ISU has struggled against decent teams.  They are 0-3 against the top two quads and 3-5 against quad three.  In addition, they’ve taken three quad four losses including home losses to Norfolk State and Valpo.  Ryan Pedon’s squad has, in fact, lost seven of its last nine games overall and seems to be trending in the wrong direction.  Among those seven losses are a home loss to Valpo and a loss at Evansville.  But there are also some head scratchers on the other side of the ledger in there too.  The Redbirds won at Missouri State and beat Belmont by double-digits.  Illinois State has eight guys that average at least 17.5 minutes per game.  Senior Darius Burford, an Elon transfer that is in his second year at ISU, is their leading scorer with 13.7 points per game.  Their only other double-digit scorer is Monmouth transfer Myles Foster who averages 10.9 PPG and leads the team (and is fifth in the league) in rebounding with 7.2 RPG.  Beyond that, they really do spread the ball around as several guys make significant contributions.  So, what does the future hold for ISU?  It is tough to say, but it looks very unlikely the Redbirds have it in them to make a top-4 push (Hackman gives them a nonzero, but statistically 0% chance).  Did you know that Illinois State has played in either the 8-9 game or the 7-10 game in five consecutive Arch Madni?  It sure looks like that streak is in good shape of continuing.  There is an 89% chance they finish in that range.  But ISU still has an OK shot of finishing in the middle third of the league (5th through 8th) and wearing white on Thursday in St. Louis, which would put them in position to get at least one W at the Enterprise Center.  Hackman gives them a 29% chance to finish at least eighth.  And if they do that, you’re looking at growth in year two for Pedon, which bodes well for the future.

 

7.) Belmont Bruins (5-5, 12-9, NET: 162, Hackman Projected Seed: 7.00-7th):  We continue our run through the “what exactly is your deal” portion of the league with Belmont.  The Bruins, picked 5th in the preseason, have had an up and down year.  Casey Alexander’s squad beat Drake by 22 points, toppled UNI by 20 in Cedar Falls, and won their Nashville rivalry game against Lipscomb (NET 148).  They also lost at Illinois State, fell at home to the same UNI squad, and lost by 20+ points to both Indiana State and Bradley.  The Bruins may well recover and move into the top four (they’re only a game out currently) by virtue of their manageable remaining schedule which features only one game against the top 3 MVC teams out of their final nine (after the play Indiana State at home midweek this week).  Belmont is led by a trio of stars, one of which hasn’t played since January 2nd.   Sophomore Vanderbilt transfer Malik Dia is fifth in the league in scoring at 17.3 PPG and adds 5.8 boards.  Sophomore Cade Tyson adds 16.8 points and 5.4 boards per game (plus 1.7 assists).  Ja’Kobi Gillespie, another sophomore, hasn’t played since January 2nd.  He averages 16.2 points per game with 4.1 assists, and the Bruins are 3-4 in his absence.  All three of these studs, you may have noticed, are sophomores.  The future could be quite bright in Nashville if they can keep the band together.  That is a big “if” in this day-and-age though, and Belmont would be wise not to rest on their laurels and play like they’re good enough to make an MVC run now.  Which they are.  Surprisingly, Hackman gives the Bruins just a 3% chance at a bye.  That seems low for a squad that is just one game out of fourth, has a split against one of the teams in front of them and three games (two at home) still to play against the others.  I am certainly not one to argue with Hackman’s model, but I would take a bet that they’ve got a better shot at the top four than those numbers indicate.  I’d take them odds.  Ultimately, the odds say they’ll finish 6th, 7th or 8th, with Hackman giving them a 75% shot they’ll end up somewhere in that space.

 

