MVC faces bear market
(Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (IA) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Dec. 28--CEDAR FALLS -- The United States economy is in a recession.
Many college basketball insiders have a similar opinion on the state of the Missouri Valley Conference.
After compiling a 42-39 mark against teams from BCS football conferences the past three years, the Valley is 5-17 this season and winless in nine games versus Top 25 competition.
And the wins have all come over programs expected to finish toward the bottom half of their league in Iowa (Big Ten), Iowa State (Big 12), Auburn and Arkansas (Southeastern Conference) and DePaul (Big East).
Still, none of the MVC coaches are ready to write off the conference as a one-bid league for the NCAA tournament.
"There's nothing wrong with this conference at all," said Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich, whose team is one of nine undefeated programs in the nation. "There will definitely be years where we're a little bit up, a little bit down.
"Overall, this is a really strong conference."
The Valley has finished in the top eight each of the past four years in the Ratings Percentage Index (RPI). According to RealTimeRpi.com, the MVC was ninth Saturday.
Evansville (8-2) is 22nd in the latest RPI, followed by Creighton (10-2) at 60.
Northern Iowa, Southern Illinois, Wichita State and Indiana State are all above 150.
"I have a strong bias toward the RPI," Jankovich said. "Nobody pays attention to RPI when it comes to tournament selection time if you're a BCS school.
"When you look at some of the top 50 schools in the RPI, all you can say is that this is worthless."
All of the Valley's opportunities against Top 25 teams have been at neutral sites or on the road. In fact, UNI and Drake are the only teams to play one of the "big boys" on its homecourt.
"I believe in the conference, I believe in all the coaches and I believe in the players," Evansville coach Marty Simmons said. "At the end of the day, our coaches and players will prove how good the league is.
"If you're a coach in this league, you have a lot of sleepless nights thinking about the competition and the atmospheres you have to go play in and the coaches you're competing against."
Coaches point to youth and several teams playing rigorous non-conference schedules for the sluggish start.
Creighton and Evansville return a bulk of their roster from a year ago, but others are relying on fresh faces.
? UNI's starting backcourt -- Kwadzo Ahelegbe, Ali Farokhmanesh and Johnny Moran -- is new from last season.
? Wichita State has 10 players in its first year of Division I basketball.
? Southern Illinois is banking on freshmen and sophomores with Carlton Fay, Kevin Dillard, Ryan Hare, Anthony Booker and Nick Evans.
? Bradley starts two underclassmen and its three of its top four reserves are freshmen.
? Three of Indiana State's top five scorers are either new to the program or underclassmen, and leading scorer Harry Marshall was ineligible for the first eight games.
? Missouri State has a new coach and system, along with several fresh contributors in Kyle Weems, Cardell McFarland, Derron Hobbs and Will Creekmore.
"Those wins against BCS teams come with experience," UNI head coach Ben Jacobson said. "It's hard enough to win on the road, but it's even harder with inexperience."
Several of those teams have played daunting non-conference schedules. UNI has played four BCS squads, while SIU has losses to perennial powers Duke and UCLA. Wichita State lost close encounters with top 20 Georgetown and Michigan State, and Bradley played at Florida and Michigan State.
"What I see is our league isn't chicken to go and play people," SIU coach Chris Lowery said. "As a coach, the penalty for playing good teams is you might lose. We've lost some games, but I think it will make our league stronger for it down the road."
In addition to a beefed-up schedule, Lowery has an influx of freshmen.
"We're not panicking," he said. "We told them it would have been really easy to play a bunch of home games and have a false sense of reality heading into our conference."
Jacobson can already notice a difference in his team after playing Marquette, Auburn, Iowa and Iowa State.
"We're much more disciplined, much tougher as a result," he said. "We're not even close to as good as we can be with this team."
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Five Burning Questions
1. Can Drake provide an encore?
The Bulldogs have two starters returning ? Josh Young and Jonathan Cox ? from last year's championship season, but they have a new coach in Mark Phelps, new point guards in Craig Stanley and Josh Parker and don't possess a slasher like Leonard Houston. However, Drake won't relinquish the crown easily.
2. Is Creighton's Booker Woodfox the best player in the MVC?
Even though Illinois State's Osiris Eldridge was the league's preseason player of the year, Woodfox has been spectacular. The guard is averaging 22.1 points per game over the last six contests, including 29 points against Saint Joseph's and 26 versus DePaul. He's the league's top scorer at 17.8 points per game.
3. Which club is the league's most improved?
Based on the non-conference results, Evansville and Wichita State seem primed to make significant leaps in the standings. The Purple Aces are 8-2, but still haven't proven they can win away from Roberts Stadium. The Shockers have more depth and a strong addition at point guard in leading scorer Clevin Hannah.
4. How good is Illinois State?
The Redbirds are one of 10 unbeatens across the country, but their non-conference schedule was littered with patsies in Alabama State, Houston Baptist, Morehead State, Bowling Green, Nicholls State and Winston-Salem State. Coach Tim Jankovich's club is talented offensively, particularly in the backcourt with Osiris Eldridge and Champ Oguchi. That said, the Redbirds may need to win the league or the conference tournament to be dancing in March.
5. Where does UNI fit into the Valley picture?
So far, this team has played decent basketball at home, but has struggled away from the McLeod. Coach Ben Jacobson's team will need to be better defensively than it has been to this point, while more consistent shooting nights from Ali Farokhmanesh and Johnny Moran will be needed to ease the burden off Jordan Eglseder and Adam Koch inside.
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