Jan 2, 2013
By Bill Ford
CARBONDALE, Ill. - With Missouri Valley Conference play beginning this week, I thought I'd take a look around the league and review where everyone stands following non-conference play.
1. Creighton (8-3)
SIU's opponent to start Valley play has lived up to its preseason tag of MVC favorite through non-conference play. The Bluejays boast a win over a nationally ranked team (then No. 25 Nebraska) and two of their three losses were to ranked teams (No. 12 Oklahoma, No. 22 Kansas). Their third loss, which came on Sunday, was in double-overtime to Big 10 member Minnesota. Preseason MVC Player of the Year Carli Tritz has been solid for the Jays, but more as a facilitator than a scorer. The junior guard is third on the team in scoring (10.8 ppg), but ranks second in the MVC in assists (4.3 apg) and third in steals (2.3 spg). Junior forward Sarah Nelson is having a stellar start to the season with team-leading averages of 12.5 points and 8.0 rebounds per game.
2. Indiana State (8-3)
Perhaps the surprise of the season so far, the Sycamores have been solid despite losing three starters and a ton of production from last year's senor class. Picked seventh in the MVC Preseason Poll, ISU has more non-conference wins than they had a year ago with a similar schedule and a less battle-tested roster. Similar to the Salukis, ISU only has three upper classmen led by junior guard Anna Munn, who leads the Trees and ranks second in the Valley with an average of 15.7 points per game. The Sycamores really get things done defensively, allowing an MVC-low 49.6 points per game. ISU could be a dark horse in the league this year.
3. Missouri State (8-4)
The Lady Bears are always a team to watch in the Valley. After having one of the league's top guard combos last season in Casey Garrison and Jaleshia Roberson, MSU is led by one of the Valley's top frontcourts this season. Center Whitney Edie and forward Christiana Shorter average a combined 28.4 points and 16.6 rebounds per game. The duo has helped the Bears to a league-best average of 45.0 rebounds per game and MSU out-rebounds opponents by an average of 5.3 per game.
Another mainstay among the top teams in the league, the Redbirds also had a solid non-conference showing. ISU boasts the top newcomer of the season thus far in sophomore transfer Janae Smith. The 6-foot-2 forward is tied for second in the Valley in both scoring and rebounding with averages of 15.7 points and 9.0 rebounds per game. Smith combines with Jamie Russell and Candace Sykes to account for 42.6 of ISU's 67.3 points per game.
5. Bradley (6-5)
The Braves were one of the toughest teams to place in the preseason MVC rankings. Bradley returned an experience backcourt, but had a new coach and an unproven frontcourt. Through non-conference play, it is apparent coach Mike Brooks's team can score. The Braves lead the Valley with an average of 75.2 points per game and have four players averaging double figures led by guards Shronda Butts (13.6 ppg) and Caitie O'Leary (13.2 ppg) . Conversely, BU gives up the second-most points in the league at 74.0 points per game. It looks like matchups with the Braves this year could be shootouts.
6. Wichita State (6-6)
It would be easy to look at the Shockers' record and say they have underachieved after being picked to finish second in the Valley. Doing so would sell WSU short. Five of Wichita's six losses were by five points or less, and two of those were to BCS programs LSU and Missouri. Like Indiana State, WSU likes a low scoring game as the Shockers average 55.7 points per game but only surrender 51.0 points per game. Senior guard Jessica Diamond is the only Shocker that averages double figures scoring at 13.8 points per game. One of the deepest and most veteran teams in the Valley, WSU will likely only get better as the season carries on and those close losses will likely start falling the other way.
7. Drake (5-6)
Drake graduated one of the top players in the league the last two seasons in Kristin Turk and 2012 MVC Player of the Year Rachael Hackbarth. The Bulldogs don't have one dominant player like that this year under first-year head coach Jennie Baranczyk, but Drake does have plenty of balance among its top six players. The Bulldogs join SIU and Indiana State as one of the league's younger teams with just four upper classmen. Sophomore guard Kyndal Clark leads Drake at 13.8 points per game while junior forward Morgan Reid averages 11.0 points and 7.5 rebounds per game.
8. Northern Iowa (5-7)
Without a doubt, the Panthers have the most misleading record entering Valley play. UNI played one of the toughest non-conference schedules in the league with six matchups against BCS programs, and the Panthers paid the price with some losses. Beyond its record, UNI has one of the top players in the league in sixth-year senior Jaqui Kalin, who helped UNI win an MVC title two seasons ago before suffering a season-ending injury last year. Kalin leads the MVC in scoring at 17.7 points per game, however the Panthers have yet to have a consistent second scorer emerge. UNI likes to shoot the long ball as evidenced by its league-leading 101 treys thus far, but the Panthers have struggled rebounding through non-conference play.
9. Southern Illinois (3-8)
The Salukis had a rough start to the year but have turned things around in recent weeks, having won three out of their last five entering Valley play. SIU's problems early in the season lied primarily in its defense as Southern gives up an MVC-worst 74.7 points per game. SIU is 3-2 when it holds its opponent under 70 and 0-7 when it gives up 70 or more. Sophomore guard Cartaesha Macklin is returning to last season's form, averaging 16.3 points, 5.3 rebounds and 5.0 assists per game in the last four games. SIU needs that trend to continue heading into Valley play.
10. Evansville (2-9)
The Purple Aces started the season 2-1 before dropping their next eight straight. Evansville's biggest problem thus far has been scoring. Despite having the combo of Samantha Heck and Khristian Hart average 14.5 and 13.4 points per game respectively, the Aces are still averaging a league-worst 54.4 points per game. Help is on the way for Evansville, however, as sophomore transfer Mallory Ladd just became eligible to play, averaging 10.5 points and 10.5 rebounds in her first two games to end non-conference play.