With the NFL season drawing to a close and snow covering the ground, the action on the hardwood begins to heat up with college basketball teams battling for postseason positioning.
The Missouri Valley Conference has three teams sitting on the NCAA tournament bubble entering February. Missouri State, Wichita State and Northern Iowa all received votes in the latest Top 25 Coach’s Poll released by USA Today.
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi has two teams from the Valley in the NCAA tournament at this point in the season: Wichita State and Missouri State. Defending MVC champion UNI has recently entered the postseason picture on the winds of a seven-game winning streak, including wins on the road against both Wichita State and Missouri State.
ESPN announced all three teams will participate in televised games during BracketBuster weekend Feb. 18-20. Each team will be facing teams with a Rating Percentage Index in the top 60. That weekend will give the MVC the opportunity to improve the conference’s current RPI ranking of 12.
This year’s expansion of the NCAA tournament from 65 to 68 teams will allow for an additional three at-large teams to make the tournament field. Members of the MVC will be hoping for one of these additional teams to come from their conference.
The MVC hasn’t sent multiple teams to the NCAA tournament since 2007 when both Creighton and Southern Illinois made it to the big dance. Northern Iowa, Wichita State, Southern Illinois and Bradley made the tournament in 2006. Of course, most people remember Drake’s magical run in 2008, a year when it was the lone Valley representative.
With RPIs in the top 60 in the nation, every game becomes important for the top three teams in the MVC.
The Bulldogs find themselves near the bottom of the Missouri Valley Conference with a 3-8 record in conference play and 8-14 overall. To qualify for an at-large berth for any postseason tournament, it would be best for the Bulldogs to finish the regular season with seven straight victories, which gives them an opportunity to finish at or above .500 after the MVC tournament.
The outside chance of an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament remains with a Cinderella run to the championship in the MVC tournament. In 2005, Oakland made the NCAA tournament with a losing record as a result of winning the Summit Conference tournament.
Two essential areas of the game the Bulldogs can improve upon in the final six games would be free throw percentage and rebounding. The Bulldogs rank at the bottom of the conference in both statistical categories. They are shooting .643 from the line and being beaten on the glass by 8.6 rebounds per game through 11 conference games.
The Bulldogs are three games behind Evansville for the sixth seed in the MVC tournament, which would keep them out of the play-in games on the first day of the tournament.
“Getting out of the play-in game is a good thing,” senior guard Ryan Wedel said. “It is easier to win three games than to win four in four days.”
The Bulldogs have recently suffered close losses to Illinois State and MVC front-runner Missouri State.
“If we play the way we are capable of, we can win against anybody in the Valley,” Wedel said. “The team has improved over the last three games and we can make a run at the end of the season.”
The future of Drake basketball looks bright with freshman Rayvonte Rice leading the charge for Drake hoops. He is second among all freshmen in the Valley in scoring and rebounding, behind former Ames High School standout Doug McDermott, who now plays for Creighton.
The Bulldogs will host the streaking UNI Panthers on Saturday at noon. The Panthers are riding a seven-game winning streak going into action on Wednesday night and dropped the Bulldogs 69-49 earlier this season. The Bulldogs gave up 12 3-pointers in the last matchup as the Panthers shot 50 percent from beyond the arc.
1. Andrew Warren, Bradley, 18.9 points per game
2. Kyle Weems, Missouri State, 16.5
3. Colt Ryan, Evansville, 15.0
7. Rayvonte Rice, Drake, 12.9
1. Mamadou Seck, Southern Illinois, 7.8 per game
2. Carl Richard, Indiana State, 7.4
3. Doug McDermott, Creighton, 7.3
Drake Leader: Rice, 4.9
1. Antoine Young, Creighton, 4.5 assists per game
2. Nafis Ricks, Missouri State, 4.3
3. Jake Odum, Indiana State, 4.0
Drake Leader: Four players with 1.7 (Wedel, Rice, Alexander, VanDeest)
1. Jake Odum, Indiana State, 1.8 steals per game
2. Andrew Warren, Bradley, 1.5
3. Kyle Weems, Missouri State, 1.4
3. Rayvonte Rice, 1.4
Compiled by Matt Moran