Player of the year candidate Doug McDermott has dominated the national spotlight all season. After Wichita State's 67-64 win Saturday against Creighton, it's clear once again that McDermott's Bluejays aren't the only Missouri Valley Conference team demanding headlines.

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The Shockers moved into the USA TODAY Sports Coaches Poll, at No. 21, on Monday for the first time this season. Creighton dropped two spots, to 10th.

After sixth-year coach Gregg Marshall lost four starters from last season's MVC regular-season champion and NCAA tournament team, he was left with a roster full of what he described as "unknowns."

"I think it has to do with culture, but I also think it has to do with the character of guys we recruit," Marshall said of his team's unexpected 17-2 start. "You don't read about our guys in the news. If there's a high school player who has a little bit of trouble and there's a player who isn't as talented but will work hard, who do you think I'm going to get?"

Those unknowns, led by junior college transfer Cleanthony Early (15.4 points per game), jumped out to a 9-0 start. Shortly after their first loss of the season, to Tennessee, the Shockers were dealt a huge blow when one of the team's best players — senior forward Carl Hall — sustained a thumb injury in practice. Wichita State went 6-1 without Hall.

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Hall, who averages 13.2 points and 8.3 rebounds, was back to form in WSU's win against Creighton. He finished with 17 points and 13 rebounds in just his second game back and spent a good chunk of the night guarding McDermott, the nation's second-leading scorer.

Marshall's diverse group of newcomers and returning role players have gotten the job done. And if the Shockers aren't able to punch an automatic ticket to the NCAA tournament, they once again have an appealing Big Dance rèsumè with wins against two ranked teams — Creighton and VCU in November — and the team's RPI of 15 is also tournament-worthy.

Big men Early and Hall have meshed well with the backcourt of Oregon transfer Malcolm Armstead (9.5 points a game) and senior Demetric Williams (8.6 points a game). The Shockers have also been playing without freshman starter Ron Baker, who's recovering from a December stress fracture.

"All of our guys work hard and they buy into the system, they're not selfish," Marshall said. "They know I care about them on and off the court."

Missouri Valley a multi-bid league?

Consider Marshall the bad luck charm.

When he was courted for the Wichita State coaching vacancy in 2007, the biggest thing that enticed him to leave his job at Winthrop had everything to do with the NCAA tournament.

The Missouri Valley the previous year had sent four teams to the Big Dance and probably should have sent five considering Missouri State had the lowest RPI (21) that year to ever miss the NCAAs.

But ever since Marshall has been in the Valley, the MVC has struggled to regain its multiple-bid form.

"When I got in here in 2007, it was a four-bid league," Marshall said. "Then for the next four years, we only get one team. What happened? I came to Wichita because I saw it as a quality basketball league where we wouldn't always have to win our conference tournament like we did at Winthrop. I thought we could have a good year, lose the tournament and get in. That hasn't been the case."

Wichita State finally made it to the NCAA tournament under Marshall last season after winning the NIT the previous season when it was snubbed in the NCAA tournament field.

"Drake had that magical run in 2008, Northern Iowa went to the Sweet Sixteen in 2010 and then in 2011, Indiana State wins the tournament when we were the best team along with Missouri State. Last year, we finally got two teams," Marshall said.

Despite Creighton and Wichita State's success, it's difficult to forecast more than two NCAA tournament bids again this season unless another team wins the conference tournament. The only team with a noteworthy non-conference rèsumè was Illinois State, which had a road win against Dayton and a three-point loss to Louisville. And the Redbirds have stunningly started 1-6 in league action.

"I don't think a lot of people realize how difficult our conference is," Creighton coach Greg McDermott said. "You play on the road in 10,000-seat arenas on a nightly basis against well-coached teams. And yet, one loss can make or break a season."