The greatest conference challenge in all of college basketball is upon us.
We are talking, of course, about the Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge, which tips off Tuesday night and continues through Sunday. Like all events of its kind, this is an opportunity for teams to earn resume-building wins in the non-conference, and in some cases, it’s a chance to do it in front of a national audience.
The Mid-Major Madness staff gathered ‘round the metaphorical round table (a Google doc) on Tuesday to predict each game. All times are Eastern and please do not @ us.
Colorado State at Missouri State, Tues., 8 p.m., ESPN3
If you’re going to talk about grad transfers who have made an instant impact at their new school, Missouri State’s J.T. Miller has to be part of the discussion. The guard has scored in double figures in four of the Bears’ five games and is shooting 60 percent from the field. He’s paired well with Alize Johnson to give Missouri State multiple threats on offense. As for Colorado State, the Rams beat Northwestern State on Friday to snap a three-game losing streak and are led by Che Bob inside. His matchup with Johnson should be fascinating to watch.
Prediction: Missouri State 73 Colorado State 65
Utah State at Valparaiso, Tues., 8 p.m., ESPN3
Valparaiso is off to a perfect start, but the Crusaders have yet to face anybody in the KenPom top 150. That will change on Tuesday when the Aggies come to town, led by their backcourt of D’Angelo Isby and Sam Merrill. Utah State, however, is a little beat up, already down Brock Miller and Julion Pearre. Guard Koby McEwen is also doubtful with a knee injury. It will be tough to make up for that lost firepower going against one of the best defensive teams in the country so far. Valparaiso has held opponents to an effective field goal percentage of 41.4 (12th-best in the nation) and a 24.8 percent mark from three. Per KenPom, the Crusaders are also among the best in the nation in block percentage (11th) and steal percentage (eighth).
Prediction: Valparaiso 69 Utah State 60
- Russell Steinberg
Loyola Chicago at Boise State, Tues., 9 p.m., Mountain West Network
Loyola comes into this one undefeated at 7-0, but similar to Valparaiso, the Ramblers will be facing their toughest opponent so far. Boise State is 5-1, with its only loss coming against Iowa State. Loyola’s offense has scored more than 80 points in four games already, so Boise State will need to keep this game from becoming a shootout if it wants to hand the Ramblers their first loss of the season. Mountain West preseason player of the year Chandler Hutchinson’s status is uncertain after missing the Broncos’ last game with a concussion.
Prediction: Boise State 67 Loyola 60
Air Force at Indiana State, Wed., 7 p.m., ESPN3
Despite upsetting Indiana to open the season, Indiana State has lost four out of its last five contests. The Sycamores have been anything but consistent, giving up 93 to Ball State while only allowing Old Dominion to score 62. Air Force is not exactly hot coming into this one either, losing its last two games by double figures. Air Force has not beaten anybody of note — the Falcons’ highest-rated win, according to KenPom, was against No. 198 Texas State. It depends on which Indiana State team shows up, but the Sycamores have played up to their competition, while Air Force has not.
Prediction: Indiana St 83 Air Force 74
UNLV at Northern Iowa, Wed., 8 p.m., ESPN3
Perhaps Marvin Menzies’ rebuild is coming for the Rebels sooner than anyone expected. UNLV currently checks in at No. 16 in the Mid-Major Madness Power Rankings, and the Rebels have been busy beating up on small schools. However, they did recently earn a 27-point win over Utah, a surefire sign of this team’s potential. Then there’s Northern Iowa, who looked simply stunning in the Battle for Atlantis last week, notching huge wins over SMU and NC State before losing a tough one to Villanova. UNI’s defense is among the best in the country, and it should be the key to winning what should be one of the most thrilling matchups of the MWC/MVC Challenge.
Prediction: UNI 72, UNLV 66
Evansville at New Mexico, Wed., 9 p.m., Mountain West Network
The Aces are 5-1 going into the game, with their only loss being against Louisiana Tech on a last-second three. Their offense was fueled by guard Ryan Taylor, who averaged 21 points per game, but a fractured foot will sideline him for six weeks. Dru Smith will likely fill the void. He averages 11 points, shoots over 60 percent from three and from the field, and doles out over six assists per game. Evansville plays a slower pace, averaging just 66.2 points per game so far this year. New Mexico is just 2-4 and on a four-game skid. The Lobos can be explosive, but their offense can also lay dormant. New Mexico has either scored fewer than 70 or more than 95 in every game. Evansville hasn’t allowed over 63 points in a game all year, so expect the bad New Mexico offense to show up.
Prediction Evansville 69 New Mexico 57
Illinois State at Nevada, Wed., 9 p.m., Facebook
Nevada currently sits at No. 2 in our power rankings and has quietly crept into the top 50 of KenPom with a 6-0 record to show for it. With guys like Jordan Caroline and the Martin twins, Eric Musselman has assembled one of the most versatile rosters in the country. Illinois State has been a bit harder to peg. The Redbirds have neutral court wins against South Carolina and Tulsa, but are also coming off of an overtime loss at home to Charleston Southern. Overall, Nevada is the better team on both sides of the ball. With the added benefit of home court advantage, the Wolfpack should win comfortably.
Prediction: Nevada 81, Illinois State 68
San Jose State at Southern Illinois, Sat., 4 p.m., ESPN3
San Jose State is the only team from either conference ranked worse than 300 in KenPom and forcing them to play at Southern Illinois just seems unfair. In each of the Spartans’ wins, they have been able to turn their opponents over 18 times. Unfortunately for them, it’s hard to speed up the Salukis. Southern Illinois’ issue so far this year has been shooting — it ranks in the bottom 100 in the nation in effective field goal percentage, three-point percentage and free throw rate.
Prediction: Southern Illinois 73 San Jose State 58
- Russell Steinberg
Drake at Wyoming, Sat., 6 p.m., Mountain West Network
Since earning a 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament a decade ago, Drake has struggled to maintain any sort of relevance, recording only two winning seasons since. After starting 4-1 this year with a big win against Wake Forest and a close loss to Colorado, many are wondering if first-year coach Niko Medved already has this program back in winning shape. Taking on Wyoming, who has also impressed thus far, won’t be easy, and the difference in playing styles will be the difference maker. If Wyoming — a much quicker team — is able to control the pace of this one, it could be riding a 7-1 record heading into a key matchup with South Carolina.
Prediction: Wyoming 83, Drake 71
- Cam Newton
Bradley at San Diego State, Sun., 6 p.m., Facebook
Contrary to the play style of Steve Fisher’s SDSU teams, Brian Dutcher has pushed the pace this season. The Aztecs are playing much faster, and have gotten off to a 5-2 start with the help of a rejuvenated offense. Bradley has been a bit of a surprise at 6-1, and a large part of its success can be attributed to defense. The Braves have held opponents to fewer than 70 points in every game, and under 60 in four of those games. The Aztecs will have the advantage in talent and athleticism, and Viejas Arena remains one of the tougher places to play on the West Coast. Bradley should be able to compete, but might not have the firepower to pull it off.
Prediction: San Diego State 74, Bradley 66
- Chris Schutte
Missouri Valley: 6
Mountain West: 4