Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Week That Was: Missouri Valley

Southern Illinois 68, Bradley 62
Creighton 79, Evansville 57
Northern Iowa 66, Bradley 61
Missouri State 65, Drake 44

I want to take a break from the BCS conferences to talk about the Missouri Valley for a couple of reasons. First of all, it seemed like all of the top teams in the conferences ended up playing each other this past week, and those games are always great. Also, this conference doesn't get the attention it deserves in the national media because it doesn't have a lot of glamour teams. The conference also isn't quite as talented as it has been recently, such as in 2006 when four Valley teams made the Tournament, and two made it to the Sweet Sixteen. In fact, the way the conference has beaten up on itself I would say that the most likely scenario is that only one team will make the Tournament out of this conference. But that's what makes the conference so much fun to watch, because each game is so utterly important. It's not like the ACC or Big East, where a top team can take a game off and still not worry about their Tournament chances. Each game between these top teams is a real battle, and it's so much fun to watch. I highly recommend Missouri Valley games on television.

Speech over, let's actually talk about how this conference is stacking up right now. I have been sticking with Creighton as my favorite to take the conference, and I'm not jumping off that bandwagon now. They have the most maturity and experience of all of the top teams, and that makes the difference for me. We know that experienced guard play is probably the most important part of a college basketball team in a tournament setting, and nobody in the Valley can match Booker Woodfox and P'Allen Stinnett. In fact, most BCS conference teams can't match those two. That said, Creighton is in a three-way tie in the standings with Illinois State and Bradley, both of which are excellent teams in their own right. In my mind, Creighton is the very slight favorite over Illinois State, with Bradley the most likely team to win the conference if it's not Creighton or Illinois State.

That said, you'll notice in the previous paragraph that I said "three-way tie in the standings with" and not "three-way tie for first with", and that's because Northern Iowa is actually holding onto first, a full two games up on everybody else at 7-1, and they've done it with superb defense. I don't know if they have the offense or the overall talent and experience to win the conference, but they obviously are very much in the discussion. Two other teams that got off to great starts have fallen back lately: Evansville and Drake. Both of them got off to good starts by taking care of business against the lesser squads of the conference, and I think both are out of the top spots to stay. Neither is a serious contender anymore for the regular season Missouri Valley title. If I was going to throw a fifth team into the discussion I'd actually mention Southern Illinois, and just because the Salukis are the team that nobody will ever count out in this conference. I believe they've made the Tournament six of the last seven years, and also have a lot of very good, but very young talent. They have an outstanding freshman class, highlighted by the 2008 Illinois Mr. Basketball Kevin Dillard, that is improving with the week. They may only be 4-4 in conference play, but they have announced themselves with that big win over Bradley as a team to be reckoned with in the second half of the season. I expect them to keep moving up the standings as the season goes along.

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