Friday, December 28, 2012

Midseason Valley Report Cards

Despite playing off the ball, Grant Gibbs' ball handling has helped Creighton stay near top of rankings going into Missouri Valley opener this weekend.  (Photo courtesy of Creighton University)

Missouri Valley Conference play finally opens Saturday night with a pair of games, and for the hardcore college basketball enthusiast, there truly is nothing like a Valley game.  As this site likes to do many times through the course of a season, we tend to offer Valley insight as much as possible, and will do so again by grading the ten members of arguably the best mid-major in the nation through their nonconference ledger.  Teams will be listed in order of our prediction from this past October, when we previewed the Valley and who posed the best challenge to reigning champion Creighton.
One sidebar before we go into our evaluations: Our friend John Templon from Big Apple Buckets recently stepped outside his Northeast Conference comfort zone with the return of his popular 10,000 simulation series, which profiled how the Valley season could ultimately play out heading into Arch Madness.  Here's what John's look into the future revealed:

Creighton: The 11-1 Bluejays have picked up right where they left off to start the season, going into their Valley opener at home on Saturday against Evansville as the 16th-ranked team in the nation, and junior swingman Doug McDermott is a big reason why.  McDermott's shooting percentage has dipped from last year's 60 percent clip down to a more modest 55, but the reigning Valley Player of the Year has maintained a 23-point average to go with the double-double threat of Gregory Echenique alongside him.  Senior guard Grant Gibbs, who was part of arguably the most underrated backcourt tandem in the nation last year alongside Antoine Young, has turned heads with his stellar ball handling despite not running the point; with 75 assists and 12 turnovers in twelve games, good enough for an astounding 6.25:1 assist to turnover ratio.  Not to be outdone, Austin Chatman has managed to average four helpers per contest as well, and Creighton has picked up contributions from sharpshooting substitutes Ethan Wragge and Avery Dingman that most programs in the country would kill for, despite a surprising home loss to Boise State early in the year.  Grade: A

Illinois State: At 9-3, the Redbirds have lived up to their high expectations as Dan Muller inherits a team that made a run in last year's NIT for his first season at the helm of his alma mater.  As expected, Jackie Carmichael has posted first team all-Valley-caliber numbers, shooting 59 percent from the field while averaging eighteen points and eight rebounds per game; with Tyler Brown living up to the massive hype we placed on the senior guard, managing seventeen points per night and shooting 38 percent from three-point range.  Carmichael and Brown definitely make the motor run, but it is Illinois State's cast of role players that help define this team.  Bryant Allen and Jon Ekey have continued to fill up a box score on any given night, with the point guard duo of Johnny Hill and Kaza Keane combining for nine points and nine assists per game on average.  Losses to Northwestern and Wyoming made us scratch our heads a little last month, but the Redbirds atoned for one of them last week with an impressive road win at Dayton that could work wonders for their NCAA Tournament resume.  Grade: B+

Northern Iowa: At 7-5, Ben Jacobson's Panthers haven't exactly set the world on fire through the nonconference season, but in their defense, UNI has had their share of challenges early and often, with a close loss to Louisville in the Battle 4 Atlantis chief among an ambitious schedule that also included meetings with Memphis and UNLV.  Following a season where only one player averaged double figures last season, the Panthers have four with averages of ten points or more going into their Valley opener, led by Deon Mitchell, who also leads the team in assists.  Anthony James, last year's scoring leader, has maintained his scoring potential despite missing three games; while Seth Tuttle continues to take high percentage shots alongside Jake Koch, whose ten points and seven rebounds only underscore his all-around capability.  Marc Sonnen once again has a high three-point efficiency, (44 percent) while reserve Nate Buss shoots 63 percent from the field and 57 from beyond the arc in just thirteen minutes per night.  Grade: B

Evansville: We admit that we expected great things from the Purple Aces this season as Marty Simmons' roster looked to move further up the Valley ladder.  What we forgot to account for was how much Evansville would miss Kenny Harris and Denver Holmes.  Without those two, Colt Ryan has seen a dropoff in his offensive output, averaging just fourteen points per game this season while Ned Cox has made a very positive transition from sixth man to starting guard, averaging nearly twelve points per game to complement a 43 percent shooting clip from three-point range.  Sixth man DJ Balentine has been a pleasant surprise for the Aces with his eleven points per game and 44 percent rate from beyond the arc, while Troy Taylor has made up for his offensive struggles by leading the team in assists and rebounds, also ranking second in steals.  By the way, Ryan is just 269 points away from becoming Evansville's all-time leading scorer, needing only to average fifteen points per game the rest of the way in the regular season to break the record.  Evansville's schedule has been modest but somewhat heartbreaking, with four of the Aces' five losses coming by nine points or less.  Grade: B-

Wichita State: Just as we may have overvalued Evansville, we may have underappreciated the rebuilding job that Gregg Marshall has done with the Shockers this season in the wake of an NCAA Tournament appearance and the loss of each of Wichita State's top five scorers from last season.  What's even more impressive is that the Shockers haven't missed a beat since Carl Hall went on the shelf with a broken thumb after starting the year with averages of fourteen points and over seven rebounds per game.  In Hall's absence, Cleanthony Early has become the latest junior college transfer to become a diamond in the rough for Marshall, averaging thirteen points and five boards per contest while Demetric Williams and Malcolm Armstead have effectively combined to replace the underrated point guard ability of Joe Ragland.  Wichita State's offense continues to be one of the better ones in the Valley, but it is their defense that has won them games to start the year.  In twelve games, the Shockers have yielded just 59 points per game and have yet to allow 70, with their season high for points allowed being 69 in their lone loss of the season against Tennessee.  Grade: A