6.) Murray State Racers (5-5, 8-13. NET: 161, Hackman Projected Seed: 6.61-6th): If the season ended today, the tie between Murray and Belmont would be broken by NET ranking.  And the Racers sit exactly one spot above the Bruins in the NET, 161 to 162, which gives them the six seed.  This despite an 8-13 record overall record (compared to Belmont’s 12-9).  Murray has played three Q1 contests, three Q2 and nine Q3, with only six in Q4 or non-DI.  It is one of the tougher slates in the MVC, and the Racers may have bitten off more than they can chew with a 3-8 nonconference record.  Bad luck didn’t help, as MSU lost five nonconference games by six or less.  That includes an 85-81 loss at (current #36) Mississippi State and a neutral loss to (current #112) UNC-Wilmington by 2.  But they also lost to #311 SELA, #275 Little Rock and #213 Austin Peay.  In league play they have fared better with a win over Bradley, and at Missouri State, to go with close losses to Indiana State, Bradley and SIU.  The latter of which occurred last weekend after Murray had a 55-35 advantage with 14 minutes  to go, only to score just three points in the final 14 minutes and lose in the final seconds.  So, again I ask, “What is your deal?”.  Murray’s best player is probably Rob Perry, a senior transfer from Stetson in his second year with the program who has started 126 of 127 games in his college career.  He averages 13 PPG and 5 rebounds.  But the Racers spread the ball around and have five guys who average at least 11 points per game.  Belmont transfer (and junior) Jacobi Wood is next with 12.2 PPG (and 4.2 assists, good for fourth in the league).  He is followed by leading rebounder and Eastern Illinois transfer Nick Ellington (11.1 PPG), junior Brian Moore Jr (11 PPG) and senior Quincy Anderson (11 PPG).  Murray was 272nd in NET at the turn of the new year but has jumped over 100 spots since.  Hackman gives the Racers a 6% chance at a bye, with their most likely landing spot being 6th or 7th (57% chance).  That 6% mark seems low, but if they want a bye, they’ll likely need to win at least four of their next five games.  They square off with Illinois State, go to UNI and Belmont, then host Evansville and Mo State.  The schedule is much tougher after that, so Coach Prohm’s team will need to get it done now.        

 

5.) Southern Illinois Salukis (6-4, 14-7, NET: 106, Hackman Projected Seed: 4.87-5th): Southern Illinois has been on of the pleasant surprises in this year’s MVC.  Despite a third-place finish (and league title flirtation) last season the Salukis were picked ninth preseason, likely due to the losses of perennial studs Marcus Domask and Lance Jones to Big Ten schools.  Instead of struggling near the bottom, SIU has been a solid top-half MVC team both in and out of league play with a 6-4 record conference record that sees them tied for fourth in the league and an overall performance that sees them a borderline top 100 NET team.  How have they done it?  A big reason is Xavier Johnson.  The fifth-year player, who is a second year Saluki after transferring from George Mason, has thrived in the post Domask/Jones world.  He has improved from 7 points per game a year ago to 23 points per game this year (and also averages 6 assists per contest).  That PPG average not only leads the MVC but is second in the entire nation (tied with Purdue’s Zach Edey).  His assist total also leads the Valley.  If Mason continues this performance, he may put the old “best player on the best team” adage for the Larry Bird trophy to the test.  No one else on the Salukis average double figures, but junior AJ Ferguson (9.4), fifth year senior Trent Brown (8.8) and junior Troy D’Amico (7.6) are all scoring threats made more potent by Mason’s ability to distribute.  In a league where many teams have been inconsistent, SIU has been steady Eddie.  Other than a head scratching 2-point home loss to #213 Austin Peay, the Salukis have no head bad losses.  They were competitive in a neutral site game with #65 James Madison, lost by 1 at Wichita State, lost by 1 to Bradley and lost by 4 at UNI.  They don’t have any eye-popping wins either, with a home W over Oklahoma State (#138) their best, followed by their most recent win at Murray (#161).  That MSU win came after the Salukis trailed 55-35 with 14 minutes to go but rallied for a 60-58 win by holding the Racers to just three points the rest of the way, winning on a Xavier Johnson basket in the final seconds.  That win was one of just two SIU has won as the underdog (they were 1 point dogs against OK State) and they’ve only lost one (Austin Peay) as the favorite.  If that trend holds, SIU will have a good chance to finish top 4, as they are likely to be the favorite in six of their remaining games (maybe seven as @Belmont will be a tossup).  Hackman’s projections give them a 41% chance to accomplish the feat, with a 32% chance that comes as the #4 seed.  (There are also 73 out of 100,000 simulations that see SIU finish #1 in the league for what it is worth).  Top four will definitely be the goal, and SIU seems to have as good a chance as anyone else to accomplish it.  If they don’t, there is only a 10% chance they fall below #6, so barring a collapse they should be a top half MVC team this season. 

