MVC check-in: Missouri State's absence allows others to shine

The Valley's last undefeated team is the one you'd expect — if not for the reason you'd expect

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Missouri State’s Sydney Manning, center, celebrates after hitting the game-winning shot against Drake, Jan. 10, 2020 at JQH Arena in Springfield, Mo. (Photo: MSU Women’s Basketball via Twitter)

If Missouri State plays this weekend, it’ll be a battle between two of the conference’s top teams as the Lady Bears travel to visit UNI. The Panthers are one of three Valley teams with a 3-1 record, and alongside Bradley and Drake were picked to finish second through fourth in the preseason poll.

The team picked to finish first, the defending-champion Lady Bears, might well be up there too — if they’d played a game. But thanks to a COVID-related pause, Missouri State has been idle, competition-wise, since losing to South Dakota State on Dec. 19. If its series at UNI this weekend pans out (one rescheduled from opening weekend), it’ll be the team’s first game in 27 days.

“It sucks when the whole season got taken away,” junior forward Jasmine Franklin told the Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette this month. “It sucks when games get canceled. But it’s something you’ve gotta get over and move on to the next game. ...Those are the adjustments we have to deal [with], especially with being basketball players.”

The Lady Bears’ four-game MVC absence, though, has offered the chance for the other nine teams to distinguish themselves when the team with the biggest target on its back isn’t in the picture. As expected, UNI, Bradley and Drake are at the top; Illinois State, Southern Illinois, Valparaiso and Loyola are each sitting at .500; while Indiana State is 1-3 and Evansville is 0-4.

Missouri State’s next two scheduled opponents, UNI and Drake, would be difficult series even without the added strain of having an unexpected month away from game action. The Lady Bears swept the Iowa schools last season, beating them both at home and on the road, but there hardly seems to be precedent for these upcoming games — last season’s triumphs feel so far away now.

But in their own right, both UNI and Drake have been having stellar 2020-21 campaigns relative to the rest of the conference, especially when it comes to star performances.

Individually, UNI’s Karli Rucker posted a career-high 32 points on Friday against Valparaiso, and teammate Megan Maahs is just 15 points away from joining her in the 1,000-point club. The Panthers’ depth is shown in their bench production, which ranks fourth in the conference, one place above Drake. And with such a big roster — 15 players have seen the court this season — squeezing out as much of it as you can, especially in an uncertain season, is necessary.

“Now playing ... back-to-back games, I don’t think there’s any question that you’re going to have to be able to utilize your bench and be productive,” UNI head coach Tanya Warren said at the end of December. “[Non-conference play] was an opportunity to get some of those kids in, get their feet wet and get them some game experience as we enter league play. We’re certainly going to need them in our rotation for us to be able to be successful.”

Drake, meanwhile, is paced by newcomer Grace Berg, who’s tied for second in the Valley in scoring, and is alone in second in field goal and free throw shooting percentage. The redshirt sophomore, who sat out a year and a half before finally becoming eligible in the fall, is exactly what the Bulldogs needed after losing two high-level scorers in Sara Rhine and Becca Hittner.

But it’s not all about Berg, who earned her fourth MVC Newcomer of the Week honor this week — Maddie Monahan is about to reach 400 career assists, on her way to passing 2019 graduate Sammie Bachrodt for seventh all-time at Drake. Kierra Collier joins the pair in averaging double digits in scoring, and she’s not shy about reminding people that the program is strong no matter who’s leading it.

“Just because we’ve lost a lot different people doesn’t mean we can’t compete,” Collier said prior to the season. “We’re all really excited to go out there and show we’re the same Drake team, but just with different people.”

I’ve written previously about what it might look like when UNI and Drake play each other — always highly-anticipated matchups, but perhaps heightened this season as both teams have more to prove. But with that series accounting for just two of a planned 18 Valley games per team, how these programs look separately, against high-profile teams like Missouri State, will say a lot about how they might fare the rest of the year.

Will the Lady Bears pick up right where they left off as a defensive force to be reckoned with, or will their long time idle leave an opening for their opponents to score at will? If all goes to plan, schedule-wise, Missouri State could see the rest of its season spelled out in its first two weekends of play, win or lose. In the Valley, where anyone could win on any night, it’s a truly daunting way to start 2021.

Around the Valley

  • As of this writing, five of the 10 Valley teams are in the top 100 of the NET rankings: No. 26 Missouri State, No. 37 Illinois State, No. 69 UNI, No. 75 Drake and No. 87 Bradley. The Valley is one of just seven conferences to have at least five teams in the top 100.

  • With UNI’s next win, head coach Tanya Warren will become the only active coach in the conference to have 250 career MVC wins, and just the fourth ever to reach that mark.

  • Southern Illinois’ Abby Brockmeyer joined the 1,000-point club over the weekend, becoming the sixth active player in the conference to reach that career milestone. As mentioned above, UNI’s Megan Maahs is just 15 points away from joining them.

  • Let me know if you’ve heard this one before: alongside Grace Berg’s Newcomer of the Week honor, preseason player of the year Lasha Petree of Bradley is the MVC Player of the Week for the second time this season.

  • Illinois State held Indiana State to a program-record 32 points in the second game of its weekend sweep. Along with its 69-38 win over Omaha last month, Illinois State is now one of seven teams nationwide to prevent multiple opponents from breaking 40 points this season.

  • Bradley set a record during its Saturday home defeat of Southern Illinois: its 63.8% shooting percentage was the best in Renaissance Coliseum history, breaking a decade-old record of 61.7%.

  • Does Evansville have another young star in the making? Freshman Rylie Stephens led the Purple Aces in scoring over the weekend, averaging 12 points per contest. It was the second and third time she’s reached double figures in scoring following her career-opening 14-point performance on Dec. 1.

See complete results from the Valley’s recent games here.

Two (or more?) to watch

Subject to change. All times CT; records are in Valley play. The complete schedule can be found at the link above.

It’s probably tempting fate to put the UNI-Missouri State series here, huh? Let’s slide it in anyway, because if it happens, it’ll be good:

  • Missouri State (0-0) at UNI (3-1), Jan. 15 at 6 p.m. (ESPN3) and Jan. 16 at 4 p.m. (ESPN+)

But also, here are two more series that are no more likely to happen, but at least aren’t directly preceded by either team pausing.

  • Valparaiso (1-1) at Illinois State (2-2), Jan. 14 and 15, both 4 p.m. (ESPN3)

  • Southern Illinois (2-2) at Loyola (1-1), Jan. 15 and 16, both 11 a.m. (ESPN+)

What a time for the conference’s four .500 teams to be playing each other! It’s an early defining moment, to be sure, but taking any of these games would count as a quality win. Illinois State and SIU are on opposite ends of the spectrum, with the former following up an 0-2 opening series with a 2-0 sweep, and the latter doing the opposite. Valpo and Loyola have yet to taste a series sweep of their own in either direction, but they both know how it feels to have the tables turn between games — in Loyola’s case, turning an opening loss into a second-game win, and Valpo, vice versa.

All this is to say, this set of games is just interesting, as far as learning how to navigate the back-to-back schedule goes. Even though all these teams have faced each other in previous seasons, it’s never been in this setting, and each team brings in different recent and specific experience, memories and feelings. If only for the novelty of the situation — but also, for the quality basketball — these series are worth a watch.

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