The Missouri Valley at Its Peak
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by Matthew Stevens
“Every day you wake up and see another (winning) score,” Illinois State head coach Porter Moser said. “Nobody is surprised, we weren’t surprised but we were just waiting for it to get out.”
The MVC is ranked second in Conference RPI, the league's highest-ever ranking, and is 60-21 this season in non-conference play. Conference members are an astounding 42-3 at home. Every school in the conference boasts a winning record heading into their MVC openers during the holiday break.
“I tell everybody that it’s a credit to the players, coaches and the job the league office has done to promote the league,” Evansville head coach Steve Muirfield said.
The biggest surprise in all of this year's MVC is surely Indiana State which has finally come alive after several disappointing seasons under Royce Waltman. Rumors have been flying around Terre Haute about the safety of Waltman's job. Most seemed to feel if he failed to produce this season, the Sycamores' program would be looking for another leader.
“Royce is one of my favorite guys and obviously by what they’ve done, he’s proven he’s the [only] guy for that job,” Missouri State head coach Barry Henson said. “If I were the lawyer on this case, I’d say ‘your honor and the jury, I rest my case’.”
ISU has come of the gate with a fast start reminiscent of the years when Larry Bird suited up at the Hulman Center. The Sycamores knocked off No. 16 Indiana at home and validated that win with another over a scrappy Butler team on a last second shot.
“I’m not surprised we and everyone else in the league [are] good,” Waltman said. “I’m a little surprised we are that good.”
ISU, the only unbeaten team left in the MVC, is led by forward David Moss. Moss ranks third in the league in scoring, averaging 19.3 points per game. The senior leader is getting backcourt help from junior guard Tyson Schnitker. After playing passively in his first two seasons, Schnitker has found a rhythm, and is largely responisible for keeping ISU’s perfect season intact against Butler. Schnitker hit a 27-foot three-point shot as the final horn sounded to lift the Sycamores past the Bulldogs, 59-58. He finished with a career-high 20 points on 7-12 shooting, all in the second half. After leading Robinson (Ill.) High School to the state quarterfinals his senior year, Waltman says Schnitker gives his team those things that simply can’t be coached.
“It’s those intangible things,” Waltman said. “By no stretch of the imagination, we could be 2-5. He’s one of those guys that are making plays down the stretch.”
Indiana State (7-0) hosts Illinois State (5-3) on Thursday, Dec. 22, at 6 p.m. CST to open the Missouri Valley Conference season.
Under head coach Dana Altman, Creighton has earned Missouri Valley Conference recognition as the only team in the league to win at least 20 games for seven consecutive seasons, but last season might have been the Blue Jays' most impressive display of fortitude.
Senior guard Nate Funk couldn't wait to start the 2005-2006 season. After making another magical run through the MVC tournament and earning an automatic berth in the Big Dance, Funk had a chance to beat West Virginia in its first round matchup.
Funk's shot attempt was partially blocked, which the Mountaineers converted into a dunk at the other end of the floor with 2.9 seconds remaining, giving West Virginia a wild 63-61 first-round win. Understandably, as one of the more memorable moments in the 2005 NCAA Tournament, the play haunted Funk over the summer.
"That's one I'm going to have to think about for seven or eight months," a dejected Funk said in the locker room.
Funk opened this season with a bang, averaging 19.2 points per game in the first four contests including a 38-point performance against Dayton.
The Bluejays (5-2) were down 55-44 midway through the second half before Funk led a charge to force overtime. Funk and center Anthony Tolliver scored 17 straight points during one stretch, and the senior guard won the contest on a driving layup with 5.7 seconds left in the second overtime.
This play, along with several other memories in his four-year career, has brought comparisons of CU legend and Philadelphia 76ers guard Kyle Korver from the school's fans.
The problem for Jays' fans is they may not "experience the Funk" for the remainder of the season. Funk left Creighton’s 72-57 loss at DePaul with 2:15 remaining and did not return, after diving for a loose ball and injuring his left shoulder. The senior captain has not played in a game since, and Altman gave indication during the league teleconference Tuesday that he may seek a medical red-shirt for his leading scorer.
“We’ve had a lot of injuries this month but the big question is whether Nate will return at all,” Altman said. “That decision will be made this week.”
In Funk’s absence, Tolliver has asserted himself as a scoring threat in the post and last week was named MVC Player of the Week after his career night against Xavier. The 6-foot-9 forward had a career-high 26 points and added a game-high 10 rebounds as Creighton downed the Musketeers 61-59. Tolliver made 8-of-12 shots from the floor and 8-of-9 free throws while also adding a block and a steal in a career-high 35 minutes. He also helped hold Xavier’s leading scorer, Brian Thornton (15.0 ppg, 76.2% FG coming in) to 0-of-4 shooting from the floor and a season-low two points.
Creighton won four games last season on its final possession, and nine of their last 11 were decided by a point. In this season's early games (that include wins over Nebraska, Xavier and Dayton), the Jays are learning that they may need some good luck late in games to earn a chance at NCAA Tournament revenge.
Creighton opens MVC play at home against Missouri State (6-1) Dec. 28.
The sound you heard in the cornfields of Iowa earlier this month was the roof nearly coming off the UNI Dome after the Northern Iowa Panthers defeated in-state rival Iowa 67-63 in overtime for the third consecutive year.
"I thought the atmosphere (in the UNI-Dome) was the best it's ever been since I've been here,” senior guard Ben Jacobsen said afterwards. “When I first got here there were 250 Mac's Maniacs (student section). Tonight I think there were 2500. That speaks a lot about where our program is at.”
The Panthers' win over a Big Ten power once again served notice to the country that the Missouri Valley had teams capable of making noise deep into the Tournament. Getting those power conference teams to make the trip to Cedar Falls is another story.
“"We only get so many opportunities to play a team like this,” Northern Iowa head coach Greg McDermott said. “We're not in the Big Ten. We play in a great league and this win sends a message on how good the MVC is."
UNI was the conference favorite this season, returning all five starters from its NCAA Tournament squad. The Panthers have not disappointed in '05-'06, with wins over the Big Ten (Iowa), SEC (LSU) and MAC (Western Michigan).
“Obviously we’re off to a good start and we’d like to keep it going,” McDermott said. “We’ve gone out and put out good schedules consistently. Maybe four or five years ago nationally this league and this program for that matter may have been a secret but not any more.”
UNI is led by the inside-outside combination of Jacobsen and forward Eric Coleman. Coleman leads the Panthers in scoring (12.9 ppg) and is second on the team in rebounding (7.8 per game). In the preseason, some even wondered if McDermott's Panthers had the best backcourt duo in the Midwest with Jacobsen and point guard Erik Crawford.
Four UNI players are averaging double figures and its slow-down perimeter oriented offense is a system is difficult to game plan for in a short period of time.
“We need to focus on the little things to win games and our guys have made a commitment to doing that,” McDermott said. “We know what a test the league schedule can be and hopefully we are ready.”
UNI may need to go over a few fundamentals before they take on the MVC's best, however, as the Panthers are the worst free throw shooting team in the conference at 66%, and are near the bottom in rebounding and turnover margin. Of course, the latter two statistics also speak to the quality of competition the team has faced already this season.
With at least five or six teams capable of taking home the league title and winning the conference tournament in St. Louis (2006 marks the first time the title game will be on CBS), the Missouri Valley has effectively used these first two months to serve notice: it's a dangerous conference.
“I think everyone was waiting for the secret to get out,” Moser said. “It was like we knew something nobody else did.”