 

4.) Northern Iowa Panthers (6-4, 12-9, NET: 102, Hackman Projected Seed: 4.51-4th): Picked second in the Valley preseason, UNI had a rough nonconference and caught a lot of flack for it.  The criticism was warranted, but a closer look reveals that maybe they were never THAT bad.  The Panthers’ 11 nonconference games include three Q1 and three Q2 opponents.  Northern Iowa opened the season at defending NIT champs and American Conference contenders, #69 (nice) North Texas and lost in OT.  The Panthers also lost at #117 South Florida by single digits.  Then they led #8 North Carolina at halftime before falling by 22, built a 14-point second half lead over #26 Texas Tech before losing at the buzzer, and beat #109 Stanford by 22.  They beat #70 Richmond at home (the Spiders are currently undefeated in the A-10 and alone in first after knocking off Dayton last week) and lost at MAC leaders #128 Toledo by 4.  All told, there isn’t a result in the nonconference that is damning.  What I am really seeing is a failure to finish games, a trait that has been a problem for UNI for awhile now and has continued even into their recent run of more success.  It showed up this weekend when UNI led at Drake by one with 5 minutes to go, only to lose by 14.  It has even shown up in recent home wins by the Panthers over SIU and Evansville in which the ‘Cats failed to put their opponents away and had to hang on at the end.  None of this explains UNI’s two December Valley game results either, as they laid two eggs to start league play in losing by 20 at home to Belmont and losing in OT at UE.  Those two games remain the Panthers’ only Q4 and Q3 losses.  But it shouldn’t be shocking to those that are paying attention that UNI has won nine of eleven, and six of eight MVC games (only losses to Indiana State and at Drake) to start the regular Valley calendar.  UNI doesn’t have one standout star, but their best player has probably been Nate Heise.  He is second on the team (but only just) in PPG (14.2), tied for first in rebounds (6.1), leads in assists (2.7) and blocks (.7) and is just a touch behind in steals with 1 per game.  Heise is in his fourth year with the program but only using his second year of eligibility because of a medical redshirt he took last year and COVID his freshman season.  If UNI can somehow keep him the next two years, he is going to be an absolute stud (already is). Bowen Born leads UNI in scoring (14.4 PPG), and Tytan Anderson is the Panthers’ only other double-digit scorer with 11.6 per game while adding 6.1 rebounds.  UNI’s goal will be to finish in the top four and get a bye at Arch Madness.  Hackman’s projections give them a 54% chance of accomplishing that goal (there were 40 out 100,000 simulations that saw UNI win the league too).  A win at Bradley this week would go a loooooong way towards getting them there.  If they fall short, the odds say they are most likely to end up 5th or 6th, as they only have a 5% chance of falling to 7th or lower.  UNI faded hard in the second half last year.  We’ll see if they can avoid that with a stronger, deeper, more experienced lineup this year.  Ben Jacobson is the dean of MVC coaches and UNI fans hope he will be the difference down the stretch. 

 

3.) Bradley Braves (7-3, 15-6, NET: 65, Hackman Projected Seed: 3.02-3rd): After finally winning their long sought after MVC regular season title (but failing at what had become their specialty….Arch Madness) last season, BU was picked to finish third in the preseason this year.  And they are right where they are supposed to be!  But they took a very circuitous route to get here.  BU started the season off a very strong 6-0 including wins at #137 UAB, against #118 Tulane at a neutral site, at home against #107 Vermont and at home over #22 Utah State (one of the Valley’s two Q1 noncon wins this year).  Then they reeled off five consecutive losses, including their two December MVC games at Murray and vs Indiana State to start 0-2 in league play.  Their only totally damning loss during that time was 76-69 head scratcher at home to #205 Cleveland State, but five straight Ls are five straight Ls.  Then they turned it around yet again in reeling off nine straight wins, including seven straight in league play.  And, boy, were they locked in during that stretch.  The Braves had three straight league wins by at least 25 points (@ Valpo, vs. Mo State and vs. UE), then won by 18 at UIC.  After pulling out a nailbiter at SIU they continued their tear with a 23-point win over Belmont and a closer 8-point win over Murray.  The streak came to a halt at Indiana State last weekend, but not before taking the league’s top team to OT on the road.  Bradley seems to be back, and they have taken their place among an MVC top three that seems to be head-and-shoulders above the rest.  Leading scorer Connor Hickman, who missed some time midseason (the Braves are 14-3 with him, and 1-3 without him) has turned it up his junior year averaging 14.5 points per game (that is up from 8.6 last year), while adding three assists.  The Braves’ three other double-digit scorers are the ones you would expect.  Duke Deen (in his second year with the team after transferring from Troy) has improved his scoring by 4 PPG to 13.8 and is averaging 4 assists per game.  Malevy Leons is averaging 13.3 PPG and a team leading 7.1 RPG.  Darius Hannah has upped his game for his senior year, doubling his point total to 11.4 PPG while adding 6.3 boards per contest.  None of those guys are newcomers to Bradley, and while they do have a couple newcomers playing roles off the bench, most of Bradley’s guys have been in the program.  They are experienced and know how to win.  Bradley is currently only one game removed from 5th place, but Hackman projects they have a 93% chance to finish in the top 4.  Brian Wardle’s squad sits two games out of first and have already lost twice to league leading ISU Blue, but they still have their sights on a second consecutive MVC regular season title.  They’d need a little bit of help and would need to play nearly perfect the rest of the way, but it isn’t out of the question.  Hackman gives them a just a 1% chance at the #1 seed, however.  Regardless, Bradley will be a tough out at Arch Madness and an exciting team to watch in March if they make the big dance.  They are a team capable of making noise, no doubt.  Bradley is also in the NIT discussion, although I don’t really want to talk about the NIT since they made the changes they made last year.  I wish mid-majors would turn down any bid they’d get, although I can see why they likely won’t. A mid-major only NIT would be sweet actually.  Anyway, Bradley is really good.        

