Scouting the Purple Aces

By Sean Carley, @SCarleyDE

Second place in the Missouri Valley Conference will be up for grabs Thursday when the Evansville Purple Aces come to town to take on the Salukis.

After Evansville’s loss Saturday to Indiana State, a win would put the Salukis (18-3, 7-1 MVC) two games ahead of the Aces (17-4, 6-2 MVC). A loss would put SIU in third place by virtue of a head-to-head tiebreaker. The difference between second and third will loom large once the conference tournament starts.

Evansville is coming into the contest hot even with its loss, winning 10 of its last 12 games. SIU is just as hot, winning 10 of its last 11, but the Dawgs have lost three of their last four to UE.

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MORE: Balentine vs. Beane at SIU for the last time

Fans can expect a high-scoring game featuring the Valley’s top-two offensive teams. Evansville leads the league at 77.9 points per game, while SIU is second at 77.1.

Evansville leads the league in field goal percentage at 52 percent and the Salukis are just behind with 47.6 percent. It seems the game will come down to which team can get more stops. Marty Simmons’ team is just as strong on defense, limiting opponents to a Valley-best 40.7 field goal percentage. Barry Hinson’s guys are sixth in the MVC, holding opponents to a 43.8 field goal percentage.

On offense, Evansville is led by two of the top seniors in the country: Guard D.J. Balentine and center Egidijus Mockevicius, who are first in the Valley in scoring and rebounding, respectively. They will matchup against Salukis who are second in the MVC in those statistics, senior guard Anthony Beane and junior center Bola Olaniyan. 

Saluki coach Barry Hinson said Balentine’s ability to draw fouls makes him a dangerous scorer. Balentine has made the second-most free throws (99) in the conference. He attempts an average of six free throws per game.

“The thing that bothers me about him is that he baits guys into getting fouls,” Hinson said. “He flops into them … I hate playing against guys like that, but I’d like to have one on my ball club.”

Balentine also draws attention for his passing ability, as he’s third in the Valley with 4.5 assists per game. 

The entire Purple Aces team likes to pass the ball, leading the league in assists with 19.4 per game, almost six more per game than second-place Wichita State.

In the post, the matchup will pit the top-two rebounders in the Valley against each other: the 6-foot-10 Mockevicius leads the country with 14.5 per game, and the 6-foot-7 Olaniyan is No. 2 in the MVC with 8.3.

Hinson said in 15 years of collegiate head coaching, he has not seen a better rebounder than Mockevicius.

“His stats speak for themselves,” he said. “He has so much girth and size. He just really cleans up the boards.”

Mockevicius is fourth in the Valley in scoring at 17 points per game and tied for second in the country with 17 double-doubles this season. The Saluki squad have five double-doubles combined this season.

Hinson said he is also concerned with Evansville senior guard Adam Wing, who shoots 62.5 percent from 3-point range. 

Overall, four Aces rank in the conference’s top 12 for field goal percentage — Balentine, Mockevicius, Wing and junior guard Jaylon Brown, who averages 11.2 points per game. SIU has two top-12 players — junior forward Sean O’Brien and junior guard Mike Rodriguez. 

The Purple Aces may get in trouble with turnovers; they have the fourth-most in the conference with 278. However, the Salukis are just behind them with 277.

If the teams perform to the best of their abilities, fans should be in for a compelling, back-and-forth matchup that will have huge postseason implications.

Sean Carley can be reached at [email protected] or at 618-536-3304.

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