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Newfound Homecourts

by Andrew Force | January 2nd, 2008

Welcome to my home.

The Missouri Valley Conference is living the dream. Every mid-major team has made the same arduous journey into a BCS-conference arena. The heat is turned up to unbearable levels. Fans are screaming; many, many more fans than you are accustomed to as a mid-major player. Your entourage looks tiny engulfed by the throngs of home supporters.

The band is overwhelmingly loud. The lights, the sounds…it all adds up to a major homecourt advantage. Every team in the nation has an edge at home, no matter how small. The simple fact of resting in your very own bed counts for something.

Until recently, the MVC teams did not get to experience this when playing power conference opponents. That common sentiment experienced after a loss, Well, wait ’til they come to our place, was unavailable. For a number of reasons, Southern Illinois University, Bradley University, and Illinois State University flipped the script this year.

All three games coalesced within the first nine days of December. This week is traditionally a time smaller schools are getting a first-hand reminder about the gobs of money being dumped into Big East, Big Ten, ACC, SEC, Big 12, and Pac 10 schools.

Southern Illinois hosted the 15th-ranked Indiana Hoosiers on Saturday, December 1. The fans’ preparations reflected the huge level of interest for regional rival Indiana. Tickets to the 9,386-seat SIU Arena checked in at around $65 three weeks before tip-off.

The 17th annual Lights Fantastic Parade literally electrified an already buzzing community. With a lot of legwork, SIU got a sponsor and producer of the thousands of white t-shirts handed out. The administration, fans, local media all did their part to light the marquee. The SIU football team actually had the equivalent of an Elite 8 matchup that very afternoon next door to the SIU Arena.

The Saluki offense unfortunately was not in its best form. Most specifically, Matt Shaw and Josh Bone were frigid from long range. The team as a whole only managed one triple, which actually occurred in garbage time for the Dawgs.

The defense was OK. For the prideful Salukis, they would have preferred better defensive rebounding and fewer free throws yielded to 18-year-old NBA talent Eric Gordon. The youngster led Indiana in scoring for the seventh straight game, going for 22 on just 14 shots. Final Score: Indiana 64, Southern Illinois 51.

The largest crowd in Bradley history crammed into the Peoria Civic Center’s Carver Arena. Aside from the student section (donning red), the building housed a sea of white shirts. Coordinating the white-out was less difficult than imagined as the cotton concoctions rested upon every chair in the large room.

Ironically, the masses of white likely had a calming effect on the visiting 9th-ranked Michigan State Spartans. MSU plays in front of a predominantly white-adorned crowd in the Breslin Center.

BU expected to get out-rebounded, but not to the degree the Braves experienced. The aptly-named Spartans proved warriors on the boards, hauling in 21 offensive rebounds to Bradley’s 19 defensive. That’s right; the Braves even lost the rebounding battle on their own side of the floor.

The one redeeming statistic for the growing Bradley unit was the shooting percentage of Drew Neitzel. The All-Big Ten guard shot 25% from the floor, missing 12 shots in the process. Most of the praise for that needs to be heaped on Andrew Warren. He tailed the screens for Neitzel all over the floor and calmly challenged nearly every shot. Daniel Ruffin and Sam Maniscalco contributed to the cause, as well.

In a game Bradley led almost throughout the 40 minutes of play, the Spartans overpowered and wore down the Braves late. In the end, the Valley team lost 66-61.

Illinois State, in the midst of a coaching transition, managed to knock off Cincinnati, also in the midst of its own. ISU welcomed Tim Jankovich to town this season, while UC named Mick Cronin headman just over one year ago.

The two programs are going about it in different ways. Bearcat boss Cronin lured four JUCO transfers in year one. Jank’ chose two transfers for his wish list.

Apparently each chose to skip the first recruiting class for fear they were too late to make an impact. They decided instead to focus recruiting energies on the following year’s class.

In a game that measured the on court-acumen of the two gents, Illinois State rolled 62-52.

Jumping out to a first half lead helped the Redbirds claim victory, but doing the same had not been enough for either Bradley or SIU. The two upper-tier MVC teams held the lead for lengthy stretches. Southern Illinois pingponged back and forth with IU early. The Salukis grabbed a small lead before relinquishing control just prior to halftime. Bradley actually had the better of it for almost the entire the first 35 minutes of the Michigan State tussle. The Braves just did not prove brave enough. As head coach Jim Les reflected, “We just learned a lesson about finishing here tonight.”

Other power conference affairs in Valley country include:
DePaul @ Creighton
Iowa State @ Bradley
Nebraska @ Creighton

That’s it. In just over a month of basketball, ten teams have hosted six games against the elite conferences. And you know what? They consider themselves very lucky to get those six.

Wichita State has a nice match with LSU coming up in late December. Drake and Northern Iowa are guaranteed a game versus Iowa and Iowa State every season.

If the MVC can prove the recent success was not an aberration, then the BCS schools might return. Right now the standard thought is, “we have too much to lose.” That is entirely a reflection on the dip in talent and prestige between the upper and lower conferences.

More than just Southern Illinois and Creighton need to make Selection Sunday a meaningful holiday.

Y’all come back now, ya hear?

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