NORMAL, Ill. — In the off-season, the Wichita State Shockers made the move from the Missouri Valley Conference to the American Athletic Conference.
The move added stiffer competition for the Shockers and bolstered the talent level of the AAC as a conference. At the same time, it opened up the Missouri Valley Conference and made the race for the league title much more exciting than in year’s past.
The Missouri State Bears came into the season as the preseason favourites, and have lived up to the bill through three games. Coming into Sunday’s contest against the Illinois State Redbirds, the Bears are one of just two teams who are still undefeated in Missouri Valley Conference play, along with the Drake Bulldogs (4-0).
Missouri State has won four straight games, and will be looking to move to 4-0 in conference play. The Redbirds won’t make things easy, as they are coming off a loss that ended their own four-game winning streak. On their home floor, Illinois State will be looking to start a new winning streak at the expense of the Bears.
ST. LOUIS, Mo. — Seven days ago Dequon Miller forecasted the future. He knew his final Arch Madness would be special.
“Our run is coming at Arch Madness.”
In six words, he gave a personal warning to the whole Missouri Valley Conference. And, now, nationally ranked Wichita State will be his and the Missouri State Bears‘ next victim.
What makes me so sure? There are four reasons the Shockers will lose in the semi-finals for a third consecutive season.
From the days of Toure’ Murry and Garrett Stutz to Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, Gregg Marshall’s Wichita State have won Arch Madness just once in the past seven years.
Regardless of possessing a two seed or higher, Wichita State has failed to play on Sunday five times. These squads have possessed some of the best “The Valley” had to offer. Six different Shockers have earned All-MVC first team honors over the tenure, including the latest duo of VanVleet and Baker being named a top-five player three consecutive years.
Though, just one championship was won (2014).
Illinois State, the current top-seed at Arch Madness, has “upset” Wichita State three of the six seasons while Northern Iowa, Creighton, and Indiana State each downed the notorious once.
Yes, the one team that hasn’t is Missouri State. Though, it just takes one time to “Shock the World.”
After all, two of the five semi-final teams to defeat Wichita State have etched their names into the field of 68 the day after.
If I have said it once, I have said it four million teams: Missouri State has GREAT depth.
Even without junior guard Ronnie Rousseau III (11.6 PPG), the Bears have eight players who average over five points per game. The group is led by All-MVC first teamer Alize Johnson, who has recorded 17 double-doubles on the season and is averaging a double-double, and stat-stuffer Dequon Miller. Yet, the x-factors are Jarred Dixon, Jarrid Rhodes, and Obediah Church. All three had their fingerprints on last night’s 70-64 victory over Northern Iowa (which was UNI’s first loss in St. Louis since 2014).
Church, an All-Defensive team selection, anchored the defense and grabbed 11 rebounds going against Panthers’ juniors Bennett Koch and Klint Carlson. Rhodes, although he only scored five points, grabbed four rebounds in 15 minutes while helping the Bears to a positive five in plus/minus.
Dixon’s impact could not have been more important. He was 10-of-10 in free throws, six of which came in the final 46 seconds. Ironically, it was only the sophomore’s FIRST game at Scottrade Center (he missed last year’s tournament due to injury).
Church, Rhodes, and Dixon will have to play tremendously to send the Bears to their first Arch Madness championship since 2011. Yet, their play is as crucial as a trio of seasoned sharpshooters.
42.4 percent, 36.4 percent, and 32.1 percent; these are the three-point shooting percentages of Ryan Kreklow, Austin Ruder, and Chris Kendrix.
The trio only combines for 17 of Missouri State’s 73 points per contest; however, one triple can sway momentum as a right hand to the temple.
All three have started games for head coach Paul Lusk. In fact, a combined 103 games have been started by the assassins. Moreover, their points per game averages are the lowest it has been in their respective college careers.
With the depth and unselfish nature of Missouri State basketball, neither Kreklow, Ruder, nor Kendrix needs to produce ten points a night. However, this season each have had outbursts of 15+ plus points. All are extremely capable, and today will be the day that they let the nation know they are high-level marksmen from downtown.
4. THE Dynamic Duo
Argue with me if you prefer, but the best guard/big man duo in the Missouri Valley Conference is none other than Dequon Miller and Alize Johnson.
Responsible for 30.5 points during conference play, Miller and Johnson are the second highest scoring two-man tandem behind Loyola’s Milton Doyle and Donte Ingram.
Johnson, individually, has had SEVEN double-doubles featuring 15 or more rebounds. In other words, Johnson may be the most valuable big man since Northern Iowa’s Seth Tuttle (and we all remember how he guided the Panthers to an Arch Madness championship in 2015).
On the other hand, Miller, when shooting more than 10 times in a game is lethally productive with 15.4 points per game.
In fact, when comparing the Charleston, West Virginia, product’s senior MVC season to Wichita State legend Fred VanVleet, Miller is averaging two more points per game (14.9 > 12.6). Yes, VanVleet had nearly three more assists per contest (6.4 > 3.5), but his scoring prowess in nowhere close to the Bears’ two-year star.
Miller and Johnson will have outstanding games this afternoon at Scottrade Center.
NORMAL, Ill. — Entering Wednesday night’s full schedule, three teams were a perfect 2-0 in Missouri Valley Conference play.