 

2.) Drake Bulldogs (8-2, 17-4, NET: 49, Hackman Projected Seed: 2.17-2nd): Despite a significant amount of roster turnover from a 2023 squad that finished second in the Valley and won Arch Madness, Drake was picked to win the MVC this preseason.  They sit in second place by a game at the midway point, but within striking distance of the surprising league leaders.  The thing that is interesting about Drake’s profile is they are 4-0 in Q1 and Q2 games.  Unfortunately, Q3 has been an issue as the ‘Dogs are just 5-4.  The problem is their schedule just doesn’t quite stack up.  I am not saying that I don’t think DU is deserving of an NCAA spot or they aren’t good enough.  I know how good they are.  But with me you’re preaching to the choir.  The Bulldogs were 11-1 on December 19th, with some OK wins (neutral vs. #93 Akron, technically neutral (but in Nevada) blowout win over #63 Nevada).  They really needed to win their last noncon game at #137 UAB.  Instead, a one-point OT loss made it tough for the ‘Dogs to make an at-large case.  Then they lost by 22 at Belmont in early January and lost at Missouri State last week and unfortunately, they are probably on the outside looking in.  Which sucks because they are 17-4 and blowing out teams on the regular.  The margin for error is just so small, and the powers that be have made it so tough for mid-majors that an at-large bid requires near perfection.  That said, Drake has made some statements.  They are the only MVC team to beat Indiana State thus far which they did by 11 at home.  They have league wins by margins of 18, 17,17,11,18, 21, 49 and 14, and noncon wins over double-digit RPI teams by 20 and 19.  They’ve just had a few unfortunate duds.  Reigning Larry Bird Trophy winner Tucker Devries does not want to give the thing back, averaging a 2nd-in-the-league 20.5 points per game while adding 6.4 boards and 3.8 assists.  Drake has four double-digit scorers with Cal State Northridge transfer Atin Wright adding 14.1 PPG in his fourth (but technically junior) college season.  Freshman Kevin Overton is looking like the next great MVC player if Drake can keep him in Des Moines.  He has scored 11.8 PPG while adding 3.5 rebounds.  Darnell Brodie, who is technically in his sixth year as a college basketball player, is having his best season yet averaging a career high 11.6 points and 8.4 rebounds (the latter stat leads the league by a good margin).  Drake isn’t worried about getting a bye (Hackman gives them a 99% chance to finish in the top 4).  They want to win the league title and just maybe get themselves into the at-large conversation.  Both goals will require almost perfect play over the final ten games and would probably require a win at Indiana State this Saturday.  The Bulldogs also have a pair of games against Bradley, a trip to Cedar Falls, and home games with SIU, Murray, and Belmont on the docket.  It is a tough road, but if they can navigate it, they’ll deservedly sit atop the Valley.  Coach Devries has shown he is a winner, so I wouldn’t bet against the Drake.  Hackman gives them an 18% chance of claiming the top seed in St. Louis.   They also have a strong shot to be in the NIT conversation, but as I said, I don’t really care to talk about that.  NIT bad, Drake good.              

