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Missouri Valley wins NCAA notice

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The Missouri Valley Conference has five teams among the top 40 in Ken Pomeroy's online replica of the Rating Percentage Index.

The Atlantic Coast Conference has four.

Want to bet which one gets more teams in the NCAA tournament?

The 10-team MVC won't make an appearance on ESPN or ESPN2 this month, but at least the NCAA pays attention.

Last year the Missouri Valley had three NCAA teams in Creighton, Northern Iowa and Southern Illinois, and it's making a serious push for more this March.

Indiana State, which is probably the MVC's eighth-best team, has a win over Indiana. Northern Iowa already has two losses in conference play, but good wins over Iowa and LSU. Creighton, the Omaha school that turned Kyle Korver into a second-team All-American in 2003, is another 4-2 team in MVC play. Its nonconference victims include Xavier and Nebraska.

The only unbeaten in MVC play is Southern Illinois, which received its fourth straight at-large bid last season.

That run began in 2002, when the Salukis reached the Sweet 16. A year later, they lost their squeaky-voiced coach to Illinois. Bruce Weber was then replaced by Matt Painter. When Painter took the Purdue job in 2004, Chris Lowery stopped being a Weber assistant with the Fighting Illini and returned to his alma mater.

"What you see at Illinois, that started here," Lowery said. "We defend, run motion and grind it out. We understand how to guard people."

Southern Illinois has not lost since November. After disturbing losses to Monmouth and Division II Alaska-Anchorage in the Great Alaska Shootout, Lowery inserted freshman Bryan Mullins at the point. He has leaned on Jamaal Tatum, a 6-1 junior who leads the Salukis in scoring and assists.

Lowery isn't fooling when he says that his players know how to defend. Southern Illinois allows just 54.7 points a game, and no visitor to Carbondale has scored more than 55 this season.

The Salukis' 31-game home winning streak is the longest in the nation, and they've won 40 straight MVC games there. The conference record is 41, set most recently by Cincinnati from 1957 to 1964, an era that encompassed Oscar Robertson.

The SIU Arena opened in 1964, when Walt Frazier was a sophomore guard for the Salukis. Lowery has a personal 55-game home winning streak as a player, assistant coach and head coach, as his last loss there came in 1994, when he was a senior point guard for Southern Illinois.

Lowery, 33, is the seventh-youngest coach in Division I. He's on the road tomorrow at Drake.

Unbeaten watch

Duke, Florida and Pittsburgh are the nation's only unbeatens.

Lee Humphrey, a junior guard for the Gators, leads the nation in three-point shooting. They figure to be 17-0 when they go to Tennessee on Jan. 21.

The Panthers have left town once all season, but they have three road games next week - at Louisville on Sunday, Rutgers next Wednesday and St. John's on Jan. 21.

Rutgers nearly got its biggest win in years Wednesday when No. 3 Villanova escaped New Jersey with an overtime win. Byron Joynes, a 6-9 junior center out of Towson Catholic, wears a harness to stabilize his injured left shoulder, but he leads the Scarlet Knights in rebounding.

Randallstown's Marcus Cousin is the second-leading rebounder for Big East rival Seton Hall.

Tap-ins

It won't be the same without Bob Huggins, but No. 25 Cincinnati goes to Xavier on Thursday to renew what might be the most heated intra-city rivalry in the nation. The Musketeers' only losses came to Illinois in Chicago and at Creighton. ... Wyoming had struggled before Wednesday's Mountain West win over Air Force, but Justin Williams, the Cowboys' 6-10 senior, is No. 2 in the nation in blocks (6.1) and 11th in rebounds (10.5). ... Gerry McNamara is having trouble with his shot, but the Syracuse senior leads the Big East in assists. ... Six Big East teams are in the Top 25 and half of the league's 16 teams received votes in this week's Associated Press poll.

paul.mcmullen@baltsun.com

AROUND THE PERIMETER

GAME OF THE WEEK

No. 3 Villanova@No. 8 Texas, tomorrow, 1 p.m., chs. 13, 9 -- The Longhorns have rebounded nicely from embarrassing losses to Duke and Tennessee, with a victory at No. 5 Memphis included in their current five-game winning streak. In Daniel Gibson and Kenton Paulino, Texas has some quick guards, but not enough to keep up with Villanova's foursome. Watch the Wildcats deny the entry to LaMarcus Aldridge, the Longhorns' sophomore center who stands fourth in the nation in field-goal percentage.

LOCAL FRONT

Coppin State -- The Eagles finally play their home opener tomorrow night against Norfolk State. Fang Mitchell's team started 0-12 with one of the nation's most difficult nonconference schedules, but looked none the worse for wear last weekend in Florida, where it began Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference play with wins at Bethune-Cookman and Florida A&M.; Darryl Proctor, a 6-foot-4 sophomore, had a double double against Bethune-Cookman.

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