The Missouri Valley season tipped off Wednesday night with the expected winners all taking home their games. Perhaps the only game that before its start had a strong chance of going either way was won easier than expected by Southern Illinois, continuing their strong early season run to get the Salukis to 12-2.
Here is a rundown of the rest of the Valley action:
Illinois State 74, Missouri State 64: For a while, this one looked to be heading toward the upset of the night. With six minutes remaining in the first half, the Redbirds had scored just eight points, and trailed by 13 to the upstart Bears who were just 4-8 entering the game.
Illinois State would hit five of their 15 3-pointers in the game over the next six minutes to get within two at the break. The real death blow then occurred in the second half when the Redbirds went on a 24-2 run over 6 minutes to take a commanding 21-point lead over Missouri State.
Deontae Hawkins made four 3-pointers in that span, part of his 5-for-5 night from long range. He finished with 17 points and DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell added 14 points off the bench for the Redbirds. Dequon Miller had 17 points to lead Missouri State, and Camyn Boone added 12 points and eight rebounds.
Northern Iowa 80, Bradley 44: The Panthers had no such issues with taking down Bradley. Northern Iowa held the Braves to just 16 points in the second half and just 0.72 points per possession in the game. No player for the Braves reached double figures in scoring, with Scottie James leading the way with nine points off the bench.
Jeremy Morgan had the big game to lead Northern Iowa's five players in double digits with 18 points, six rebounds and four assists. The Panthers shot 8-for-20 from 3-point range and made 73 percent of their 2-point attempts as they ran Bradley out of the gym.
Evansville 70, Indiana State 62: The dynamic duo for the Purple Aces did it again, with both D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius scoring 22 points to help Evansville overcome an 8-point halftime deficit. Balentine had 17 of his points after the break and added nine rebounds and five assists. Mockevicius pulled in 16 rebounds and had four blocks on the night.
The scary part for Evansville is that this is the kind of game that last season they would not have won. They shot poorly from the free throw line (just 22-for-41) and they allowed Indiana State to hang around, even after closing the gap in the first minutes of the second half. It wasn't until Balentine went off with about seven minutes remaining that things really turned for the Purple Aces.
This is why they ended Valley play at 9-9 with odd losses to Drake and Bradley last season. If Evansville really wants to contend with Wichita State (and more and more possibly Northern Iowa), they are going to have to play more consistently throughout games, given that they are working with an experienced team that knows how to play together over the past year and a half.
Wichita State vs. Drake, 2 p.m., ESPNU: Wichita State gets an easy start to the Valley season with Drake at home, followed by Bradley on the road Sunday. Thursday's game gives the Shockers a chance to continue to build up their inside game and find an option to go along with Fred VanVleet and Ron Backer. Both Zach Brown and Shaq Morris had nice games against Nevada, and they will be going against a mostly inexperienced frontcourt for the Bulldogs. The trick will be staying out of foul trouble despite being outsized on the interior. For Drake, the thing to watch will be how Reed Timmer and Graham Woodward do against the difficult Wichita State guards. Without Tekele Cotton to help this season, and spell VanVleet and Baker, there is an opportunity here for one of Drake's two standouts to find their shot.
Saturday, Jan. 2
Loyola at Indiana State, 2 p.m., ESPN3
Evansville at Missouri State, 4 p.m., ESPN3
Northern Iowa at Southern Illinois, 8 p.m., ESPN3
Sunday, Jan. 3
Wichita State at Bradley, 2 p.m., ESPN3
Illinois State at Drake, 2 p.m., ESPN3