Northern Iowa upended Iowa State on Saturday night, picking up its second win over a top five-ranked opponent this season, and making a case to be ranked in the Top 25.
Meanwhile, Missouri Valley preseason favorite Wichita State is trying to find consistency after a rocky start to its season, in which it has struggled with injuries and depth.
Everyone is talking about Northern Iowa’s success and Wichita State’s struggles, but most are overlooking the third team in the Valley, one that could wreck havoc on the conference this season–Evansville.
The Purple Aces are 9-2 so far this season, with losses against Providence and at Arkansas. But despite their solid record and consistently good play, the Aces’ early-season success has mostly been under the radar of the mainstream media.
Part of the problem is that Evansville’s best two wins have come against mid-majors, Belmont and Murray State. Belmont is a team with bracket-buster potential, so that win looks good. However, the win over Murray State doesn’t carry a ton of weight this year.
Without a true marquee win, the Aces haven’t been able to draw much attention this season. Had they knocked off Providence or Arkansas, it would be a totally different story.
Instead, the Aces are still looking for their first big-time win. Luckily, they’ll have their chances in conference play against Wichita State and Northern Iowa. But the fact of the matter is we shouldn’t wait until the Aces knock off a conference power before we bother to pay attention to them — they deserve our attention now.
And it’s time we take notice.
Many believe Wichita State’s Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are the best duo in the Valley, and for good reason. The senior duo led the Shockers to a Final Four appearance and perfect regular season, and turned the program into a national power.
But Evansville has its own talented duo — seniors D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius — it owes its success to, and they may be just as good as Baker and VanVleet. Together, they form one of the best inside-out combinations in college basketball.
Balentine leads the team in scoring and assists per game. His 21.8 ppg also leads the conference, while his 5.4 apg ranks second.
Meanwhile, Mockevicius is second on the team and fourth in the conference in scoring (17.5 ppg), but makes his biggest impact on the boards — his 13.5 rpg ranks second nationally. Oh, and he also averages just under three blocks per game.
Put them together, and it’s hard to find two players who make a bigger statistical contribution to their team.
Behind Balentine and Mockevicius, the Aces have built the Valley’s best offensive team. They lead the conference in virtually every offensive statistical category — scoring, scoring margin, assists, shooting percentage and free throw percentage.
With an offense as efficient as that, the Aces have a legitimate shot to upset Wichita State and Northern Iowa and win the Valley this season. The only question that remains is, why wait until they do it to start paying attention?