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Once again, the Missouri Valley Conference season title will come down to these two teams. Some may not remember this, but Wichita State actually finished with the better conference record last year, two wins better than Creighton en route to a 5-seed in the NCAA Tourney. Of course, they ended up losing their last two games, first to Illinois State in the MVC tournament and then to 12-seed VCU.
Nevertheless, we're here again with the final conference seedings being on the line. Creighton boasts one loss (vs. Boise State) and the No. 12 AP ranking. Their best non-conference wins came against Wisconsin and Arizona State on a neutral court in the same tournament. That's about all the competition they've had. In MVC play, they are already 6-0 and haven't had much trouble with anyone, but four of those games have been at home. Their closest game was a road one at Illinois State even though they led for most of the game.
The Shockers have kind of the same story, but with two losses against average foes. They both came on the road, one at Tennessee and the other a week ago at Evansville. In just their second game of the season, they got revenge on VCU in Virginia. Their other big win came at a neutral site against a solid Iowa squad. They haven't been as dominant in the MVC as the Bluejays have been, but a 25-point win over Northern Iowa shows they have what it takes.
Last year, the series between these two schools was split. Surprisingly, they each won on the road with Wichita State winning by 21 in their last meeting. Their positions have changed from a year ago for one main reason: The Shockers lost all five of their starters from the 2011-12 season. The fact that they are still a 16-2 team with loads of injuries says something about what Head Coach Greg Marshall has been able to do.
His teams are often ridiculously balanced and you can see that just by looking at their minutes. They currently have 12 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. Obviously, that number will probably go down as conference play continues and a lot of that has to do with injuries, but even then you don't see that many players finding quality court time. Somehow, the Shockers have kept the winning vibe going after three starters went down with injury. Carl Hall returned Wednesday night, Ron Baker should return in a couple weeks and Evan Wessel is out for the season.
While those three guys have been out, three of the older players have stepped up in a big way. Cleanthony Early is averaging 19 points over his last eight games which includes a huge 39-point outburst against Southern Illinois on Jan. 9. Malcolm Armstead and Demetric Williams have seen their minutes increase by more than five per game since those injuries occurred. Their overall numbers have shot up, but most noticeably in the defensive department where the two are now averaging a combined 3.7 steals combined per game.
That defensive presence will be needed against the current player of the year frontrunner, Doug McDermott. The Shockers get to face McDermott at the wrong time as he's gone off for 70 points over the last two games hitting 66% of his shots. At 6'8", he's a pain for anyone to deal with and also leads the team with 7.2 rebounds per game. Gregory Echenique takes the backseat to McDermott offensively, but his physical presence helps on the offensive glass when McDermott does miss. Grant Gibbs and Austin Chatman are the other two players to watch out for. The two average a combined 10.7 assists per game, most of them going to McDermott. They can score as well, but only when called upon.
Stopping McDermott might not be in the cards, but if Carl Hall can get his offense going in his second game back from injury, the Shockers will have a much better chance to win. Our models predicted score here is Creighton 67 Wichita St 65
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