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Down In the Valley: Entering Conference Play

Now that the Valley is done with its out-of-conference schedule, the real fun can begin. Wichita State has already proven itself to be just as good as last year's Final Four team, but the muddle in the middle may not be so ready to cede the crown quite yet.

Reese Strickland-USA TODAY Sport

Going into conference play (and the new year), if there's one thing I can guarantee you, it's that Wichita State is good enough to dominate the Missouri Valley regular season and claim the championship. If there's a second thing I can promise, it's that nobody will make it easy for them. The primary evidence is that last season the cellar-dwelling Salukis beat a surging Shockers team near the end of the season, and while I don't expect SIU to split their season series with WSU, there will be plenty of parity to keep the Shockers grounded.

For those that aren't close followers of the Valley, it plays a round-robin format where each team plays two games against every conference opponent, one at home and one on the road. This familiarity ensures that all of the schools get second looks at each other, which may be an offhand explanation as to why teams in the bottom half of the rankings can't be counted as automatic wins for those at the top.

Yesterday our own Parks Smith wrote a great Conference Primer for the Missouri Valley, so check that out as well. Here's how the teams stack up going into conference play.

1. Wichita State Wheat Shockers

Record: 13-0

Notable Wins: SLU, BYU, Tennessee, Alabama

It seems that so far this season anything that could be written about the Shockers has been. The AP currently ranks them 8 in the nation, whereas they've held the number 1 spot in our Mid-Major Rankings for a while now. WSU's star Cleanthony Early has proven to be the leader he was billed as on both sides of the court and has yet to have a game this season that I wouldn't call "dominant." However, Wichita State's success may be even more due to Ron Baker's ability to take over games, or Fred VanVleet hitting crucial threes to turn the tide of a close game. As a side note, JUCO transfer Darius Carter (ya know, LeBron's cousin) has been a solid contributor with 8.3 ppg ad 5.3 rpg on almost 20 minutes a game.

WSU's first Valley opponent is SIU, followed by UNI. The matchup with the underachieving Panthers should prove to be an early litmus test for both teams in this part of the season.

2. Missouri State Bears

Record: 10-2

Notable Wins: Texas A&M

The Bears have so far been lead by strong backcourt play, but even when the frontcourt is doing well it still has obvious flaws. Christian Kirk (C/F) is certainly the leader of the bunch, but he can still be out muscled by taller and stronger opponents, Emmanuel Addo (C/F) plays some great minutes but finds himself in foul trouble more often than not, and then freshman center Tyler McCullough has displayed some defensive mettle but has yet to find his scoring touch.

That being said, the Bears are in this #2 spot because they've beat the teams they are supposed to, even if they were blown out by both Louisville and Virginia. By the end of the season the Texas A&M win will look good, but I don't know that it was much of an upset considering the Aggies haven't really beat anyone of significance either. Missouri State's inability to really compete against their elite opponents makes conference play all the more important. First up are ISU Redbirds, followed by Loyola, Bradley, and then the home game against the Shockers. I'm certainly not assuming that Mo State will be 13-2 going into January 11 contest with WSU, but if they are then it could be a golden opportunity for the Bears to show they belong in the top of the conference.

3. Indiana State Sycamores

Record: 9-3

Notable Wins: Notre Dame

I'm going to go on record and say that I still think Indiana State is still the second most talented team in the Valley, and taking the second game in their two contests with Belmont certainly casts their OOC play in a better light. The Sycamores are entering conference play with a solid record, and their one point loss to Tulsa is really the only blemish that stands out. The one bad omen is that they were trounced by a SLU squad that lost handily to Wichita State, which doesn't bode well for trying to knock of the Shockers. However, Indiana State's offensive firepower has proven to be rather potent, as they currently lead the Valley in nearly every offensive statistic.

Up next are Loyola, Evansville, and Drake.

4. Drake Bulldogs

Record: 9-3

Notable Wins: N/A

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. At this point the Bulldogs look a lot better than I expected and have passed the eye test, especially as Richard Carter is second in Valley so far in points per game. Drake is a historically strong player in the MVC, so it would be a welcome development for them to return to prominence in the conference.

