The Valley of Change

At the very top of the college basketball totem pole, things have been exciting, but also, have been according to plan.

Coming into the 2007-08 season, North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA, and Memphis were the consensus top teams in the country, and thus far, have a combined ultra-gaudy mark of 62-1.

Of those four, UCLA and Memphis have each given tour-de-force performances against elite teams. Memphis' came on December 22 in an 85-71 picking apart of Georgetown, while UCLA's came this past Saturday against previously unbeaten Washington State in a not-nearly-as-close-as-it-seemed 81-74 game.

Kansas and North Carolina have each had their share of quality RPI wins and blowouts over less-talented teams, but none have registered as the statement games that UCLA and Memphis have put in.

That being said, I don't think any of these teams will run the table in their conferences and my opinion on the top two teams in the country could very well change by January 20, much less March 20.

After all, the journey and the subsequent the peaks and valleys that come with a 16- or 18-game league schedule is one of the things that makes college basketball great.

One of the overlooked great things about this season in particular has been the Missouri Valley Conference.

Yes, everyone's been talking about The Valley for years now as a great conference, which it undoubtedly is. But this year, the Valley is amazing because the teams that had been consistently in the league's bottom three places have risen up to occupy the league's top three places this season. And yet, still, depending on how you categorize the Atlantic 10, the Valley is the nation's top mid-major conference.

The last time anyone of Drake, Illinois State, and Indiana State finished a season in the Valley over .500 in league play was in 2002 when Illinois State finished 12-6.

This season, with each Valley team having played its fifth game on Saturday, Drake and Illinois State each have unblemished 6-0 records, while Indiana State is 4-1. Illinois State and Indiana State have each beaten the Valley's two NCAA tournament representatives from a year ago in Southern Illinois and Creighton.

The top three owe their success to improvements on defense. A year ago, Drake and Indiana State were the two worst defensive teams in the Valley, allowing opponents to score 1.14 and 1.07 points per possession in conference, respectively. Illinois State gave up 1.05 per possession. All three clubs have turned that number to under one this season. Illinois State and Drake now lead the conference in points allowed per possession with 0.83 and 0.87.

Good defensive teams are hardly anything without scorers, Illinois State has one of the best in the Valley with shooting guard Osiris Eldridge. Eldridge was the Freshman of the Year in the Valley last year and could very well take the step up to full-blown Player of the Year as a sophomore as he is averaging 15.3 points per game and 6 rpg.

Drake's Josh Young is also a top scorer in the Valley, averaging 16.3 ppg, but the sophomore injured his ankle against Indiana State and is out indefinitely. Guard Leonard Houston and forwards Jonathan Cox and Klayton Korver (Kyle's brother) picked up the scoring slack in Drake's win on Saturday against Missouri State and will be expected to in Young's absence.

Indiana State's scoring punch comes in the strength of its three top guards, Marico Stinson, Gabriel Moore, and Harry Marshall. All three average in double figures for the Sycamores.

The three schools, in this election year, are all getting fantastic early returns on coaching hires. At the end of last season, Royce Waltman, who had been at Indiana State for a decade, and Illinois State's Porter Moser were let go by the programs. Dr. Tom Davis, the former Iowa coach, retired as Drake head man last year.

In Des Moines, Davis' son, Keno, took over the Bulldogs and is having results very reminiscent of the success Tony Bennett is currently having at Washington State after taking over for his father, Dick, at the end of the 2005-06 season.

Illinois State hired former Kevin Stallings and Bill Self assistant Tim Jankovich to take over for Moser, while Indiana State went in-conference for their coach, picking Dana Altman assistant Kevin McKenna.

Speaking of Altman, despite the emergence of Drake, Illinois State, and Indiana State to the Valley forefront, the familiar name of Creighton might end up at the top of the Valley heap when the season is over.

The Bluejays are struggling to replace the over 42 ppg that left with Nate Funk, Anthony Tolliver, and Nick Porter and are turning the ball over at a higher rate this season. But freshman guard P'Allen Stinnett and senior forward Dane Watts are both very talented players that could put the team on their backs and lead Creighton to a familiar NCAA tournament slot. The Bluejays will play Drake two times in eight days starting on January 22, and could easily make up the two-game league deficit to the leaders that way.

Southern Illinois and its six consecutive NCAA appearances cannot be taken lightly in the Valley, despite the Salukis already having nine losses and three in conference.

The Valley of this season is simply not as strong as it was two years ago, when six of the 10 teams were in the NCAA tournament picture, with four getting bids.

What we've seen thus far does suggest that this season's Valley could be just as predictable as that year, even if it does result in the league's first one-bid campaign since — guess who — Illinois State did it in 1998.

Comments and Conversation

January 17, 2008


FYI… Drake & Ill State are both 6-0 in conf. Also Drake beath Missouri State not Drake blew out Drake, also its Leonard Houston

Leave a Comment

Featured Site