From Illinois State University’s breakout season to the University of Northern Iowa locking down third place in the standings after losing last season’s key seniors, the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) was full of surprises this season.
But as the conference tournament looms, Wichita State University remains the team to beat as it continues to steamroll opponents en route to 15 wins in the conference and a 25-4 record with two games left. The Shockers’ dominance left many to wonder if Illinois State is the only team with a chance to snag the automatic bid to the NCAA tournament out of Wichita State’s hands.
1, Illinois State University (23-5, 15-1)
The Redbirds improved on last season’s win total by five wins and could dethrone the Shockers for the regular season conference title since Illinois State is the only conference team that beat Wichita State this season. Junior forward and MVC Player of the Year candidate Mikyle McIntosh, who averages 13.3 points per game and 6.1 rebounds per game this season, made a full comeback after suffering a torn meniscus and was sidelined for two games. With all-conference forward Deontae Hawkins, McIntosh and the Redbirds are the conference’s best bet to take on Wichita State and clinch a bid to the Big Dance.
2. Wichita State University (25-4, 15-1)
The Shockers are the cream of the crop in the MVC year after year. Even with the graduation of past stars Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, the team is a standard of excellence. Wichita State is led by one of the nation’s top coaches, Gregg Marshall, who turned down offers from bigger programs to build a mid-major powerhouse in the MVC. Led by sophomore forward Markis McDuffie and redshirt first-year guard Landry Shamet, the Shockers are a fundamentally sound team with the best scoring offense, winning margin, three point percentage and three point defense of any team in the conference. This consistency across the board is why Wichita State is one of the top two teams in the MVC going into the conference tournament.
3. University of Northern Iowa (14-13, 9-7)
Northern Iowa faced a major exodus of talent to graduation and a difficult pre-conference schedule that included games against two Final Four teams from last season’s NCAA Tournament. The Panthers have rebounded to stay relevant and are attempting to retain their title as conference champs after last season’s upset of Wichita State. After losing 2015-16 top scorers Paul Jespersen and Wes Washpun to graduation, the team has seamlessly replaced the tournament experience and scoring that departed. Senior guard Jeremy Morgan has stepped up and is fifth in the conference for scoring, averaging 15.2 points per game.
4. Southern Illinois University (15-14, 8-8)
An enigma, the Salukis have struggled to find any consistency all season. With big wins at Loyola and Saint Louis University, the team has the makings of an MVC contender, but has suffered questionable losses to opponents including Bradley University and Drake University. The Salukis also needed overtime to defeat Indiana State, which is tied for last place in the MVC, at home. A lack of a go-to scorer — senior guard Mike Rodriguez leads the team with 13.0 points per game — has been a downfall, as SIU has been unable to capitalize on Loyola and UNI’s slipups in the past month and remain middle of the pack.
5. Loyola University Chicago (17-12, 7-9)
After an unexpectedly promising start in nonconference games and having the look of a conference darkhorse early in the season, the Ramblers started to struggle in February. After losing five of its last six games — four by six points or less — Loyola has fallen to fifth place in the MVC. Led by senior guard Milton Doyle (15.6 points per game) and junior transfer Aundre Jackson (14.4 points per game), the Ramblers have a chance to make postseason noise with their shooting offense ranked 12th in the nation. Loyola put in impressive performances its last two games, a win against Indiana State and a close last-second loss to Illinois State.
6. Missouri State University (16-13, 7-9)
The Bears played well to start the season, defeating NCAA tournament mainstay North Dakota State University 64-50 and narrowly losing to No. 23 University of Southern California 83-75 on Dec. 22. But the team has struggled in conference play and concedes the third most points per game in the conference. The porous defense and a not-so-stellar offense led by junior forward Alize Johnson, who’s averaging 14.5 points per game and leads the MVC with 10.7 rebounds per game, has left the Bears in the middle of the pack.
7. Evansville University (14-15, 5-11)
Last season’s runner up in the conference has found conference play much more difficult this season. Despite having the MVC’s top-scorer in Jaylon Brown averaging 20.3 points per game and shooting 47 percent from the field, the team has continued to struggle with conference losses to last place Bradley, Drake University and Indiana State University. This has left the team that finished last season with 25 wins near the cellar of the MVC and without much hope of a postseason run after being one win away from representing the MVC at the NCAA tournament last year.
8. Bradley University (10-19, 5-11)
The Braves, who are consistently in the bottom half of the MVC, have struggled to score the basketball with any consistency this season, averaging just 64.9 points per game. Along with the fourth worst defense in the conference (allowing 70.7 points per game) would be a recipe for disaster for any team, and Bradley is no exception. The Braves have won only four conference games with the highlight of their season coming in a 72-61 win against Northern Iowa.
9. Drake University (7-21, 5-11)
Giving up an average of 77.2 points per game, the Bulldogs have struggled in conference play this year. With junior guard Reed Timmer, who’s third in the MVC in scoring, averaging 15.7 points per game, proving to be the only bright spot on a young and inexperienced team with seven underclassmen, the Bulldogs will most likely continue to struggle and are facing a first round Arch Madness exit with too many problems all across the court.
10. Indiana State University (10-18, 4-12)
The Sycamores are another major straggler in the conference, having only amassed four wins in 14 attempts. Their struggles have been headlined by a porous defense, which allows Indiana State’s opponents to score 73.1 points per game on average, and a lack of a No. 2 scorer to compliment junior guard Brenton Scott, who is second in the conference for scoring and leads the team averaging 16.1 points per game. This has left the Sycamores tied for last place with only a tiebreaker keeping them ahead of struggling Bradley University.