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Conference Catch-ups: Creighton is still on top, but the MVC is strong

Dec 28, 2012, 10:25 AM EDT

Doug McDermott AP

Conference play is right around the corner, so to help you get out of that post-holiday haze, we’ll be catching you up on all the happenings in the country’s top 12 conferences. Here’s our Missouri Valley Conference Catchup:

Favorite: Creighton

The Bluejays were the league favorite heading into the season, and despite the loss of Josh Jones to a heart condition, Creighton remains the MVC’s top team two months into the season. Doug McDermott has been as good as advertised, but the biggest reason that Creighton keeps climbing in the rankings is that the coach’s son has a slew of talented role players surrounding him. Gregory Echenique is a hoss in the block, Grant Gibbs may lead the most fundamental player in the country and Austin Chatman has done well to help fill the void left by Antoine Young.

The biggest improvement for Creighton is on the defensive end of the floor. Last year, they were 178th in the country in defensive efficiency. This year they are 32nd.

Contenders: Wichita State looked like they might actually be the best team in the conference earlier this month, but a rash of injuries means that we won’t be seeing the Shockers at full strength until halfway through league play. Illinois State has been quite impressive as Jackie Carmichael is asserting himself as a potential NBA draft pick. Northern Iowa has played one of the toughest schedules in the country, but they finally picked up a quality win by beating St. Mary’s.

Biggest Surprise: Indiana State

The Sycamores weren’t exactly supposed to be down this season — not with Jake Odum, arguably the league’s best point guard, teaming up with Gonzaga transfer Manny Arop — but I don’t think many people expected to became a sleeper to finish in the top three. But that’s exactly where they stand after a terrific performance in the Diamond Head Classic during Christmas break. ISU knocked off Ole Miss in overtime in their opener and, after losing by seven to San Diego State, followed that up win an overtime win against Miami. Throw in the game last month when the Sycamores came from 15 own to force OT against New Mexico, and a trip to Terre Haute is not going to be easy this season.

Biggest Disappointment: Missouri State

This is a bit unfair, as the Bears were expected to finish at the very bottom of the MVC this year and that’s currently where they are situated. And given the success of the rest of the league, Missouri State is really the only team that has been disappointing this year.. But the depths of their struggle this season is unnerving. MSU still has not beaten a Division I team this season. Their two wins are over Philander Smith and Malone University. They already have a loss to Alabama A&M. Yuck.

Player of the Year: Doug McDermott, Creighton

There really isn’t much contemplation that goes into this choice. McDermott got off to a slow start this season, but ever since Creighton went out of Las Vegas for a tournament over Thanksgiving, he’s been playing like the uber-efficient stretch-four we all know and love.

Best Freshman: Kaza Keane, Illinois State

Keane is currently second in the Missouri Valley in assists, which is nice and will almost make you forget about the fact that the 6-foot-1 point guard from Ontario is averaging just 3.5 points on the season. That may actually be a positive sign for Keane, however. When you are a freshman and you have scorers like Jackie Carmichael and Tyler Brown on the floor with you, you give up the rock.

Three Predictions:

  • Creighton goes farther in the NCAA tournament than they do in the MVC tournament. The Valley is as strong at the top — and, for that matter, as deep — as it has been in a long time. And if there is anything that we know about Arch Madness, it’s that bringing home the MVC’s automatic bid is really tough to do for the tournament favorite. Creighton’s improved defense will carry them to the second weekend of the big dance, but don’t be surprised if they get picked off in the first round of the conference tournament by a team playing for their postseason lives.
  • The MVC gets at least three bids to the tournament. It’s all going to depend on whether or not those four teams can separate themselves from the rest of the pack — which will be hard to do given how few easy games there will be in conference play — but thanks to some of the non-conference performances by the top teams in the MVC, their league RPI is currently sitting at ninth. That’s a good thing.
  • Missouri State wins three league games. I don’t care how poorly they have played this season. This is the Valley, and the road in the Valley is not a friendly place. Missouri State will pick a couple people off.

Power Rankings (* = tourney team):

1. Creighton*
2. Illinois State*
3. Wichita State*
4. Northern Iowa
5. Indiana State
6. Bradley
7. Evansville
8. Southern Illinois
9. Drake
10. Missouri State