Now that the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball season is more than halfway complete, the league race is clearly defined in three groups: the race for No. 1 (Wichita State and Northern Iowa), the race for No. 3 (Indiana State, Illinois State and Evansville) and everyone else (everyone else).
Here are the current league standings, plus my (probably inaccurate) attempt to project the seeds of Arch Madness, which begins March 5 in St. Louis.
1. Northern Iowa (20-2, 9-1): The Panthers beat Wichita State 70-54 on Saturday in the first MVC game between ranked teams since 1982. UNI leapfrogged the Shockers in the polls Monday, coming in at No. 14 in the AP poll and No. 15 in the USA Today coaches poll.
Projected finish: 2. Even though the Panthers won convincingly against the Shockers on Saturday, I’m not convinced they’ll dethrone Wichita State in the long run. UNI has looked a bit more vulnerable against the rest of the league. Even with the 16-point loss Saturday, Wichita State’s margin of victory against MVC teams (13.4) is greater than UNI’s (10.1).
2. Wichita State (19-3, 9-1): Poor Bradley. The Braves have battled injury after injury this season and last week suspended three players following an incident at a strip club. Now they get the pleasure of playing Wichita State on Wednesday, when the Shockers will truly be playing angry after seeing its MVC win streak — counting the 2014 conference tournament — snapped at 30 games.
Projected finish: 1. See my justification for Northern Iowa’s projected finish. I’m not ready to bet against the Shockers after one conference loss in 31 games.
3. Indiana State (11-11, 7-3): The Sycamores have surprised many around the league considering their 4-8 nonconference record. With the exception of a loss at Drake, ISU has taken care of business against the teams it is supposed to beat.
Projected finish: 5. ISU is a game ahead of Evansville and Illinois State (which the Sycamores beat twice) in the standings, but has been underwhelming in its last two contests. Indiana State’s defense looked shoddy last Tuesday in Evansville and the Sycamores barely beat a depleted Bradley team at home on Saturday.
Also, the Sycamores play Wichita State twice and Northern Iowa once the rest of the season, while UE and Illinois State each has only two games remaining against the MVC’s top two squads. And Loyola star Milton Doyle could return from an ankle injury by the time Indiana State plays the Ramblers on Saturday. UE and Illinois State were able to pick up wins against Loyola while Doyle was sidelined.
4. Evansville (16-6, 6-4): The Aces are coming off a dud of a loss at Drake after compiling a three-game winning streak. UE’s two remaining games against Illinois State — the first one coming Tuesday night – are huge in determining the No. 3-5 seeds.
Projected finish: 4. Tuesday’s game at Illinois State is tough but winnable. After that, the Aces play four consecutive games against bottom-half MVC teams, including three at home. UE can set itself up well for tournament seeding by rattling off a few wins in a row against that competition. And key player Mislav Brzoja appears relatively close to returning from a broken left (non-shooting) hand.
5. Illinois State (14-8, 6-4): The Redbirds are balanced, deep and a UNI 3-pointer away from a five-game winning streak.
Projected finish: 3. The fight for third in the MVC will be fun to watch, and I’m giving it to Illinois State because — unlike Evansville and Indiana State — the Redbirds haven’t lost a game to the MVC’s bottom four. That bodes well for Illinois State, particularly if it can at least split the two-game series with UE.
Also, Illinois State’s scoring margin in MVC games is 6.9, while Evansville’s and Indiana State’s are 1.4 and 1.9, respectively.That means the Redbirds have been closer to beating the top teams and also handling the other teams more comfortably.
6. Loyola (13-9, 3-7): The Ramblers have dropped five in a row, including the last four with standout sophomore Milton Doyle sidelined with an ankle injury.
Projected finish: 6. Assuming Doyle returns soon and is close to his top form, Loyola could pick up a few more regular-season wins. Doyle is that good, and that important to the Ramblers.
7. Missouri State (9-13, 3-7): It’s never a good sign when a team’s best player — in this case, Marcus Marshall — is suspended and then leaves the program in the middle of the season. Missouri State had lost seven in a row before Saturday’s win against Southern Illinois.
Projected finish: 9. Four of the Bears’ next five games are against Wichita State, Northern Iowa, Evansville and Indiana State. Not an ideal stretch for a struggling team.
8. Drake (6-16, 3-7): The Bulldogs are in the middle of their first winning streak of the season. It’s only two victories long, but Drake hosts Southern Illinois on Wednesday in another winnable game.
Projected finish: 8. Drake has a couple of scoring threats and a decent big man in 7-footer Jacob Enevold. That’s more than some of the other bottom-tier MVC teams can say. And Drake’s remaining schedule is a bit more favorable than that of Missouri State.
9. Southern Illinois (9-14, 2-8): Junior guard Anthony Beane is a dynamic scorer and freshman forward Jordan Caroline shows promise, but they don’t have much offensive help. The Salukis need another perimeter scorer to take some pressure off Beane.
Projected finish: 7. I could see the No. 7 spot coming down to SIU’s Feb. 28 home matchup vs. Drake. I’ll give the Salukis the edge there. While no wins will come easily for SIU, its remaining schedule features one game against Wichita State and none against Northern Iowa.
10. Bradley (7-16, 2-8): Freshman forward Josh Cunningham (10.1 points, 9.0 rebounds per game in MVC play) is a major bright spot for the Braves. He’s a player to build around the next couple seasons. For Braves fans, the next couple seasons can’t come quickly enough.
Projected finish: 10.