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NCAA Basketball Missouri Valley Basketball

Evansville Basketball: D.J. Balentine Will Win Larry Bird Trophy In 2014

Pete G. Aiken USA-TODAY Sports

Pete G. Aiken USA-TODAY Sports

When Larry Bird played at Indiana State, he dominated the Missouri Valley Conference. He led his team to the national championship game despite being a smaller program.

The Player of the Year Award in the MVC is named after Larry Legend, even though the conference boasts greats like Oscar Robinson, Walt Frazier and Doug Collins.

Evansville, one of the newer and smaller programs in the Missouri Valley, is building a well-respected basketball program amongst the mid majors. It’s sophomore guard D.J. Balentine who is gaining national acclaim as one of the country’s elite scorers.

Balentine (22.8 PPG) increased his scoring output by 12.1 points per game. He also led his team in assists at 4.2 per contest. Balentine was one of the most improved players in the country last year, and filled his predecessor Colt Ryan’s shoes well.

The sophomore was sensational in the biggest games of the season as he notched 26 and 31-point contests against Wichita State, but failed to come away with a victory in either game.

Balentine is a special type of player. He has the mental-makeup of a star player but the work ethic of a walk-on. He exploded onto the scene last year, and he will only improve as he matures. He could improve on the defensive end, but with as much energy as he expends on the scoring side, it would be difficult to see him becoming a defensive stopper.

Although the Purple Aces finished the season with a 14-19 record, they did so with one of the youngest rosters in the country. If the rest of the team can grow with Balentine, he can help them climb the ranks of the Missouri Valley at a time when any team can establish itself as at the top.

DeMario Phipps-Smith is the writer of mid-major NCAA basketball content for RantSports.com. Follow him on Twitter @demariopsmith or add him to your network on Google.