December 17, 2020 

MVC check-in: What will the Drake-UNI matchups look like?

Uncertain teams playing in uncertain times, and more from around the Valley

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Drake forward Grace Berg handles the ball against Creighton on Nov. 25, 2020. (Photo: Drake Athletics)

Drake’s total dominance of the Missouri Valley Conference wasn’t that long ago.

It wasn’t until February 2019 — or what we in the business of being alive in 2020 call “approximately a decade ago” — that their 47-game conference winning streak finally came to an end. But the Bulldogs still won the 2018-19 regular season title, though Missouri State came swooping in for the tournament crown. Still, two losses to Valley teams, including the tournament championship? Not too bad.

And then, the 2019-20 season happened. Which, by all accounts, still wasn’t bad — perhaps just a bit underwhelming by Drake standards. The team went 14-4, which included two losses to Missouri State, a loss at Bradley and a loss at UNI.

That loss at UNI, to a team Drake had beaten by 17 on its home floor earlier in the season, ended up capping off the whole season. The MVC Tournament was canceled on the day it was due to begin due to COVID-19 concerns, and the second-seeded Bulldogs never got a chance to try to reclaim the tournament title.

That said, UNI didn’t get a chance to continue its upset streak, either, perhaps to a title of its own. Similarly, it wasn’t that long ago that the Panthers were annual title contenders. They haven’t won the tournament since going back-to-back in 2010 and 2011, but from 2016 to 2018, they appeared in every championship game. In 2017, UNI took Drake to overtime, and though the 47-game win streak counted regular season games only, the kind of disruption a loss would have provided might have proven the Bulldogs to be beatable long before they were actually beaten again.

UNI just edged out Drake in the 2020-21 preseason poll, falling in place behind favorite Missouri State and surging Bradley. It represents not just Drake’s fall from where it once was — Becca Hittner and Sara Rhine were enormous losses, indeed — but also the idea that anyone can win the Valley. Not having a tournament last season meant not getting to see this idea in action, though the conference’s parity has only increased since.

This season, thanks to teams playing lots of regional opponents to reduce travel, the Valley’s two Iowa schools have overlapped opponents three times already. Both defeated Creighton and fell to Iowa, while UNI took down South Dakota State in their first of two meetings this month just three days before South Dakota State beat Drake. UNI fell to Iowa State by just six points on Tuesday, while Drake visits the Cyclones next week.

And then, both teams will meet twice during the Valley regular season. As travel partners, they’ll meet once on Jan. 27 and again on Feb. 24, rather than on back-to-back days. The extended time away from one another should only build anticipation between meetings, if the uncertainty and inconsistency that both teams have shown so far haven’t already started to raise questions not just about what they’ll look like, but what they’ll look like against each other.

Despite splitting their series last season, UNI’s upper hand comes from having the most recent victory over Drake. This season, the Panthers are succeeding on the strength of its team-first mentality, with their starters supplemented by a strong bench. They don’t lead in a single statistical category conference-wide, but are still putting together key wins.

Drake, meanwhile, has found its Rhine analog in Grace Berg, who trails just preseason player of the year Lasha Petree of Bradley in scoring so far and has been named MVC Newcomer of the Week twice. In fact, three Bulldogs check into the top six in points per game in the Valley. But when Drake’s offense is challenged, it struggles — which doesn’t pair well with its conference-worst defense.

It’s been difficult to go into a Valley game where Drake is involved and picture it losing. But the most recent Valley team that can say it’s defeated the Bulldogs probably pictures that matchup a little differently — and that’s going to make these two games all the more must-see when (and if) they happen.

Around the Valley

  • When it comes to Valley certainties this season, it’s death, taxes and Lasha Petree (Bradley) and Essy Latu (Indiana State) having big games. Petree had 30 points in Sunday’s come-from-behind win over Northern Illinois, while Latu added to her nation’s top-20 3-point shooting by going 6-of-9 against Western Illinois last Monday. The pair were named MVC Player of the Week and Newcomer of the Week, respectively.

  • Missouri State took down in-state rival Mizzou 72-58 on Monday, its second such win in a row and first in Columbia, Mo. since 2003.

  • The Iowa sweep simply wasn’t meant to be repeated for UNI, as it followed up its season-opening loss at Iowa with a 67-61 loss to Iowa State. Though the game was close throughout, with three ties and six lead changes, the Panthers’ cold shooting in the final frame ended up being its downfall.

  • In other close losses, Loyola nearly took down No. 24 DePaul over the weekend before surrendering a 15-0 run in the fourth quarter. Three Ramblers scored in double figures, led by freshman Maya Chandler’s 14 points, which equaled her total in her only other career game so far.

  • No Valley team besides Missouri State has four wins, but Illinois State remains the conference’s only unbeaten team. Despite only playing two games due to a late start, and winning both in blowout fashion, the Redbirds’ offense hasn’t been shy at all — those wins came by scores of 98-53 (against the NAIA’s Saint Xavier) and 85-55 (at Western Illinois).

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

Upcoming must-see games

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

  • Thursday, Dec. 17: Bradley vs. South Dakota (1 p.m. CT, ESPN3)

Bradley is looking for what would be its most impactful win of the season so far. South Dakota is looking for a win to keep its recovery streak going, one forged after falling to then-No. 1 South Carolina and then-No. 18 Gonzaga to open the season. This being Bradley’s fourth home game of the year in a season where many heavy hitters — including South Dakota — have had just one, the Braves will look to take advantage of every opportunity they can and pick up a résumé-boosting victory.

  • Friday, Dec. 18: Drake at No. 22 Texas (7 p.m. CT, Longhorn Network)

  • Tuesday, Dec. 22: Drake at Iowa State (6 p.m. CT, ESPN+)

In a season of frantic non-conference scheduling, here’s another: the Texas game was set up two days before it’s scheduled to take place. A win would give the Bulldogs excellent momentum heading into another matchup with a Big 12 opponent, Iowa State, which they defeated last season. Either way, back-to-back opponents on their respective home courts will offer Drake two strong tests. (As a result of the former game addition, Drake has canceled its game against Division II’s Lewis University set for Saturday.)

  • Saturday, Dec. 19: No. 20 Missouri State vs. South Dakota State (1 p.m. CT, ESPN3)

Plenty of mid-major power matchups have already taken place this season, and this is just the latest. Call it a long home-and-home — the last time these two teams met was also the only time, when then-Southwest Missouri State defeated South Dakota State on the road in 1974. The Jackrabbits were in the AP Poll until suffering back-to-back losses, while Missouri State has hung onto a poll spot throughout this entire short season. Hosting the Jackrabbits should give the Lady Bears a big advantage — South Dakota State has lost all of its away games this season, while Missouri State hasn’t lost at JQH Arena since early 2019.

  • Sunday, Dec. 20: Valparaiso at Wisconsin (2 p.m. CT, BTN+)

An unprecedented third win against a Big Ten program this season awaits Valpo with another solid performance this weekend. It’s already responsible for two of the Big Ten’s three non-conference home losses this season (Drake over Minnesota being the third), having beaten Illinois and Purdue in back-to-back games. The Crusaders made even more history with their 24-point win over Western Michigan over the weekend, their biggest victory over a MAC opponent in 24 years, before defeating Xavier for the first time in program history on Wednesday.

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