December 28, 2023
‘No one predicted this’: MVC teams prepare for challenging regular season
Preseason favorite UNI struggles; Belmont on the rise
When the University of Northern Iowa topped the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) preseason poll for the first time in school history in October, not many could have predicted what would happen over the next several months of non-conference play.
After opening the season with a win 78-67 over Green Bay at home Nov. 6, the Panthers would go on to lose their next eight games. Riddled with injuries and playing one of the nation’s toughest schedules, head coach Tanya Warren’s squad has been in a rut and lacking confidence headed into conference play this weekend. At 1-8, they are behind the 5-4 record they carried into the conference season last year.
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“We have to get better in all facets of the game — rebounding, defending, understanding what we’re trying to do defensively,” she told reporters at a weekly press conference on Dec. 11 after losing 78-59 to South Dakota State that weekend at home. “We have to get back to the basics of the game and get better in all facets and try to get healthy. We are what we are right now. I really trust and believe that this team is going to get better.”
The injury bug has bit UNI all season. Junior guard Maya McDermott, last season’s MVC Most Improved Player, was injured during the Nov. 12 sold-out game against then No. 3 Iowa. She missed the next game against Ball State, but has come back to full force, tying her career high of 23 points against North Dakota State and breaking that with 30 points against Iowa State on Dec. 21. MVC Preseason Player of the Year Grace Boffeli injured her left arm early in a Nov. 29 game against South Dakota and missed the last three games of the nonconference schedule. It is unclear when she will be able to return to court.
“We’re damaged but we’re not destroyed. We’re going to be OK. We just have to come to work, we have to embrace where we are,” Warren said. “No one predicted this, we don’t like it, but it is what it is and we have to find a way to claw ourselves out of it. As long as we come to work and we embrace that we are not a very good team right now, we have the potential to get better.”
“Here’s the beauty — we haven’t lost a conference game yet. There’s still 80% of our season left, so there’s a lot to look forward to but it starts with our ability to self-reflect, to call a spade a spade and find a way to get better,” she continued.
The Panthers open conference play this Saturday against 6-3 Missouri State in Springfield, Mo.
Belmont impresses, adds Power 5 experience
Despite being picked fourth in the MVC preseason poll, Belmont may just be the team to beat in 2024. After a rollercoaster first week, the Bruins head into conference play 7-4, with Power 5 wins against Georgia and Northwestern in tow. Additionally, all four of their losses came against Power 5 teams.
“We’ve been a little up and down, just in terms of a rough start at Missouri [72-61]; probably played as poorly as we played in a long time. And then that same week we came back and played as well as we’ve played in a long time against Georgia [76-50],” head coach Bart Brooks told The Next. “Obviously, the consistency of production is still something we’re working on. We’ve been good against some really good teams. And then some of our poorer performances have been wins, but we haven’t played great. There’s still a lot to work on, but I’m happy with our group.”
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Belmont turned heads last season, their first in the conference, after they nearly toppled then-No. 7 Louisville and then-No. 23 Villanova in non-conference play. They went 17-3 in MVC play, tying for first with Illinois State, and placed second in the MVC Tournament. Despite their success, the Bruins’ top two scorers, forward Madison Bartley and guard Destinee Wells, entered the transfer portal for 2023–24. While disappointed, Brooks says he stays focused on the players he has on his team, not those he lost.
“Our program has never been about a player, it’s been about our team,” Brooks said. “We’ve got a really strong core leadership group, they show up every day and work really hard. Just because they hadn’t produced at that level in years past doesn’t mean it’s not in them to do that. And when given the opportunity, they’ve done a great job of leading a team, of showing that they’re more than capable of keeping the ship afloat offensively, and defensively we’re a lot better than we were last year and the last couple of years.”
The Bruins held top-five ranked Stanford to a season-low 74 points Nov. 22 at the 2023 Ball Dawgs Classic in Las Vegas. Despite the 19-point loss, Belmont played toe-to-toe with Stanford throughout much of the game, limiting Stanford to 38 percent (27-of-71) shooting, its lowest mark of the season.
Along with veteran leaders forward Tessa Miller and guard Tuti Jones, freshman guard Jailyn Banks has started her collegiate career strong, having been named MVC Freshman of the Week three times already.
“She’s learning on the fly at the point guard position. We’ve thrown her to the wolves early and she has responded beautifully,” Brooks said of Banks. “We’re giving her some really big assignments defensively and she’s accepted that challenge. Obviously with her talent and skills, we put the ball in her hands. That’s what separates her, and she’s shown she’s able to compete with some really good people.”
