Everyone knows about Wichita State. The 34-0 Shockers just wrapped up a relatively easy run through the Missouri Valley Conference tournament championship to cap off a perfect 18-0 conference season. Has the Shockers’ dismantling of the MVC this season proven how weak the conference really is in the aftermath of Creighton’s exodus to the Big East, or simply revealed how good Wichita State is? The answer is probably a little of both. The Shockers are an incredibly tenacious and talented team that over matched every conference opponent they faced this year. Most of the other schools, however, have very young teams. This youth movement should greatly bolster the Missouri Valley Conference by as early as next season.
Northern Iowa Coach Ben Jacobsen said that the leagues youth, coupled with Wichita State’s talent led to the Shockers dominance this year. He does not believe the league is deteriorating, however. He says that the youth that hurt so many MVC teams this year will be the league’s saving grace in the years to come. The conference tournament this season was a microcosm of the league as a whole. The more experienced teams advanced, and the younger ones were taken care of quickly.
Wichita State disposed of the No. 2 team in the conference, Indiana State, by a count of 83-69 to claim the tournament championship and prepare for the tougher competition that the NCAA tournament will no doubt bring with it. The Sycamores were playing for the past as well as the present when they faced off against Wichita State in the championship. The 1978-1979 Indiana State squad that was led by Larry Bird was the last Missouri Valley Conference team to go 33-0 before the Shockers reached that mark on Saturday. Bird’s Indiana State team finished the season 33-1, with the lone loss being to a Magic Johnson led Michigan State squad. The Sycamores were hoping to preserve their school’s place in the record book by knocking off the Shockers, but the Wichita State club was simply too much for them to handle.
Indiana State is no slouch, posting a 23-10 record overall this season. Even with the 23 wins, however, most analysts do not see the Sycamores gaining an at-large birth into the field of 68. Indiana State’s most likely landing spot this post-season will probably be the NIT. Despite their strong record, the Sycamores have an RPI of 71, which usually does not cut it without any quality wins.
Along with the Shockers, the Sycamores are very experienced compared with the rest of the conference. In fact, the Sycamores will be losing more than half of their starting lineup to graduation this spring. The youth movement that other Missouri Valley Conference schools employed this season, however, should go a long way in bolstering the league for years to come. Evansville, for example, who lost to Wichita State 80-58 in the quarterfinals of the tournament, will be led next season by two dominating sophomores. 6’10” center Egidijus Mockevicius, a transplant from Lithuania, averaged nearly a double-double this season with 10.5 points and 8.3 rebounds, and 6’2″ guard D.J. Ballentin averaged 22.8 points per game while shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point range. In the Wichita State game, the sophomore accounted for more than half of his teams points, scoring 31.
Evansville is not the only club looking to challenge the Shockers next season. Loyola (IL), a newcomer to the conference this season, experienced some growing pains while occupying the MVC basement with a 4-14 conference record,but they are optimistic for the future. The club is led by outstanding freshman guard Milton Doyle, who leads the Ramblers with 15 points per game and also contributes 4.2 rebounds. Doyle was named the MVC Freshman Player of the Year.
Missouri State, Southern Illinois and Illinois State also all have young nuclei to build around to challenge the Shockers in the coming years. This youth movement will bolster the Missouri Valley Conference as it seeks to maintain its current membership, and possibly even bring on a school such as St. Louis, which has a proven track record of winning basketball and is geographically central to the conference.
Commentary by Jeremy Mika