(SportsNetwork.com) - The only perfect team remaining in college basketball highlights the 10-team field of the 38th annual Missouri Valley Conference Tournament.
Gregg Marshall's Wichita State squad finished the regular season with a 31-0 record, including an 18-0 mark in league play. The Shockers are the first team since the 2003-04 Saint Joseph's Hawks to enter the postseason without a blemish on their resume and will be attempting to become the first program to go into the NCAA Tournament without a loss since the 1990-91 UNLV Runnin' Rebels. Last season, Wichita State was denied its third crown as the Shockers fell by three points to Doug McDermott and the Creighton Bluejays in the championship round.
The MVC Tournament features nine games in four days and due to its location in St. Louis, it is commonly referred to as Arch Madness. The opening round of action will begin on Thursday as the eight-seeded Drake Bulldogs (15-15, 6-12) square off with the No. 9 seed Evansville (13-18, 6-12). The winner of that tilt will advance to face the Shockers, who have not won the tourney to earn an automatic bid to the Big Dance since 1987 when they claimed their second MVC Tournament title. Wichita State did more than enough to prove last season's trip to the Final Four was not a fluke. It posted some notable wins during its non-conference season over Tulsa, BYU, Saint Louis, Tennessee and Alabama. The last Division I school to win the NCAA Championship without a single loss was Indiana in 1976.
The Shockers are led by senior forward Cleanthony Early, who is posting 15.8 ppg and 5.9 rpg. Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton are both reliable scorers as well with respective averages of 13.1 and 10.4 ppg. Wichita State received a huge boost from sophomore point guard Fred VanVleet, who stepped up his play to contribute 11.9 ppg and a conference-best 5.3 apg. The Shockers' dominance gave them the top scoring offense (75.4 ppg) and best scoring defense (59.9 ppg) in the 10-team league.
Ninth-seeded Evansville (84-68) and eighth-seeded Drake will open up tournament play on Thursday, with the winner getting the unenviable task of taking on the Shockers in the quarterfinals.
Coach Marty Simmons began his seventh season at the helm of the program by guiding Evansville to five straight wins, but his team has owned a sub-.500 overall record since early January. The Purple Aces' lack of success came in large part due to poor defensive play as they rank last in the MVC with an allowance of 72.3 ppg. Offensively, Evansville is capable of lighting up the scoreboard with the conference's leading scorer D.J. Balentine at the center of its attack. The 6-foot-2 sophomore improved his scoring by 14 ppg from his rookie year and connected on 40 percent of his 3-point field goal attempts to net 22.3 ppg. Sophomore center Egidijus Mockevicius paces the MVC in field goal percentage (.634) for 10.3 ppg, which he accompanies with a team-best 8.3 rpg. Freshman swingman Blake Simmons, whose father is UE's head coach, is producing 9.8 ppg. The eighth-seeded Bulldogs enter the postseason with a .500 record overall even though they finished with only six MVC triumphs. Drake leads the league in 3-point field goal percentage (.392), but also ranks second to last in turnover margin (-0.83). Senior point guard Richard Carter spearheads the charge for the Bulldogs with 16.3 ppg and 3.7 apg, while his classmate Aaron Hawley is chipping in a career-best 10.3 ppg. The Bulldogs received a boost from their 5-9 Boston College transfer Jordan Daniels (10.1 ppg) throughout the campaign, but ended this season with only 24 total points over the final four games.
Following the opening game, the seventh-seeded Bradley Braves (12-19, 7-11) will take on the 10th-seeded Loyola-Chicago Ramblers for a chance to play the No. 2 seed Indiana State (21-9, 12-6) in the next round.
After Loyola's 2012-13 season, its final in the Horizon League, resulted in a 15-16 overall ledger, third-year coach Porter Moser had trouble navigating the Ramblers through their inaugural season as a member of the MVC. Loyola dropped six games in a row to conclude its slate after notching just its fourth conference win of the season on Feb. 9. Moser's squad clearly has weaknesses on both ends of the floor as it averaged only 63.9 ppg and allowed 68.4 ppg to its new league rivals. The Ramblers rely on the duo of freshman guard Milton Doyle (15.1 ppg, 3.5 apg) and junior swingman Christian Thomas (13.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Doyle, who originally began his career at Kansas, went ice cold near the end of the season as he hit on only one of his final 12 attempts from beyond the arc.
The Braves also had an unimpressive finish to the regular season with their 55-38 win over Loyola on Feb. 22 marking their only victory in their last six games. The Ramblers are the only MVC squad Bradley swept in the regular season. Coach Geno Ford consistently ran plays for the conference's leading scorer among active players, Walt Lemon Jr. The senior guard netted 17.8 ppg to rank third in the MVC in scoring and has 1,697 career points, the eighth- most in program history. Lemon also contributes 3.8 apg and is tied for the MVC lead with 2.4 spg. Senior forward Tyshon Pickett posts 11.7 ppg on the season and pulled down an average of 9.8 rpg over his last five games. Ford's system places an emphasis on the defensive end which resulted in an allowance of only 65.8 ppg, the second best scoring defense mark in the league. However, Bradley also scores an MVC-worst 63.4 ppg on just 41.6 percent efficiency from the floor.
