December 9, 2020 

MVC check-in: Navigating the revamped conference schedule

Must-see games, dominance over Big Ten competition and more from this week's Valley action

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Indiana State junior Essy Latu drives during the Sycamores’ game against Western Illinois on Monday, Dec. 7, 2020. (Photo: Indiana State Athletics)

In last week’s check-in, I briefly mentioned the release of the new Missouri Valley Conference schedule. Today, let’s dive in and see what’s in it.

Like many conferences this season, the Valley has decided to move away from a “normal” schedule and into one that incorporates travel partners and games on back-to-back days (mostly Fridays and Saturdays) against the same opponent. So, each of the 10 Valley schools will play 18 games, as usual, but with a twist: four home series against four opponents, four away series against four opponents, and two games with their travel partner on two separate days (that is, not back-to-back, as each partner will get to host one game).

Here are a few different ways to look at this latest schedule:

Missouri State’s path of least resistance…

…in a manner of speaking, anyway. The preseason favorite Lady Bears have a luckier draw than most, not just by virtue of being the team to beat, but by where they get to play some of their top competition. For instance, both Bradley and Drake are visiting Springfield, meaning Missouri State gets four home games against the preseason No. 2 and No. 4 teams, respectively.

But that doesn’t mean their road trips are easy. The Lady Bears open the season at preseason No. 3 UNI, a much-improved team from a season ago when it finished fifth. Perhaps more daunting than that, Missouri State will also play a home-and-home with Southern Illinois (its travel partner) and visit Illinois State for a back-to-back — the two teams that each handed the Lady Bears a conference loss on their respective home courts last season.

Travel partner games: Jan. 27 and Feb. 24

Every team plans to have its home-and-home series on the same two Wednesdays in January and February, with no games the weekends following. Theoretically, this offers two free weekends for each team in case of canceled games. But more to the point, it means that all five geographical “rivalry” games aim to take place on the same two days.

The list of travel partners — so, the teams that will face off on the above dates — is as follows, along with last season’s series records:

  • Bradley and Illinois State (Bradley won 2-0)

  • UNI and Drake (Tie 1-1)

  • Indiana State and Evansville (Indiana State won 2-0)

  • Valparaiso and Loyola Chicago (Valparaiso won 2-0)

  • Southern Illinois and Missouri State (Tie 1-1)

Plenty of room for dark horses, as always

As a conference that seemed poised to send three teams (Missouri State, Drake and Bradley) to last season’s canceled NCAA Tournament, it wasn’t “top-heavy” that dictated the conference’s trajectory, but instead its parity. Again, though Missouri State swept both programs, Drake and Bradley each won at home against the other, as Drake went on to suffer multiple conference losses for the first time since the 2015-16 season. But, as mentioned above, it’s not as if the top-seed Lady Bears finished undefeated — they dropped two road games.

With the novelty of this schedule format offering a boost to the home team regardless of the number of fans in the building, this could open the door for teams to grab two wins in a row during homestands. Or, say, if a hard-fought, high-scoring Friday night game opens the weekend, it could leave Saturday open for whichever team can recover more quickly, regardless of where the game is being played. Or, if the away team has their host figured out, it could lead to two confident road wins.

The gist, of course, is that anything could happen in this format, and that’s much like before. But it will be interesting to see which trends emerge, and especially if any one team seems to benefit more from it than others — even if it means a lesser-favored team gets more unexpected victories than ever.

Missouri Valley Conference play is slated to begin Jan. 1 and 2, 2021.

Around the Valley

  • For the first time in two seasons, Indiana State put together a three-game winning streak as part of a 3-1 start. Most recently, this included the program’s first-ever win against Murray State and a rout of Western Illinois. Junior Essy Latu notched her second game of the season with six 3-pointers in the latter contest to make up her game-high 18 points. The Sycamores will have to hope that momentum won’t stall, though — their next two scheduled games against Chicago State and Saint Louis were postponed and canceled, respectively, due to COVID-19 issues on the opposing teams.

  • The Valley has gone 4-3 against Big Ten opponents in non-conference play, most recently powered by Valparaiso’s wins at Illinois and Purdue (its second and third road wins over Big Ten teams ever) and Drake’s win in Minnesota. Win No. 4 was Missouri State’s triumph over Maryland during the opening weekend of play.

  • Speaking of Valpo, its own Grace White was named MVC Player of the Week. White averaged 18.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and four assists across the two Big Ten wins and scored key late baskets in each.

  • Instant classic? Instant classic. UNI extended its series winning streak to six games against Wichita State, a member of the Valley until 2017, as it defeated the Shockers 93-91 Sunday in double overtime. Redshirt senior Megan Maahs converted six of the Panthers’ 15 overtime points, including the game-winning layup.

  • Grace Berg continues to impress for Drake, notching career-highs in points, rebounds and assists in the Bulldogs’ narrow loss to Iowa en route to being named the MVC Newcomer of the Week for the second time in two weeks.

  • Both teams affected by COVID stoppages, Illinois State and Southern Illinois, have returned to play — mostly. Illinois State finally got to play its opener over the weekend as it defeated Saint Xavier (NAIA), but both of the Valley’s affected teams were hit by cancellations again when shared non-conference foe Saint Louis paused team activities on Tuesday, Dec. 8. That game would have been SIU’s first since its own pause, so instead, the Salukis plan to play their second game of the season against SEMO on Dec. 13. SLU’s stoppage also affects a planned matchup with Indiana State.

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

Upcoming must-see games

Subject to change, of course. The complete schedule can be found at the link above.

  • Saturday, Dec. 12: UNI vs. No. 22 South Dakota State (3 p.m. CT, ESPN3)

  • Tuesday, Dec. 15: Drake at No. 22 South Dakota State (6 p.m. CT, live stream)

After taking down then-No. 18 Gonzaga over the weekend, South Dakota State is back in the AP Top 25 for the first time since the 2008-09 season, coming in at No. 22. The Jackrabbits always offer good competition, but the prospect of taking down a top-25 team — for UNI especially, on its home floor — provides an enhanced challenge.

  • Sunday, Dec. 13: Missouri State at Missouri (2 p.m. CT, SECN+)

With star Sophie Cunningham, Mizzou defeated Missouri State four times in a row. In its first season without her, 2019-20, it fell to the Lady Bears for the first time since 2014. The in-state rivals have faced off 32 times, with the Tigers owning the 21-11 series lead; however, counting just the last 14 meetings, the series is tied 7-7.

  • Sunday, Dec. 13: Loyola at No. 24 DePaul (3 p.m. CT, live stream)

Both teams have played and defeated Chicago State this season, but unlike DePaul, that was Loyola’s only game so far — DePaul’s other two, while both losses, came against top-25 competition. The Ramblers haven’t beaten a top-25 team lately, but the last time they did, it was then-No. 16 DePaul in December 2015.

  • Tuesday, Dec. 15: UNI vs. Iowa State (6:30 p.m. CT, ESPN+)

It couldn’t defeat Iowa on the road this season, but perhaps UNI can beat its other non-conference in-state rival at home. The Panthers have the chance to take two in a row from Iowa State, who recently fell out of the AP Poll, after defeating the Cyclones on their home floor last season for the first time ever.

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