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Mike Lopresti | | January 18, 2016

Evansville basketball: Aces pushing for NCAA tournament berth

  Yes, you. Egidijus Mockevicius is the nation's leading rebounder.

EVANSVILLE, Ind. – You can find college basketball statistical giants in the most unexpected places.

The nation’s leading rebounder? That’d be Egidijus Mockevicius, sweeping them off the backboard at 14.3 a game for Evansville, while tormenting public address and radio announcers throughout the Missouri Valley Conference.

The leading active career scorer in all Division I? D.J. Balentine, with 2,168 points. Scores from everywhere for Evansville.

The coach who has turned around his alma mater by getting his players to move, cut, look and pass? Whose offense is the second surest shooting in the nation, and third best in handing out assists, with 71.7 percent of its field goals coming off someone’s helpful pass?

Who’s original claim to fame was being an Indiana player on the floor when Bob Knight sent that famous chair flying, and indeed whose foul call that day was one of the lit matches to Knight’s temper?

Marty Simmons. Coach of Evansville.

So who’s 16-3, and becoming increasingly convinced that its time has finally come in the MVC? Right. Evansville.

"`I think we’re getting close. I’m not sure we’re quite there yet,’’ Simmons was saying.

We call your attention to the Purple Aces not only because Mockevicius grabs nearly every rebound within reach, and has too little ego to wonder where he ranks nationally.  ``I don’t care about that,’’ he said. ``You probably know more about it than I do.’’

And not just because Balentine, averaging 21.2 points a game at the moment, is one of the best players who might need a name card for much of the nation. ``He’s been pretty consistent for 3 ½ years,’’ Simmons said. ``He gets the best defender every night, but he just scores in so many different ways. It’s been pretty special.’’

And not just because an Evansville game can be a passing clinic when things are working right. ``Our offense is just a constant movement,’’ Balentine said. ``So when you’re open, a guy is going to hit you. It is constant unselfishness out there.’’

But also because of how much they want deliverance in March. They won the CIT last year, and that was exhilarating, but the banner in their practice facility honors the 1999 Evansville team that made it to the NCAA Tournament. The last Evansville team to do it. Seventeen years.

They never forget that banner. Simmons has speakers from the '99 team in to speak to his current bunch. The mission is impossible to miss, especially for seniors down to their last chance.

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``We understand what’s at stake, and we understand how long it’s been,’’ Balentine said.

Mockevicius takes it further. When he was recruited here from Lithuania, he didn’t have a clue where Evansville was located. Now he wants to leave behind a tournament banner.  ``We’re not going to settle for anything less. If we don’t get there, it’s going to be a disaster in my opinion. I mean, it’s my last year, and I want to achieve this.’’

One problem in progress has been the Missouri Valley Conference. There has been a pecking order of really good teams, starting with Wichita State, and Evansville has had to stand back in the line.

But maybe not anymore. The Aces are 5-1 in the league, the lone defeat 67-64 at Wichita, which was not enough to suggest a coup was imminent, but close enough to suggest Evansville is a threat.

``I do think it’s probably as much confidence as a team’s had since I’ve been the head coach,’’ said Simmons. Next challenge: Play consistently for 40 minutes. ``If we’re ever able to achieve that, I think that’s the last step for us to be truly confident that we can compete for a championship.’’

After transferring from Indiana, Simmons was sixth in the nation in scoring his senior year here in 1988 and led the Aces to the NIT. Now expectations are even higher for his players, and his family. One of his starters is son Blake.

``I can’t hide from it. We’re going to be judged on where we go from here,’’ Simmons said. ``That’s the beauty of it, and sometimes it can be the ugly, but that’s the reality.’’

So while all those shiny Evansville stats are nice, listen to the leading career scorer in college basketball.

"`That’s a great accomplishment to have. I have to thank my teammates and coaches for putting me in that position,’’ Balentine said. ``But my biggest one is to make it to the NCAA Tournament. Every year I’ve watched every team play from my TV at home. It’s hard to watch. I really want to be there. The scoring is fantastic, and I am very blessed to have that, but my No. 1 goal is the NCAA Tournament, and whatever that takes, I’ll do.’’

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