Heading into the night of Nov. 29, the Missouri Valley Conference had two undefeated teams, Evansville and Bradley, but after just one night of conference play, both teams have fallen to MVC opponents.
With seven of the league’s 12 teams receiving votes in our Mid-Major Top 25 at some point this season, the MVC has shown its depth among mid-major conferences. Drake, the preseason favorite, sits at 6-1, but so do Bradley, Missouri State, Indiana State and Evansville. A mid-major conference with success from top-to-bottom will make it hard for the selection committee in March.
Tucker Devries is good at basketball. The 6-foot-7-inch junior forward is averaging 20.2 points and 7.0 rebounds this season after leading the Bulldogs to the NCAA Tournament and a near upset of eventual Final Four squad Miami last season. A 24-point loss to Stephen F. Austin hurts their resume, but a 20-point route of MAC preseason favorite Akron in the Cayman Islands Classic is their best win. Behind the talent of Devries and Co., Drake has shown its ability to contend with the best in the past and can do so once again.
The Braves saw their unblemished record end when the Murray State Racers handed them their first loss of the season. Bradley has beaten mid-major powers UAB, Utah State, Tulane and Vermont. With the best resume in the conference, senior forward Malevy Leons leads a Braves squad that was selected third in the MVC preseason poll. With games against Akron and Duquesne as well as two against Drake this season, the Braves have plenty of opportunities to prove themselves before Arch Madness.
The Sycamores’ lone setback came on the road at Alabama. They sit as 16th in the nation in team points per game (87.4). With four of their five starters averaging 13.7 points per game or higher, Indiana State can score better than the rest. A 29-point win over Southern Illinois to start conference play makes them a team to be reckoned with. Junior guard Isaiah Swope leads the way with 18.9 points per game.
A close loss at West Virginia comes as the Bears’ only loss on the season. Missouri State made a statement with a 12-point win over Evansville at the start of conference play. With another win over Kent State, the Bears are rolling on the longest win streak in the conference. With a face-off with Drake in Des Moines on Saturday, they have a strong chance of proving themselves as conference champion contenders early in the season.
Before their loss at Missouri State Wednesday night, the Purple Aces were one of the hottest teams in college basketball by winning their first six games. Behind the leadership of senior forward Ben Humrichous, Evansville was heavily surpassing their preseason expectations (picked as 11th of 12in the MVC preseason rankings). Games against BYU and Cincinnati during the month of December will provide big tests for this Purple Aces squad.
Another example of sub-par preseason expectations, the Flames have proven doubters wrong with an early-season resume that includes wins over Loyola Chicago and George Washington as well as a 30-point win over Middle Tennessee. With close losses against Cincinnati and UNC Greensboro, UIC sits at 5-2 with their most difficult early-season tests behind them.
The Panthers ability to contend with power conference teams makes them a dangerous foe in any matchup. An enigma of college basketball, Northern Iowa sports wins over power conference Stanford and Division III team Loras. UNI has suffered close losses to North Texas (in overtime) and Texas Tech (by two). Its other losses include a nine-point defeat at South Florida and an 20-point home loss to Belmont. It is still hard to tell how Northern Iowa will end up finishing this season.
Xavier Johnson has made an early case to steal the MVC Player of the Year honors from Drake’s Tucker Devries. The senior guard leads the conference in scoring (16th in the nation) with 21.8 points per game along with 4.7 assists per contest. A 38-point performance against top-25 foe James Madison sits as a flagship game this season, as he nearly led the Salukis to a win over the Dukes. While a 29-point loss to Indiana State tarnishes what is a solid resume, Southern Illinois remains in the race for an MVC title behind the heroics of Johnson.
While originally thought to be having a down season, recent wins over Pennsylvania and at Northern Iowa have sprung the Bruins right back into Missouri Valley contention. With three separate players averaging 16.3 points per game or higher, Belmont has hit a second wind after dropping games to Furman and Monmouth earlier this season. Now on a three-game win streak, anything can happen down the stretch as their next big test comes on the road at Middle Tennessee on December 9th.
Rob Perry and Jacobi Wood each scored 19 points in the Racers’ win over Bradley. Prior to that contest, the Racers dropped three close games to high-level mid-major teams. A five-point loss versus Western Kentucky, a two-point overtime loss to UNC Wilmington and a 10-point loss to Appalachian State are Murray State’s three defeats on the season. The program has seen just one losing season since 1987. The Racers have a difficult December slate with games against Mississippi State on Dec. 13 and SMU on Dec. 22.
The Redbirds have wins over Long Beach State and Eastern Illinois, two teams that have gone toe-to-toe with high-level power conference schools, and sit 3-3 on the season. Their toughest game on the schedule is a trip to Rupp Arena to face Kentucky in the non-conference finale.
Junior guard Isaiah Stafford leads the Beacons with 17.5 points per game. They are 4-3 but don’t have a flagship win yet, so it is hard to tell if Valparaiso will make any real noise in the Missouri Valley this season. Only time will tell with a road match against Virginia Tech on the horizon for this team.