Commentary

Looking like a special year in the Valley

Originally Published: December 28, 2011
By Jason King | ESPN.com

With league play set to begin Wednesday night, here's everything you need to know about the Missouri Valley Conference:

[+] EnlargeDoug McDermott
AP Photo/Lenny IgnelziDoug McDermott's work during the summer could help Creighton make a deep NCAA tournament run next season.

The favorite: It's hard not to give the nod to a team that touts a potential All-American, and Creighton has just that in forward Doug McDermott, whose father, Greg, is the Bluejays' coach. Creighton, though, is far from a one-man show. The Jays have two players (Grant Gibbs and Antoine Young) averaging more than 4.5 assists per game. And Greg Echenique leads the conference in blocks. The defense leaves a lot to be desired, as opponents are shooting nearly 44 percent from the field against the Bluejays. Still, Creighton is so good offensively that it hasn't mattered. It made a league-best 51.7 percent of its shots en route to winning 10 of its 11 nonconference games against opponents such as San Diego State, Tulsa, Northwestern, Iowa and Nebraska.

Other contenders: Wichita State returns the majority of last season's NIT championship squad, already smashed top-20 UNLV and boasts the top home-court advantage in the Missouri Valley Conference. Five players average between 10.5 and 12.4 points per game for the balanced Shockers, the top rebounding team in the league.

Northern Iowa's Ben Jacobson clearly is one of the country's more underrated coaches. Year after year, it seems, Jacobson loses some of his top players but still finds a way to produce a top-flight team. The 2011-12 season appears to be no different, as the Panthers enter Valley play with a 10-2 record thanks in large part to Anthony James and Jake Koch, who average a collective 25.5 points.

Indiana State labors to score at times, as evidenced by its 64.5 points per game. But the Sycamores are an experienced bunch who won't get intimidated in big games at tough road venues. Dwayne Lathan and Carl Richard each average 10.6 points for a squad that upset Vanderbilt in Nashville.

Missouri State was the regular-season champ in 2010-11, but the Bears are just 7-5 following setbacks against quality opponents Oral Roberts, New Mexico, Oklahoma State, Saint Mary's and West Virginia. No shame in those losses, but it appears MSU is fifth in the pecking order for now.

Player of the year (so far): Go ahead and engrave Doug McDermott's name on the trophy. No one else is even close. The sophomore leads the Missouri Valley -- and the nation -- in points (25.4 per game) and ranks second in the MVC in rebounds (8.4). Even more impressive is his accuracy. McDermott is shooting 63.3 percent from the field, 57.8 percent from 3-point range and 85.3 percent from the foul stripe. That's just silly.

Other contenders: Kyle Weems, Missouri State; Taylor Brown, Bradley; Joe Ragland, Wichita State; Jake Odum, Indiana State; Colt Ryan, Evansville; Grant Gibbs, Creighton.

Freshman of the year (so far): In a league dominated by upperclassmen, Illinois State point guard Nic Moore has managed to stand out. Moore is averaging 8.1 points and a team-high 3.8 assists for the Redbirds, who will take an 8-3 record into conference play.

Other contenders: Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa; Avery Dingman, Creighton; Justin Gant, Indiana State.

Wins to brag about: Creighton over San Diego State; Drake and Northern Iowa over Iowa State; Evansville over Butler; Indiana State over Vanderbilt; Wichita State over UNLV.

Losses that sting: St. Joseph's over Creighton; Illinois-Chicago over Evansville; UNC-Wilmington over Illinois State; Temple over Wichita State.

[+] EnlargeRagland
Icon SMILed by Joe Ragland, Wichita State is primed for a big season in the Valley.

Pleasant surprises: It feels like the 2005-06 season all over again, with the Missouri Valley touting four or five teams with legitimate hopes of an NCAA tournament bid. … The league is ranked eighth among 32 Division I conferences in RPI. Even that seems a bit low. … Everyone knew entering the season that Doug McDermott was an excellent player, but an All-American candidate and the nation's leading scorer? Wow. … Joe Ragland made eight 3-pointers and scored 31 points in Wichita State's victory over the same UNLV squad that knocked off previously unbeaten North Carolina and Illinois. Ragland has scored in double figures in six straight games. … Creighton's scoring average of 86.1 points per game ranks third nationally. … Drake continues to play well at home, where it has won 10 straight games dating back to last season. … The Valley is 11-14 against teams from BCS leagues, and only six of those 25 games were played at home.

Biggest disappointments: Southern Illinois -- a Sweet 16 team just five years ago -- is 3-8, which has put Chris Lowery's job security in question. … Wichita State squandered two chances at high-quality nonconference wins when it dropped back-to-back games against Alabama and Temple in the Puerto Rico Tip-Off. That might hurt on Selection Sunday. … Despite featuring one of the league's top players in Kyle Weems, Missouri State couldn't get over the hump against bigger programs such as New Mexico, Oklahoma State and West Virginia. … Creighton missed a chance to go undefeated in nonconference play when it lost to Saint Joseph's on the road.

Three questions

Is any team in this league good enough to make the Final Four?
Heck, why not? Virginia Commonwealth and Butler pulled off the feat last season, so there's no reason Creighton or Wichita State couldn't do it. March is all about matchups and momentum, and both teams are good enough to give opponents fits. Creighton probably has a better chance than anyone else in this league to make a deep NCAA tournament run. Along with McDermott, the Bluejays tout an experienced point guard in Gibbs (who began his career at Gonzaga) and one of the country's better shot-blockers in Echenique, who might be good enough to play at the next level.

Who is the Missouri Valley's dark horse team?
A good bet might be Illinois State. Tim Jankovich's Redbirds are 8-3 and enter Thursday's conference opener against Northern Iowa having won five of their past six games. All three of Illinois State's losses (to Fresno State, Illinois and UNC-Wilmington) have been by single digits, and there is a win against Rutgers of the Big East.

What are some dates to circle?
The Creighton-Wichita State series is one you don't want to miss. The Bluejays travel to Wichita for a tilt with the Shockers on New Year's Eve on ESPNU. The second game is Feb. 11 in Omaha. Other than that, make sure to tune into this season's Missouri Valley Conference tournament March 1-4 in St. Louis. Arch Madness should be one of the better league tournaments of the season, as it always is.

Revised predictions

1. Creighton: The class of a great league, but just barely.
2. Wichita State: Koch Arena is one of the toughest places to play in the country, as UNLV found out.
3. Northern Iowa: Seth Tuttle is shooting 67.9 percent from the field.
4. Indiana State: The Sycamores are proving last season's exciting finish was no fluke.
5. Missouri State: With Kyle Weems on the floor, anything is possible.
6. Illinois State: The Redbirds are undefeated when scoring 60 or more points.
7. Drake: Rayvonte Rice and Jordan Clarke are big-time players.
8. Evansville: The Aces haven't capitalized on a season-opening win against Butler.
9. Bradley: The Braves enter conference play toting three straight losses.
10. Southern Illinois: Reason for hope? Three players with starting experience have recently returned to the Salukis' roster.

Jason King covers college basketball for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter: @JasonKingESPN.