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Evansville’s marquee win doubles as early Missouri Valley statement

Are the Purple Aces a real contender in the beautifully open league?

NCAA Basketball: Evansville at Kentucky Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

As you well know by now, Evansville tilted the college basketball world on its head Tuesday night by knocking off No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena. There are narratives bursting from the seams in the Purple Aces’ dethroning of the nation’s top-ranked team.

There’s second-year coach Walter McCarty’s homecoming in Lexington, where the former national champion Wildcat player is now the architect of one of the most stunning non-conference home losses in program history. On the flip side, it may also have been UE’s most significant win ever. And, what’ll get the most ink nationally: the top of the mountain is vacant of the second-straight week, meaning a third team in as many weeks will own that shiny number one when the next polls come out.

But you didn’t come here to read about why Duke — or whomever else — will be the latest top-ranked team. On this site, we’re much more interested in the long-term ramifications of the win for the team that is suddenly the toast of the Missouri Valley.

The historic victory in Lexington already gives the Purple Aces half as many road wins as they managed in McCarty’s debut season a year ago. That 11-21 campaign — which included a seven-game losing streak late in the season — was understandable, as McCarty embarked on a rebuild with several impact transfers sitting out. The addition of shooters Sam Cunliffe, Artur Labinowicz and athletic big man DeAndre Williams, didn’t move the needle much in the MVC’s preseason poll, which slotted the Purple Aces eighth.

In a league seemingly lacking a powerhouse team, should UE’s marquee win force that projection to be reconsidered?

It’s easy to overreact to win like this; how could you not? As Russ succinctly summed up earlier: ELRHGAERIOUHGREAIOUG!!!!!!! But there have been signs, albeit in a small-but-powerful-sample size, that this Purple Aces team is a legitimate threat to the MVC hierarchy — not just a second-week fluke.

For one, the personnel seem to fit the up-tempo, fluid system that McCarty had been touting based on his NBA background. Those are buzzwords used by Every Coach At His Intro Press Conference in the country, but the end result gave a team loaded with future NBA players trouble on Tuesday night.

Senior combo guard K.J. Riley (18 points) routinely broke out in transition and had the Wildcats on their heels. He had Williams to run with, as the sophomore seems well-suited for the versatile, prototypical modern big man role. The former three-star recruit that sat out last season stuffed the stat sheet against Kentucky (nine points, four rebounds, three assists), after scoring 26 points and hitting three triples against Ball State last week.

And the Purple Aces seem to have the ability to — get ready for that other modern buzzword — effectively space the floor. That’s in no small part because Cunliffe and Labinowicz have been added to a team that already included quality three-point threats in Noah Frederking and John Hall. It was on display with arguably the biggest shot of the night against the Wildcats. Up 58-55 with just under five minutes left, the Purple Aces spread the floor and got Williams the ball off a pick and roll, which he then confidently flipped to Frederking in the corner for a comeback-denting three.

And of course the MVC still seems beautifully open and confusing.

Missouri State, with its talent and breakout potential star coach Dana Ford, somewhat stumbled with an opening loss to Little Rock, while Loyola Chicago took an ugly home loss to Coppin State Monday. On the flip side, Northern Iowa and Illinois State have had respective 2-0 starts against decent competition.

Record book-wise, it was a night with big implications for the MVC, with UE notching the league’s first non-conference win over a ranked team since the Ramblers took down No. 5 Florida nearly two years ago. On a more positive note, it was the third time since 2013 a league team has beaten the No. 1 team in the country, as UE joins since-departed Wichita State (Gonzaga, 2013 NCAA Tournament) and UNI (North Carolina, 2015) in that club.

Whether the win will also have big ramifications in the MVC for 2019-2020 is yet to be seen, but the Purple Aces have made a strong opening statement.