The Missouri Valley is typically one of the toughest “mid-major” conferences in the country, and if the first month of the season is any indication, this year should be no exception.
At this point, it appears to be a three-team race with Creighton, Wichita State, and a somewhat surprising Northern Iowa squad vying for the title. Indiana State and Missouri State could also play themselves into the mix, but for the sake of space, I am focused on those first three teams.
While the national rankings would indicate the Bluejays are the favorite, I wanted to take a closer look at whether their advanced metrics back that up, particularly in the aftermath of their recent loss to Saint Joe’s. Does Creighton have what it takes to win it all? If you think so, you can find NCAA Championship lines here.
The one thing not up for debate is Doug McDermott’s status as the league’s top player. He is hitting 63.3 percent from two-point range and 60.6 percent from beyond the arc, which is good for a 70.7 eFG%. His DReb% is in the Top 50, and he’s a factor on the offensive glass as well.
Led by McDermott, the team has the top-rated eFG% and three-point shooting percentage in the nation. The other area where they excel offensively is at protecting the basketball, as evidenced by a TO% in the Top 50. Senior point guard Antoine Young deserves a lot of credit there, because even though his 23.0 usage rate is second on the team, his TO% is just 14.3.
However, there are some red flags for the team on both ends of the floor. Let’s start with rebounding. The Bluejays rank 157th in OReb%, and outside of McDermott and big man Gregory Echenique, there aren’t many impressive OReb% on the roster. Maybe it’s because they shoot the ball so well that they don’t expect misses, but when their shooting starts to normalize, their offensive rebounding rate simply has to improve. Creighton is doing an adequate job on the defensive glass, with opponents grabbing just over 30 percent of their misses. That said, their level of competition has ramped up in recent games, and three of their last four opponents have posted OReb% of at least 35.
From a turnover perspective, they rank 229th in opponents’ TO%, and five of their eight opponents have posted TO% of 18.5 or lower. This inability to regularly force turnovers has been compounded by poor eFG% defense. Creighton has allowed their last four opponents to average at least 1.02 points per possession, with three of those teams hitting at least 1.10 and posting an eFG% of at least 51.7 percent.
While the Bluejays have been on fire from beyond the arc, that has either directly or indirectly led to a poor 33.0 FT Rate overall. Their numbers have fluctuated rather wildly over the course of the season with a 50.0 FTR against Campbell and a 14.8 mark in the loss to Saint Joe’s. Given how inconsistent these numbers have been, it’s hard to draw a firm conclusion.
All that being said, the Bluejays have a tremendous player in McDermott and a solid point guard in Young, so this team should be able to score with just about anyone. However, they need to tighten things up on the glass and on defense if they want to compete in March.
After losing Kwazdo Ahelegbe and Lucas O’Rear, most people weren’t expecting much from the Panthers. They currently sit at 9-1 with their lone loss coming on the road at Saint Mary’s. It’s worth noting that game was part of the ESPN Tipoff Marathon and took place around 4:00 AM local time. That said, their remaining schedule hasn’t been overly challenging with just one other opponent in Pomeroy’s Top 100 (#78 Iowa State).
On offense, their recipe isn’t that much different than Creighton’s. They shoot better than 40 percent from beyond the arc as a team and do an effective job of limiting turnovers. The outside shooting is led by Anthony James (46.9 percent), Chip Rank (44.0 percent), and Jake Koch (42.9 percent). James is averaging 18.7 points over his last six games and ranks 35th nationally in TO% while drawing nearly five fouls per 40 minutes. Given his 27.1 usage rate, his 8.6 TO% is that much more impressive.
Koch is having a breakout season in his own right. He ranks 10th in the nation in TS%, because in addition to his gaudy three-point shooting numbers, he is hitting 65.4 percent of his twos and 90 percent from the free throw line. Koch’s FT Rate was an impressive 55.6 last year, but he’s actually increased it to 65.6 as a junior. Throw in a solid DReb%, a 4.5 block percentage, a 3.0 steal percentage, and the fact that as a 6-foot-9 forward his 25.6 assist rate is better than most guards, and you have a First-Team All-Conference performer.
The Panthers are struggling on the offensive glass and rank outside the Top 300 in OReb%. Outside of Koch, there isn’t a ton of size on this team (at least not with experience), and since he’s taken 35 of his 61 shots from beyond the arc, he’s obviously not always close to the basket when shots go awry.
Their 40.1 FT Rate is good but not great, and since they shoot nearly 75 percent from the stripe as a team, it certainly would be in their best interest to be more aggressive at attacking the basket. So far, 41.7 percent of their field goal attempts have been from three-point range.
As has been the case in recent years, defense is their calling card. They currently boast the 45th ranked defense on KenPom and rank in the Top 70 in three of the four factors. Ironically, they rate highest in preventing offensive rebounds, allowing opponents to corral just 28.6 percent of their own misses. Freshman Seth Tuttle has a 22.1 DReb% and complements Koch nicely on the boards, while junior Austin Pehl has posted a DReb% over 30, albeit in limited action.
The Panthers have also done a solid job of preventing opponents from getting to the stripe, but they’ve also been adept at forcing turnovers. You simply cannot underrate the ability to play pressure defense without fouling, and Northern Iowa has to do that due to their general lack of shot-blocking. The absence of a reliable shot-blocker is a key factor in allowing their opponents to shot 48.5 percent from two-point range. That will continue to be an area to watch as the season goes on, but the Panthers have done a solid job at defending the three-point line.
Northern Iowa is the dark horse in this race, but their defense and three-point shooting should allow them to stay in most games.
The Shockers lost to Alabama and Temple in Puerto Rico, but they have won six straight games since returning, including a 19-point win over UNLV. And while they have more losses than their two main competitors, they also have the best mix of offense and defense, at least according to their efficiency numbers.
With five seniors and two juniors among their core rotation, Wichita State is one of the most experienced teams in the country. The fact that six of those seven have an ORtg of at least 102.3 (with four of them over 110.0) is just icing on the cake.
David Kyles, Joe Ragland, and Ben Smith all make at least 40 percent of their three-pointers, and Garrett Stutz and Carl Hall complement them with a strong inside presence. Those two also lead the squad in OReb% and are the main reasons why the Shockers are 9th in the nation in DReb%.
Like their MVC foes, Wichita State does a solid job of protecting the ball, thanks in large part to the point guard play of Toure’ Murry, who boasts a 24.4 assist rate and draws nearly six fouls per 40 minutes.
On the defensive end, the Shockers are holding opponents to just 26.8 percent from beyond the arc, although their two-point defense could use some work. Similarly, they rank in the middle of the pack in TO%
Free throw rate is another area of opportunity on both ends of the floor. Wichita State’s FT Rate has fluctuated over the course of the season, ranging from 13.3 against Colorado up to 60.9 against Tulsa. The Shockers rank outside of the Top 200 in opponents’ FT Rate, and their foes have posted a rate of at least 40 in five of their last eight games.
Offensively they’ve made strides since the beginning of the season when they scored less than 1.00 points per possession in three of their first four games. However, they posted a ridiculous 1.51 ppp against UNLV and have scored at least 1.18 ppp in each of the last four games.
It’s hard not to like Wichita State’s mix of depth and experience as well as their ability to control the glass. They have six players who can score in double figures on any given night, which should help them through the highs and lows over the course of the conference season.
The MVC is among the conferences that play a true round robin schedule with each of the 10 teams facing off against each other twice. There are things to like and things to question about each of these squads, but it should be one of the most hotly contested conference races this season. That much I know.