Along with toppling Georgia by 26 points, Belmont also throttled Northwestern, 83-61. They lost a 63-62 heartbreaker to Mississippi State, and were outmatched by ranked Stanford (74-55) and Ohio State (84-55).
Playing these Power 5 teams gives Belmont the exposure to high level programs, which will be crucial if they expect to play the postseason.
“It gives us an opportunity to know what works and what doesn’t against that level. Our players have a lot of confidence to go and play those teams, and we’ve found a way to compete with them,” Brooks said.
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Heading into his second season in the MVC, Brooks knows more to expect this year now that he has played each team rather than just scouting them.
“Having been through it, understanding what it’s like to play each team and each coach; everyone’s a little bit different,” he said. “There’s a lot of distinct styles in the Missouri Valley. I think seeing it on film and then living through it and playing against it are two very different things. I think we have a lot better understanding of what the league is and what we’ve got to do as a team to compete with each program.”
The Bruins open conference play this Saturday against 7-4 University of Illinois Chicago in Nashville, Tenn.
Don’t forget about Drake
Drake, the reigning MVC Tournament champions, ranked second in the preseason poll and will also enter conference play at 7-4 with an impressive win over a Power 5 team.
The Bulldogs started the season 4-0 after they defeated in-state rival Iowa State 85-73 at home. Their first loss came at the hands of then-No. 2 Iowa at sold-out Carver Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City. Caitlin Clark and the high-octane Hawkeyes were too much for Drake, winning 113-90, despite five Bulldogs scoring in double figures.
“If you like fast-paced, up-tempo, put-the-ball-in-the hole basketball, we gave you some entertainment,” Drake Head Coach Allison Pohlman told reporters after the game. “I’m proud of our team to come in and not stop fighting. We put our best foot forward, we adjusted as the game went on.”
In another Power 5 matchup, Drake took then 6-1 Minnesota to double overtime behind Kate Dinnebier’s 30 points, before eventually falling 94-88 in Minneapolis.
Facing tough competition, no matter what the result, has prepared Drake for the rest of the season.
“We’ve had to adjust to on-ball screens, we’ve had to adjust to zone defenses, we’ve had to adjust to offenses that jam us, people that deny us, people that sag,” Pohlman told The Next after defeating North Dakota State at home on Dec. 8. “All of those different looks are preparing us for a whole diversified sort of Missouri Valley Conference play, and I think it’s exactly what we need.”
The Bulldogs open conference play this Saturday against 5-5 Southern Illinois in Carbondale, Ill.
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Also in the mix
Four other MVC teams enter conference play with winning records: Murray State (7-2), Illinois State (7-3), Missouri State (6-3) and UIC (7-4).
UIC Head Coach Ashleen Bracey told The Next this week that her team is ready for the MVC schedule.
“We’ve played pretty much every style that you can think of, and I think it will put us in a good position to compete in our conference,” she said.
In their second game of the season Nov. 9, the Flames took cross-town rival Northwestern to overtime, falling 92-86. In their final game of the nonconference schedule, UIC played another Power 5 team tough, losing to Arkansas 66-58 in the West Palm Beach Classic in Florida. Even with the losses, Bracey said her team took away valuable lessons.
“We know that we can pretty much play with anybody,” she said. “But being able to come up with those wins against tough teams comes down to execution down the stretch and discipline. That’s something that some other teams have an advantage with because they’ve been together in terms of their core group longer than we have. We have eight new kids joining seven returners, so we’re building chemistry every day.”
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In her second year as UIC’s head coach, Bracey feels more prepared for the rigorous conference schedule as UIC enters its second season in the MVC.
“Just knowing what to expect, understanding the quick turnaround in our league in terms of Friday-Sunday games or Thursday-Saturday games; that’s a big adjustment,” she said. “Also one of the things that I learned last year as a first-year head coach was with the Valley’s depth in terms of schedule, the way that we play a 20-game schedule, you need depth on your team in order to be able to compete. One of the things we really focused on this offseason was adding depth to our roster so that we would put ourselves in a position to compete down the stretch.”
“But I think the thing that gets easy to do in Valley play is to start focusing on what everybody else does because you’re playing so many games. And so what we’re really trying to lock into this conference season is just really building on what we do and making people adjust to us,” she added.
The MVC’s 120-game conference season begins this Saturday, Dec. 30, with a full slate of games as all 12 Valley teams open league play. With six Valley teams in the top-150 of the NCAA NET Rankings, 2024 conference play may prove challenging for everyone.