ST. LOUIS — Can anyone shock the Shockers? That is the question of the weekend at the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
All eyes will be on undefeated and No. 2 ranked Wichita State, but there will be seven other teams playing in the quarterfinals Friday at Scottrade Center all hoping for the chance to knock off the 31-0 Shockers.
"They’ve had a truly dominant team," Illinois State coach Dan Muller said of the MVC’s regular season champion. "Someone has to play extremely well to beat them. Everyone knows everybody can get beat, so they’ll be prepared. Right now we have to focus on Missouri State. If we get a chance to play Wichita State, we’ll have to play very well. It’s a very balanced field other than that. And like I said, somebody’s going to have to play really well to beat them."
NO. 1 WICHITA STATE VS. NO. 9 EVANSVILLE, 12:05 P.M.
Wichita State, which hasn’t won an MVC tournament championship since 1987, is led by MVC Larry Bird Player of the Year Fred VanVleet, Defensive Player of the Year Tekele Cotton and leading scorers Cleanthony Early (15.8 points per game) and Ron Baker (13.1).
The Shockers were the best in the 10-team Missouri Valley Conference in scoring offense (75.4 points per game) and scoring defense (59.9) and led the league in scoring margin (+15.5), free throw percentage (73.6 percent), field goal percentage defense (39.4), 3-point field goal percentage defense (30.6), rebounding offense (38.7) and defense (30.6).
Evansville (14-18) opened the tournament with a 69-61 win against No. 8 seed Drake on Thursday to earn the matchup with the top-seeded Shockers in the quarterfinals.
The Aces, who have won three straight, were led by sophomore guard D.J. Balentine and 6-foot-10 sophomore center Egidijus Mockevicius. Balentine, who leads the conference in scoring at 22.3 points per game, scored a game-high 30 points and the 6-foot-10 Mockevicius had 19 points, 10 rebounds and an MVC Tournament-record eight blocked shots.
Evansville will have a quick turnaround to get ready for Wichita State.
"There’s a reason they’re undefeated, No. 2," Coach Marty Simmons said. "Those three guards play as hard as any three guards I think I’ve ever played against or coached against. They’re that good. And it’s going to be our ability to raise our intensity level. … There’s a lot of things you have to do well to win. They’re an outstanding team. They’re well coached. … We’ve had two really tough games with them. You’ve got to take the positives from that and build on it. Then you take the areas that aren’t good and try to improve from there. That will be our attack as we move forward."
Mockevicius offered a slightly different take on the matchup.
"We got to play our game," he said. "I believe that miracle can happen."
NO. 4 MISSOURI STATE VS. NO. 5 ILLINOIS STATE, 2:35 P.M.
Missouri State and Illinois State split their two meetings this season.
Missouri State (19-11) beat Illinois State 78-70 in overtime on Jan. 2. Illinois State (16-14) then won the rematch 67-63 on Feb. 18.
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"I think Illinois State is maybe, on the perimeter, the most athletic team from a quickness standpoint and just a lateral movement standpoint," Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said. "They’re really quick, and they’re feisty on both ends. So their quickness and their speed bothers you when they’re on defense. They do a great job of harassing you. They’re very good in their full court press as well as their zone."
Missouri State guard Jarmar Gulley scored 46 points in the two games against Illinois State — something Muller is well aware of.
"We’ve got to figure out how to guard Jarmar Gulley a lot better," The Illinois State coach said. "He averaged 20 points against us the last two games. I think it was 24 and 22. He’s great around the rim. He attacks our zone very well. Other than that, I’ll be surprised if it’s not a close game. You have to make plays at the end of the game to win."
NO. 2 INDIANA STATE VS. NO. 10 LOYOLA, 6:05 P.M.
Indiana State (21-9) has the experience of winning the MVC Tournament back in 2011, but the Sycamores take a three-game losing streak into Scottrade Center on Friday.
ISU lost to Missouri State, Illinois State and Northern Iowa in its final three regular season games.
"We locked up the second seed, took a tough one to Wichita and really got us down," said senior guard Jake Odum, the Sycamores’ leading scorer at 13 points per game and a first-team all-conference selection. "We really can’t do that as a veteran team. I think we bounced back strong. We turned it up a couple of notches in practice, and we’ve really been locked in the last week or so to get focused on this tournament."
Indiana State sophomore swingman Khristian Smith, who averaged 11.1 points per game, was selected as the league’s Sixth Man of the Year.
Loyola needed a 3-pointer at the buzzer from standout freshman guard Milton Doyle to beat Bradley 74-72 late Thursday night and advance to the quarterfinal round.
Playing in its first MVC Tournament game, Loyola (10-21) led by as many as 11 points in the second half but trailed Bradley (12-20) by one in the final seconds before Doyle’s game-winner.
Doyle is the league’s Freshman of the Year and Newcomer of the Year and finished with a team-high 19 points, four assists and three blocks.
"I just loved how Milt let the game come to him," Loyola coach Porter Moser said.
Northern Iowa (16-14) comes into the tournament as the hottest team not named Wichita State, with the Panthers winning three straight and five of their last six.
UNI and Southern Illinois split their two meetings this season, with Southern winning 68-66 on Jan. 14 and UNI winning 73-54 on Feb. 26.
Northern Iowa junior Seth Tuttle, a 6-foot-8 forward, was a first-team all-conference selection. He is averaging 15.4 points — one of four Panthers players averaging in double figures — and 7.7 rebounds per game.
Southern Illinois (13-18) turned its season around in late January, winning seven of its final 10 games. The backcourt duo of senior Desmar Jackson (18.8 points per game) and sophomore Anthony Beane (14.6) is among the best in the MVC.
"Those two guys have been terrific," UNI coach Ben Jacobson said. "They create a lot of offense for their team. … (They) make things a little bit easier for the other guys in that lineup, or they do a good job of helping those other guys get quality looks or better looks."