The unexpected keeps happening in the Missouri Valley Conference this season, and opening night of conference play was no different.
Of course Wichita State won its opener, but almost nothing else about the debut week was normal. It was stunning enough that Northern Iowa lost at home, but given that Bradley and Drake won a combined five conference games last season and each won their home openers, it was truly a ground-shaking first round of games.
Loyola (10-4, 0-1) has been riding high, but fell at Drake, while Southern Illinois, fresh off a clutch win over UT Martin, succumbed to Bradley. Even Illinois State’s win over Evansville was a bit abnormal. The Redbirds’ top three scorers on the season (Deontae Hawkins, MiKyle McIntosh, and Paris Lee), combined to make just seven of 27 field goal attempts, and yet they won.
Several players set career highs, including Drake’s De’Antae McMurray, who dropped 24 on Loyola. The 6’2 junior’s previous high was 14 points and he had reached double figures in just three of Drake’s (3-10, 1-0) previous 12 games. The Bulldogs topped the 80-point mark only five times all last season, and now eclipsed the century mark in two straight games.
Even in defeat, Loyola had two players set career highs in scoring, as Ben Richardson scored 22 points and Donte Ingram became the first Rambler to score 30 points since January 2014.
In Wichita State’s road win at Indiana State (6-7, 0-1), two Shockers (11-3, 1-0) set career highs in points scored as Darral Willis Jr. netted 25 points and sophomore Markis McDuffie recorded 22. Willis’s performance was the largest point total ever by a Shocker in his MVC debut. The 6’9 junior grabbed 10 rebounds and according to goshockers.com, also became the first WSU player to record a double-double in his first MVC game.
Northern Iowa’s home loss to Missouri State was just its fifth in Valley play over its last 28 home conference games. Ironically, head coach Ben Jacobson is just 3-3 in home league openers. Over the past three years, only the mighty Shockers are better than the Panthers at defending their home court.
Missouri State (10-4, 1-0) had lost seven of its last eight games against the Panthers. Bradley (6-8, 1-0) had dropped four of its last five to Southern Illinois.
Illinois State’s (9-4, 1-0) win over Evansville was its 13th-straight home victory, but it was the Redbirds’ defense that stood out to head coach Dan Muller. For just the second time all season, they held an opponent to 50 points or less. Muller told pantagraph.com that his team is learning that defense wins championships.
“I’m really liking our defense. From where we were three weeks ago to where we are now is a credit to the players,” Muller said. “We’ve really focused on it in practice.”
There is just one Valley game on Saturday as Missouri State hosts the Sycamores of Indiana State. Four more conference games will be played on New Year’s Day. The only matchup of teams that won their openers finds Bradley traveling to Wichita State.