The Valley may not have been decided quite yet, but the Shockers don't seem daunted by anybody. They traveled to a Missouri State team that managed to take a substantial lead, but WSU simply refused to lose. They hosted a Sycamore squad that had an opportunity to show the Valley that the Shockers aren't invincible. The result was the blue team getting blown out by 20.
The state of the Valley is difficult to gauge, as the Shockers are emerging as a truly elite team, not just for the MVC but in the nation. However, the rest of the conference is undeniably down from last season. While the loss of Creighton is certainly a part of that, the remaining members have resorted to beating each other up and floating around .500.
1. Wichita State Wheat Shockers
Record: 20-0 (7-0)
Those are the teams currently ranked above WSU in the AP Poll. By entirely destroying Indiana State at home, the Shockers have shown they are able to transcend the cliche' "dod eat dog" season the rest of the conference is having. I don't know if Wichita State will remain undefeated the rest of the season and I refuse to prognosticate on that matter, but the games on the road against either UNI or Indiana State are the only games I could see that happening. While earlier this season I reveled in pointing out that a Final Four WSU team lost to SIU as evidence of how competitive the Valley is. I'm not so sure that kind of thing is going to happen again.
Now, the reason the Shockers are so good is quite simply that they have different players who can fit whatever role WSU needs. Cleanthony Early is the favorite to win the Larry Bird Valley Player of the Year award because he is consistently the best player on the court no matter the opponent. Ron Baker can take over games and make WSU's lead insurmountable. When the Shockers do find themselves in a tight spot Fred VanVleet cooly makes the shots they need to win.
2. Indiana State Sycamores
Record: 15-4 (6-1)
Let me be clear: The Sycamores are a good team, and if the Valley has any hope of getting a second team in the NCAA Tourney it will be the boys in blue.WSU visits the Hulman Center on Feb 5, so that will be the game to watch. In their road loss to the Shockers, Jake Odum was held to 7 points, and Dawon Cummings was the only Sycamore that seemed to know they were playing basketball. ISU is better than that, so I don't expect it to be a blowout again - even if the Shockers are the likely victor in the end. That being said, Indiana State simply needs to take care of business against the non yellow teams of the Valley and build their case for the Tournament.
3. Illinois State Redbirds
Record: 11-8 (4-3)
Don't let the mediocre 4-3 conference record fool you, the Redbirds are putting some good basketball on display and look like one of the better teams in the MVC. Two of the losses are to the Shockers, while the other was an overtime loss to Missouri State before the Bears fell apart. Before the season started I said that the Redbirds had the talent to be a good team, but I severely doubted that they would be able to bring together all of their new talent to make a cohesive team. At the beginning of the season this was very true, but as time goes on you can see them playing more team basketball and making fewer mistakes (even if they still turn the ball over the most in the MVC).
Illinois State still has two games against Indiana State and UNI, so while WSU is out of the way there will still be plenty of tests for the Redbirds. We'll reserve judgement to see if they can stay this high in the rankings, but at this point they deserve it.
Record: 10-9 (4-3)
To this point in conference play the Panthers have lost some close games to inferior teams, but right now their tightrope act of staying just above .500 is good enough to put them in the number 4 spot, which is kinda sad. Their wins over Missouri State and Drake (the the fact that they actually have a winning conference record) puts them in the upper half of the conference. Just like both the ISUs, the Panthers were blown out by the Shockers.
5. Missouri State Bears
Record: 13-6 (3-4)
For a while there the Bears were looking great. The loss to Loyola was ugly, but after the close loss to Wichita State the Bears were sitting at 2-2 in conference play and seemed combative against the Valley's Wheaties overlords. Then we found out that Mo State's leading scorer Marcus Marshall suffered a season ending torn meniscus. While there may have been some admirable individual performances since then, the Bears haven't been able to put together much good basketball since then, losing to UNI and Indiana State. Even though MSU eked out a win against Evansville, Coach Paul Lusk is going to need to get someone to step up.
Record: 8-12 (3-4)
Bradley entirely deserves to be around the middle in spite of their ugly overall record. Essentially, the Braves have managed to lose to the teams above them - Wichita State, Indiana State, and Missouri State - and beat SIU and Drake. The split with UNI further goes to show how absolutely mediocre Bradley has looked to this point. Looking at their numbers, the Braves may simply be a victim of no outside game. BU is currently last in the Valley with an abysmal 29.4 percent of 3 point shots made. Walt Lemon, Jr. does a decent job hitting it outside the arc when he needs to, but for the most part they have to get inside to score. The better Valley teams have been able to defend against the one dimensional offense. In a few games this season the Braves have tried to make it rain from 3 when they are outmatched in the paint, but a high volume of three point shot attempts unfortunately didn't correlate with a high number of them made.
Record: 11-8 (2-5)
You had us going a little while there, Drake. We thought you might actually be returning as a power player in the Valley. Unfortunately, that bubble burst when you lost to Bradley, both the ISUs, UNI, and Loyola. I mean, you haven't even played the Shockers yet.
The Bulldogs will be hosting Wichita State tomorrow (Jan 25). Any road game is tough in the Valley, but I don't expect the Bulldogs to put up much of a fight. In the last edition of Down in the Valley I wrote that "Drake really hasn't beat anybody at this point, but they also have won a whole lot more than they have lost and that means something." It turns out it really didn't mean anything, but it wasn't the first time I was wrong, and it won't be the last.
8. Evansville Purple Aces
Record: 9-11 (2-5)
Evansville is only ranked above the Salukis and Ramblers because those are the two teams that the Aces managed to beat. DJ Balentine continues to be a phenomenal talent. I mean, 22 ppg is impressive no matter how bad your season is going. Unfortunately for Evansville he is still the only player who is scoring double digits in more than a handful of games. Just looking at then numbers makes it look like the offense needs to spread the ball out more to have a more balanced offense, and I may even agree with that to a point. However, Balentine's numbers aren't just the result of shooting the ball a lot, he actually scores rather efficiently and has 4.3 assists per game. He's not a ball hog, even if I would like him to pass it inside to Mockevicius a little bit more.
Record: 6-14 (2-5)
After the wildly amusing Barry Hinson rant the Salukis have actually been playing really hard. You cannot really fault their work ethic, or even their offense. Desmar Jackson is still tearing it up on both the scoreboard and the glass. Sophomores Anthony Beane and Jalen Pendleton have also improved their games and are contributing on offense.
The numbers tell a story of a team that is about in the middle for field goal percentage, but is only .2 percent better at shooting the three than the before mentioned Braves, meaning that the Salukis aren't very good at that either. Southern Illinois also only makes 66.3 percent of their free throws. Ouch.
Similarly, they are actually decent (though not great) at defending the three, but their field goal defense is definitely lacking, allowing 46.6 percent of shots. That is also worst in the MVC.
10. Loyola Ramblers
Record: 7-12 (2-5)
Loyola had all the reason in the world to be ecstatic when they won their first Valley home game against Missouri State. Loyola's sharpshooters couldn't miss all night and sent the Bears home dejected. The Rambers weren't able to keep that intense scoring up, though, as they haven't scored out of the 60s after putting up 89 that night. As I've said all season, Loyola has the building blocks to be a good team. Unfortunately, the MVC newcomer has not found the Valley to be hospitable or conducive to winning.