Wichita State and Illinois State are poised for a titanic match up this weekend, and there are significant shifts in the balance of power below those two heavyweights.
Wednesday, the 10 Missouri Valley Conference teams squared off and we received three fresh lessons from the latest round of contests.
Wichita State and Illinois State Stand Alone
The Shockers (15-3, 5-0) and Redbirds (13-4, 5-0) were both tested Wednesday, and both prevailed, despite struggling at times.
Wichita received its stiffest challenge of the conference season as the high-scoring Loyola Ramblers threw bomb after bomb at the defending Valley champions, but Wichita State prevailed 87-75. A Shocker opponent scored as many as 75 points for only the fourth time all season, and in a “man bites dog” moment, Loyola out-performed the Shockers on the glass.
Illinois State’s two leading scorers, Deontae Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh, combine to average just under 30 points per game, but Southern Illinois held that pair to a combined 18 points. The Redbirds won 60-53 anyway. Illinois State was held to its second-lowest scoring output of the season, and still won.
The two MVC powers were tested, but prevailed and meet Saturday in Normal, Illinois for the league lead.
Bradley and Drake are Moving Up
Perennial powers Northern Iowa and Indiana State have struggled to find their way this season, and Wednesday’s games seemed like contests that would help them get healthy. UNI and Indiana State visited recent cellar-dwellers Bradley and Drake respectively. UNI and ISU both lost again.
The bigger point is that Drake and Bradley are rapidly improving. By defeating Northern Iowa, 72-61, the Braves (8-10, 3-2) have already won more games than last season (five) and have tied their league victory total from last year.
Drake (5-12, 3-2) lost seven of its first eight games, head coach Ray Giacoletti resigned, and since that time, the Bulldogs have had a serious facelift. They’ve won four of their last six games, and after Wednesday’s 87-70 victory over Indiana State, they have won three of five in league play. New head coach Jeff Rutter has turned Drake into a dangerous offensive team. In Drake’s first nine games, it never reached the 80-point mark. With Wednesday’s 87-point performance, the Bulldogs have topped that mark five times in eight games.
Northern Iowa and Indiana State are both 0-5 in Valley play.
Loyola is For Real
Despite a 12-point defeat at Wichita State, the Ramblers proved they belong in the upper echelon of the Missouri Valley race. Loyola (12-6, 2-3) was within four points of the Shockers deep into the second half. They out-rebounded the intimidating Shockers, and Milton Doyle & Co. are performing at a high level.
The 6’4 senior scored 23 points after scoring 35 on Saturday and is taking his game to a much higher level. Wednesday, the preseason all-conference player added seven rebounds and eight assists. Doyle leads the Ramblers in scoring, assists, and steals.
Loyola won the 2015 College Basketball Invitational. This year’s edition of Rambler basketball has that same kind of potential.