The secret to their success may be that they frequently cause turnovers. The Bulldogs lead the conference in forcing turnovers at 8.3 per game, lead by the very same Richard Carter who takes it away 2.7 times per game. If it weren't for their freshman center Jacob Jensen turning the ball over 5 times a game then their turnover ratio would be a whole lot more notable. Drake starts conference play by hosting Evansville, then traveling to Bradley.

5. Northern Iowa Panthers:

Record: 6-6

Notable Wins: Loyola-Marymount, La Salle, VCU

Meet the new Panthers, same as the old Panthers. Just like last season, UNI scheduled a brutal lineup of major and mid-major opponents, coming up with mixed results. Wins against LMU, La Salle, and VCU are almost as impressive as losses against Ohio, George Mason, Maryland, Iowa State, and Virginia are disappointing. At this point I expect UNI to go into conference play with something to prove, which could be trouble for some of the other teams hoping to compete for first and second.

UNI first hosts Bradley, but then will go on the road to play the Shockers. We should be able to tell early if the Panthers will be able to compete this season.

6. Illinois State Redbirds

Record: 7-5

Notable Wins: Northwestern, Dayton, DePaul

I still haven't figured the Redbirds out. At the beginning of the season I wrote that "There’s no question that the starters for ISU’s squad have raw talent, the question is these four JuCo transfers and a freshman can play well enough to win. While I would love to be proven wrong, the answer is no." At this point I wouldn't say I've been proven wrong considering the losses to Vermont and Oakland, but wins against Northwestern, DePaul, and Dayton (who was ranked #25 by the AP at the time) have shown that the Redbirds have found out how to gel this season, and that could lead to them being much better than expected.

ISU's first conference game against Missouri State should be an intriguing contrast between a Redbirds team that has played up to some great competition but has lost to teams they shouldn't have, and a Bears team that has beat the teams they should but hasn't been able to stick around with tougher opponents.

7. Evansville Purple Aces

Record: 7-6

Notable Wins: Mercer

Evansville started off the season 6-0, but has went 2-6 ever since. D.J. Balentine has been nothing short of amazing on offense, as he currently leads the MVC in ppg at 22.8. On the other hand, not a single other Ace is in double digits scoring. The bigger problem is that every player not named Egidijus Mockevicius has struggled defensively, which has resulted in opponents scoring 73.4 points against them each game, which is good for tenth in the conference.

Evansville is going on the road to play Drake, then returns home to play Indiana State.

8. Loyola Ramblers

Record: 5-7

Notable Wins: Milwaukee

The Ramblers played the easiest nonconference schedule out of the entire Valley, and they didn't win much. If Loyola has made any sort of statement, their win over Milwaukee may indicate that they would be competitors if they were still in the Horizon League. However, their ranking in the MVC isn't poised to be quite as glamorous at this point. As good as Christian Thomas and Milton Doyle have been for their team so far, it's Loyola's lack of depth that will hurt them the most. The beginning of the conference slate isn't too promising either, as their first conference game as a member of the MVC is on the road against Indiana State. Gentile Arena will then welcome Missouri State as the first home MVC conference game for the Ramblers.

9. Bradley Braves

Record: 5-8

Notable Wins: N/A

Inversely, at this point the Braves probably wouldn't be competitive in the Horizon League, or the Summit League for that matter if their losses to IPFW and IUPUI are any indication. While UNI may be the MVC team to have fallen short of high expectations so far, Bradley is the one that has disappointed me the most. Similar to Evansville, Bradley started off 4-0, but is 1-8 since then. At first nothing seemed awry because, well, losses to the Illini and Sun Devils were understandable. After their last win on November 30 against Texas-Pan American they have completely fell apart in nearly every aspect of the game.

As always, anything could happen, but I would not be surprised for Bradley to lose their first five games of conference play: UNI, Drake, MSU, Indiana St, and WSU.

10. Southern Illinois Salukis

Record: 4-9

Notable Wins: N/A

When your best win is against the 2-8 Ball State Cardinals you know things aren't going well. But seriously, at least the Salukis have provided us with this gem. Honestly, I would usually feel bad for not providing some real analysis, but the SIU games I've had the pleasure of watching have resulted in one conclusion: They are bad.

SIU first hosts Wichita State, then plays on the road against Illinois State and Loyola.