 

1.) Indiana State Sycamores (9-1, 18-3, NET: 24, Hackman Projected Seed: 1.21-1st): It is a surprise to see Indiana State atop the Valley standings, as they were picked to finish fourth in the preseason.  But it isn’t that big of a surprise.  Most MVC prognosticators had Drake, UNI and Bradley as their top three, but the Sycamores were the almost unanimous dark horse.  What is a bit of surprise is that Indiana State has made themselves an NCAA at-large candidate with their NET ranking of 24.  Of course, when teams like Indiana State have a good rating the powers that be usually try to find a reason to keep them out rather than put them in.  Indeed, ISU is currently listed as a 12-seed in bracketology which would put them behind the final at-large teams who currently sit on the 11 and (remarkably) 10-seed lines.  And to be fair Indiana State’s presence in the NET top 25 is a bit of a head scratcher with their nonconference schedule that featured seven teams rated at 242 or worse.  But the Trees have handled their business with their only losses coming on the road to #7 Alabama, #25 Michigan State and #47 Drake.  Josh Schertz is simply a winner.  His career record is now 388-105 including a stupid 337-69 mark at Lincoln Memorial before moving to Indiana State.  The only bummer about ISU’s performance is that Schertz may not be in Terre Haute much longer.  The Trees are not deep, they have five guys that average at least 29 minutes and just two more in double digits.  All five of the key players average double figures, starting with Southern Indiana transfer Isaiah Swope who has burst onto the MVC scene.  The junior averages 18.4 points per game and is fourth in steals.  The already stellar Robbie Avila has taken a big step forward his sophomore year and is averaging 16.3 PPG, is third in the league in rebounds per game with 7.3 and is actually fifth in assists with 4.1 per game.  USF transfer Ryan Conwell adds 15.7 points, 5 rebounds a game, and Bradley transfer Jayson Kent has exploded with 13.6 PPG and 7.8 rebounds (second in the league to Drake’s Darnell Brodie).  Finally, Julian Larry adds 10.5 points and 4 assists.  Indiana State is 5th in the nation is scoring offense, which shouldn’t be too surprising due after seeing the scoring stats listed above.  While Drake and Bradley are certainly in the championship race, the league is currently ISU’s to lose.  They are alone in first place, and Hackman gives them an 81% chance to finish with the #1 seed at Arch Madness.  A home win over Drake on Saturday would really give the Trees some separation, and it is also ISU’s last game against a team currently in the top 4 of the league.  A win Saturday wouldn’t put it on ice, but the fat lady would be starting to warm up.  If the Trees lose to Drake (which would mean a sweep at the hands of the Bulldogs) it will be a sprint to the finish.  As for an at-large bid?  ISU may need to win out and can probably only have one more loss to feel good about their chances (this assumes another loss at Arch Madness).  I know I’ll be rooting for Indiana State the rest of the way, and then rooting against them at Arch Madness if they are safely in the at-large conversation.  I really want that #TwoBidValley. 

 

And that is it for this edition of “State of the Valley”.  I’ll be back in two and a half weeks for the 75% version of the 2024 SOTV once everyone has five more games under their belts.  Per tradition, I’ll leave you with a rundown of what Arch Madness would look like if it started right now.  See you in February.

 

If Arch Madness Started Today….

 

Thursday, March 7, 2024

-Game 1: #8 Illinois State (4-6, 10-11) vs. #9 Missouri State (4-6, 12-9) – Noon (MVC TV)

-Game 2: #5 Southern Illinois (6-4, 14-7) vs. #12 UIC (1-9, 8-13) – 2:30pm (MVC TV)

-Game 3: #7 Belmont (5-5, 12-9) vs. #10 Evansville (3-7, 12-9) – 6pm (MVC TV)

-Game 4: #6 Murray State (5-5, 8-13) vs. #11 Valparaiso (2-8 6-15)- 8:30pm (MVC TV)

 

Friday, March 8, 2024

-Game 5: #1 Indiana State (9-1, 18-3) vs. Game 1 Winner – Noon (MVC TV)

-Game 6: #4 Northern Iowa (6-4, 12-9) vs. Game 2 Winner – 2:30pm (MVC TV)

-Game 7: #2 Drake (8-2, 17-4) vs. Game 3 Winner – 6pm (MVC TV)

-Game 8: #3 Bradley (7-3, 15-6) vs. Game 4 Winner – 8:30pm (MVC TV)

 

Saturday, March 9, 2024

-Game 9: Game 5 Winner vs. Game 6 Winner – 2:30pm (CBS Sports Network)

-Game 10: Game 7 Winner vs. Game 8 Winner – 5pm (CBS Sports Network)

 

Sunday, March 10, 2024

-Championship Game: Game 9 Winner vs. Game 10 Winner – 1pm (CBS)

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