Two of them faced off at Redbird Arena.
In a matchup that gave fans a taste of Arch Madness, Missouri State went cold at the wrong time, scoring just 4 points in the final 3:40, and was defeated, 74-71. Jarrid Rhodes led the way with 19 points.
“They were really good defensively,” said Missouri State head coach Paul Lusk. “I give them a lot of credit, they are good defensively. But, we had some opportunities in overtime. We didn’t capitalize.”
Both teams came out of the gates scoring; a total of 20 points were scored before the first media timeout.
A triple by Paris Lee, his second in the opening minutes, pushed the Redbirds ahead, 15-8. Daouda Ndiaye’s only point supplied a game-high nine-point lead at the 11:59-mark in the first half.
Although Missouri State’s offense was stagnant during an eight-minute segment, the Bears eventually broke out of their slump.
Spurred by two points from Alize Johnson, Missouri State went on a 10-0 run. Back-to-back triples by Jarrid Rhodes and Dequon Miller continued the offense while a layup by Jordan Martin capped it off and provided a 24-23 edge.
The Bears, despite seven made Illinois State free throws, kept an advantage going into halftime, 34-32.
As the second half opened, Missouri State and Illinois State could not miss coming out of the break. The teams, upping the ante, combined for 30 points in the first five minutes. At the same time, the Redbirds knotted the score at 48.
For the majority of the half, the two squads traded baskets. Or, that was until five of Deontae Hawkins‘ 20 points propelled the Redbirds to a two-possession lead with 9:40 left in regulation. The two offenses appeared unstoppable.
Then, out of nowhere, offensive lulls affected both teams. In fact, for nearly five minutes, neither team scored a single point.
Thankfully, Missouri State’s Rhodes broke the drought, pulling the Bears within two. Moments later, back-to-back triples, one from Chris Kendrix and another by Rhodes, provided the first lead since 11:18 remaining in the second half.
Four unanswered by Illinois State seized a two-point advantage, 64-62.
Following a Kendrix turnover and missed jumper by Miller, Lusk’s crew had one last chance to take the lead or force overtime.
Rhodes answered the call.
Driving left, the junior swished a fadeaway above the elbow, tying the score.
We were heading to overtime.
Despite Rhodes opening up the five minutes with a three-pointer, seven unanswered Illinois State points put the Redbirds up four with a minute left. All Illinois State had to do was make free throws and they would win the game. The task turned out to be easier said than done.
“I was shooting them regular,” said Illinois State’s MiKyle McIntosh, who missed five free throws in the final minute. “They were going in and out, so it was getting me frustrated. I think, towards the end, I was kinda thinking too much.”
By making just 3-of-10 free throw attempts in the final minute, the Redbirds left the door open for the Bears to again force an extra period.
Ryan Kreklow, who made three triples starting for Ronnie Rousseau III, air balled a game-winning attempt at the horn. The sophomore was trying to draw a foul as Illinois State looked to send him to the free throw line.
A red sea of 4,107 erupted.
Illinois State’s “Big Three” of MiKyle McIntosh, Deontae Hawkins, and Paris Lee combined for a total of 52 points and 23 rebounds. McIntosh, who made a career-high 10 free throws, scored a season-high 21 points on the night while Hawkins posted 20.
Even with Missouri State’s Dequon Miller neutralizing him, Paris Lee recorded his second double-double of the season. Unlike his first, rebounds was the category that complemented his 11 points.
“We were boxing out for him [while] he was running in there getting the rebounds,” said McIntosh of Paris Lee’s 10-rebound evening.
In total, the Redbirds shot 34 free throws, as opposed to 7 by Missouri State. Moreover, 23 of Illinois State’s 74 points came from the charity stripe.
“Overall, they just killed us getting to the foul line,” Lusk said.
After a 1-of-4 start, Jarrid Rhodes had his best game in a Bears’ uniform. The JUCO transfer scored 16 of his 19 in the 2nd half and overtime. The junior appears to be finding his groove in Division I basketball and is averaging 12 points per game in his past three.
“There was no pressure out there,” said Rhodes. “Guys would just see me — Dequon Miller, Ryan Kreklow. I just felt really comfortable out there on both ends.”
Outside of Rhodes, only Ryan Kreklow ended up in double-digits. He had 11 points.
Following a 30-point, 15-rebound performance, Alize Johnson was contained to 7 points and 10 rebounds in 21 minutes.
“The guys that were out — they were doing a nice job,” explained Lusk of Johnson’s limited playing time. “They went to some zone and the guys that were out there had it figured out. We did some good stuff. We rode those guys.”
Senior Dequon Miller tied a career-high with 8 assists.
Still undefeated in conference play, 11-4 (3-0) Illinois State is flying on a 4-game winning streak. The Redbirds will take flight to Terre Haute, Indiana, to face the Indiana State Sycamores on Saturday. Illinois State has not won at the Hulman Center since 2007.
11-5 (2-1) Missouri State, now 0-1 in 2017, travels home for a two-game homestand versus Southern Illinois and Evansville.
“It’s one game. It’s about what I thought our guys would do,” Lusk said. “It was good to see. when we struggled in this environment early on, how we responded. This team is going to keep growing.”
– P. Wesner
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