Missouri State: The 2-10 Bears have been among the more misfortunate teams in the nation, starting with the news that sophomore guard Jarmar Gulley would miss the season with a torn ACL following a sensational freshman campaign.  Aside from fellow guard and leading scorer Anthony Downing, Missouri State has struggled, with only two other players (Christian Kirk and Marcus Marshall) averaging more than nine points per game.  It was going to be a year of adjustment for Paul Lusk and the Bears anyway following the departure of Kyle Weems and Caleb Patterson, but the one positive is that Missouri State can get some much-needed experience in the hopes of returning to their recent success next season.  Grade: D

Bradley: On the other side of the coin from Missouri State is a Bradley team that has made more than just a few strides under second-year head coach Geno Ford.  At 8-4, the Braves have been the biggest threat to No. 2 Michigan so far this season, nearly defeating John Beilein's Wolverines on their home court, just falling short in a hotly contested 74-66 matchup.  The Braves also have a stifling defense to match Wichita State, yielding just 62 points per game on average while three double-figure scorers get it done on the other side of the ball.  As expected, guards Walt Lemon Jr. (12.4 points per game) and Dyricus Simms-Edwards (10.2 points, 4.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and a 2.32:1 assist to turnover ratio) anchor the Bradley attack, while Tyshon Pickett has impressed in his first season as a starter, with numbers of twelve points, seven rebounds and 50 percent shooting.  Also up front, Will Egolf has returned to his former productivity level he sustained before tearing his ACL last season, with 6-9 Jordan Prosser backing him up with averages of nine points and five rebounds per game.  On the Braves' bench, Jalen Crawford has shown stretches of looking like a star in the making in his limited action, with the younger brother of former Xavier standout Jordan Crawford averaging nearly six points in just nineteen minutes.  Grade: B

Drake: Mark Phelps' Bulldogs are 6-5, but have played at a high level against far more talented opponents, and have played each one close.  Ben Simons has once again paced Drake offensively, and has also benefited from the return of Seth VanDeest, whose season last year was compromised due to a shoulder injury.  All the 6-11 VanDeest has done is average nearly twelve points per game while shooting an eye-popping 61 percent from the field.  While senior Jordan Clarke may be Drake's best all-around threat, as the forward has a 56 percent shooting clip to complement averages of almost ten points and nine rebounds per game, it is Richard Carter that has been the Bulldogs' biggest contributor.  Already a solid contender for Valley Newcomer of the Year honors, the junior college transfer has averaged nearly ten points per game, and leads the team in assists as well with an average of four helpers per contest.  Drake wasn't expected to win a conference title, but the Bulldogs clearly have the talent and pieces to secure a top six seed in "Arch Madness" this year, giving fans the gift of not having to endure another play-in game in St. Louis.  Grade: B+

Southern Illinois: Barry Hinson has guided the Salukis to a 7-4 record in his first season in Carbondale, and returns to his old haunt for SIU's Valley opener, traveling to Missouri State to take on a Bears team that has been bitten by just about every bug under the sun through the nonconference season.  Wyoming transfer Desmar Jackson has been a huge difference maker right out of the gate for the Salukis, averaging sixteen points and six rebounds per game while shooting 41 percent from three-point range, with Jeff Early also helping to pick up the offensive slack created by a lackluster start to the year for Kendal Brown-Surles.  In fact, Early's seven rebounds per contest lead the team.  Dantiel Daniels has proven himself as a high percentage shot taker, shooting a stellar 67 percent from the field and averaging eleven points per game while freshman guard Anthony Beane leads a promising young core, averaging nine points per game and taking advantage of immediate playing time in Hinson's starting lineup.  The Salukis have a somewhat questionable loss to UC Davis on their ledger, but have managed to compete for the most part.  Grade: C+

Indiana State: Again, we admit we dropped the ball on preseason ratings here, as the Sycamores have already exceeded expectations before their big Christmas night win in Hawaii against Jim Larranaga and Miami.  Larry Bird's alma mater has once again received more than they could have asked for out of Jake Odum, as the do-everything junior point guard is averaging over fourteen points and five rebounds per game in a season that has seen him return to the form he displayed as a freshman, guiding the Sycamores to the NCAA Tournament that season.  For all the talk of Richard Carter possibly being the Valley's Newcomer of the Year, Indiana State has a contender of their own in Manny Arop, their second-leading scorer with an average of thirteen points per game that complements a team-leading six rebounds per contest.  A big concern going into the season was how Indiana State would replace the long-range proficiency of Jordan Printy, and the Sycamores have not only done that, but upgraded as well; with R.J. Mahurin shooting 36 percent from beyond the arc, not to mention the 51 percent clip of junior guard Lucas Eitel.  Before defeating Miami, Indiana State took likely NCAA Tournament team San Diego State to the wire in Hawaii, proving that they are a deceptive foe that we completely underestimated at the start of the season.  Grade: B-


  1. Two things: 1) It's Bluejays, not Blue Jays and 2) Austin Chatman is the starting point guard and Grant Gibbs is the starting off guard-forward. He has been the backup point guard in recent games and is not the full-time point guard.

  2. Noted on both counts. This is what happens when you cover the Valley while living in New York, where I don't get to see these teams anywhere near enough for my liking. Thanks for the catch and the feedback!