With Creighton's departure for the Big East, the league that was a two-horse race a season ago was dominated by WSU. The Sycamores also earned a first round bye despite ending the campaign with three consecutive losses. Coach Greg Lansing's team notched victories over each of its MVC rivals with the exception of the Shockers and also downed Notre Dame and Belmont prior to the league portion of its schedule. Senior point guard Jake Odum will be looking to conclude his remarkable career on a high note after tallying 13 ppg, 4.2 rpg and 4.6 apg during the regular season. Odum owns program records in career games (130), assists (586) and recently surpassed the legendary Larry Bird for the school record in made free-throw attempts (571). Odom is one of only two players in the past 15 years to tally 1,000 career points, 500 made free-throw tries, 500 assists and 200 steals at the Division I level. Khristian Smith, Manny Arop, Dawon Cummings and Justin Gant have all benefited from Odum's excellent floor vision as they are combining for 42.1 ppg.
The second stage of the tourney will begin on Friday when Wichita State faces the winner of the Drake and Evansville tilt. Should the Shockers advance, they will take on the victor of the fourth-seeded Missouri State Bears (19-11, 9-9) and No. 5 seed Illinois State Redbirds (16-14, 9-9).
These schools appeared to be evenly matched during the regular season. The Bears edged Illinois State, 78-70, in overtime in the league opener for both sides on Jan. 2, but Missouri State then fell, 67-63, on Doug Collins Court on Feb. 18. The Bears' only two losses prior to their MVC slate came courtesy of national powerhouses in Virginia and Louisville, however the losing decisions began to pile up due to uninspired defensive play. In its 18 MVC games, Missouri State's foes shot 46.6 percent from the floor and 37 percent from beyond the arc, while it managed to sink only 44.1 percent of its field goal tries with a 125-of-349 clip (.358) from beyond the arc. A big reason for the Bears' drop off was the loss of sophomore guard Marcus Marshall (14.3 ppg), whose season ended when he tore his meniscus in mid-January. Missouri State then heavily relied on 6-5 senior Jarmar Gulley (14.9 ppg, 6.4 rpg), who has scored in double figures in 16 consecutive outings. Rookie guard Austin Ruder drained 41.7 percent of his 3-point field goal tries for 8.6 ppg, but he is not much more than a spot-up shooter at this point in his career.
Illinois State exceeded expectations as it was predicted to be the seventh best team in the MVC Preseason Poll. The Redbirds won the tie breaker over Missouri State and Southern Illinois (13-19, 9-9) since they had the highest non-conference strength of schedule out of the three schools. Coach Dan Muller's team hoisted up 411 shots from 3-point range in its 18 MVC games, but ranked just ninth in 3-point field-goal percentage (.316) and was last in 3- point field-goal percentage defense (.378) in league action. Illinois State's top four scorers were all newcomers to the roster led by a backcourt made up of junior college transfers in Daishon Knight (13.4 ppg), Zach Lofton (10.8 ppg) and Bobby Hunter (10.7 ppg). The Redbirds also received a huge boost from 6-10 freshman Reggie Lynch, who was named the MVC Newcomer of the Week after producing 13 points, 5.5 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game in two games last week.
Following the grudge match between the Bears and Redbirds on Friday, Indiana State will make its postseason debut versus either Bradley or Loyola. The Sycamores will be playing for a chance to take on the winner of the contest between Northern Iowa (16-14, 10-8) and the sixth-seeded SIU Salukis.
UNI closed out its campaign with three straight wins and five victories in six outings to claim the third seed. The Panthers were one of the league's most explosive teams with an average of 73.3 ppg on 45.4 percent efficiency from the field. Coach Ben Jacobson's team led the MVC in attempts (710) and makes (260) from beyond the arc and also ranked second with 14.2 apg. Junior forward Seth Tuttle has become one of the MVC's marquee players as he led UNI with 15.4 ppg and 7.7 rpg. The 6-8, 232-pound forward erupted for 20.2 ppg on 64.8 percent shooting from the floor over the team's last five games to help it to the third seed. Junior guard Deon Mitchell (12.3 ppg) and sophomore Wes Washpun (8.3 ppg) give the Panthers a pair of solid distributors by combining for 7.2 apg, while Nate Buss (10.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Matt Bohannon (10 ppg) add some scoring punch to the mix. Washpun sat out last season after transferring from Tennessee and made an impact right away with 114 assists against only 71 turnovers. UNI avenged the two-point loss to SIU it suffered on Jan. 14 with a 73-54 rout of the Salukis last Wednesday.
The Salukis averaged 0.3 ppg less than their MVC opposition even though they grabbed 3.3 more rpg in those 18 contests. Coach Barry Hinson does many players capable of stretching defenses with outside shooting as evident by the team's mere average of 4.5 made 3-pointers per tilt. However, the Salukis survived their regular season finale as rookie guard Tyler Smithpeters buried a deep 3-point field goal try in the closing seconds to lift them to a one- point win over Illinois State. Smithpeters (4.3 ppg) logged only 17.3 minutes per game on the season, but he has played 20 minutes or more in 11 of his last 12. Hinson is hoping his freshman guard can keep defenses honest and take pressure of his dynamic duo of senior Desmar Jackson (18.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and sophomore Anthony Beane (14.6 ppg). In addition to ranking second in the MVC in scoring, Jackson is also tied with Lemon for the league's assist lead. In league play, Jackson and Beane ranked third and fifth in scoring with respective averages of 17.3 and 16.7 ppg.