I know, I know… the regular season is only two days old. Pardon me if I’m jumping out of my Bradley shorts already…
By now, many of you know that the Valley has had a stellar weekend so far. Ignore the loss by Illinois State to WAC bottom-dweller Fresno State. Forget that Southern Illinois exists altogether. Apart from those two disasters, the league already has established itself as one of the top mid-major conferences this season.
Premature? I think not.
Don’t allow the fireworks from Saturday to cloud what transpired a day before. While Indiana State couldn’t pull away from Eastern Illinois until late, what could be the biggest little Valley victory yet occurred in Reno.
The Missouri State Bears, with a new sideline general (Paul Lusk) and four new starters took the floor against a Nevada squad returning all five starters and in Dario Hunt, featured an All-WAC performer. Hunt finished 0-9 from the floor and committed six turnovers, helping the Bears to a runaway 68-46 win.
Lusk didn’t get the memo that this was supposed to be a rebuilding year in Springfield.
Creighton demoralized North Carolina A&T with a 97-65 beating on Friday, which led to Saturday. O glorious Saturday – setting the table for multiple bids in March.
Three Valley programs, who could be riding the bubble (honestly) around Valentine’s Day, already have one “key win” to stuff into a Lunardi column. Drake won a laugher against DII Upper Iowa, 83-58, but the shockers (sorry, WSU) and most important wins, came earlier in the day, as Evansville survived Butler in their first game at the new, beautiful Ford Center, 80-77 in overtime and Northern Iowa dominated Old Dominion on the road, winning 63-46.
What delicious traits do the triumphs by MSU, UE and UNI share? Just a few...
First, I expected those three teams to fit neatly into the 4-5-6 spots in the Valley this season, in any order. After the coming out party this weekend, it wouldn’t surprise me to watch any of the three challenge Indiana State for the third spot… and any one of them can do it. Should one of those programs land in a position to potentially punch a dance ticket in March, they all have a win against a solid mid-major program that is likely to win 20 or more games this year. A mini-BracketBuster if you will… and the Valley cleaned house.
Secondly, they were all underdogs. National respect for the Valley has waned in light of being relegated to a one-bid league over the last half-decade. Handicappers with a vast knowledge of the Valley should be able to produce a nice non-conference payday over the next six weeks.
Thirdly, they all won without great performances from their star players. Colt Ryan was just 4-15 from the floor, although he hit enough free throws (14-18) to score 23 points for Evansville. Northern Iowa’s Anthony James made just six of his 15 attempts from the floor, and committed three turnovers. The Missouri Valley Player of the Year, Kyle Weems, was held to four points on 2-12 shooting for the Bears.
What does that mean? The Valley has depth that we haven’t seen in the last five seasons.
That doesn’t bode well for the rest of the country. The Valley is back.
Bring on Sunday.