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Illinois State fans make a free throw shot a little tougher for Loyola senior Marques Townes during a game earlier this month at Redbird Arena. Townes has emerged as a leading candidate for league MVP as the Ramblers have taken a two-game lead in the league standings.

NORMAL — About two weeks ago, most of the Missouri Valley Conference basketball coaches predicted there would soon be separation at the top of the league standings.

That's happened as defending champion Loyola has taken a two-game lead over three other teams, including Illinois State, with six left.

Coinciding with the Ramblers taking control of the league race is Loyola senior Marques Townes establishing himself as the favorite to capture the Larry Bird Trophy as the MVC's most valuable player.

Loyola's Clayton Custer won last year's Larry Bird Trophy and was the preseason pick to repeat. However, the 6-foot-4 Townes has taken over this season as the Ramblers' best player.

Townes, who in his second year with Loyola after transferring from Fairleigh Dickinson, averages a team-high 15.4 points (fifth in the league) and 3.6 assists (fourth) per game. Townes also is shooting 40.5 percent outside the arc and 77.4 percent at the free throw line, both among the league's top 10.

“This year he's taken way more ownership with the leadership and his confidence level,” said Loyola coach Porter Moser. “He's a winner and just refuses to let up until the game is over, whether we win or lose. He's an ultra-competitor, and that's what you love about him.”

Loyola took a hit three weeks ago when another of its top wing players, sophomore Lucas Williamson, underwent surgery for a broken hand. The Ramblers hope Williamson returns for the MVC Tournament on March 7-10 in St. Louis.

Townes has stepped up his game during Williamson's absence. In the last five games, Townes has averaged 20.4 points. That included a career-high 32 in last week's 86-64 win over Drake.

Brown takes MVC honor: While Townes was spectacular in leading Loyola to two wins last week, Bradley junior guard Darrell Brown was even better.

The 5-10 Brown averaged 27.5 points while shooting 60.6 percent from the field as the Braves beat Northern Iowa and Indiana State.

Brown sank 5 of 6 attempts from 3-point range against UNI and followed that by going 6 of 9 from distance against Indiana State. He is the first Bradley player with at least five 3-pointers in back-to-back games since 2007 when Jeremy Crouch accomplished the feat.

“Darrell was very efficient last week,” said Bradley coach Brian Wardle. “He shot the ball very well and took what the defense gave him. He's playing at a really good pace and aggression. When he does that he's tough to cover because he can score the ball and make plays, especially on the offensive end.”

Bradley (13-12) has recovered from an 0-5 start to league play and is 5-7 heading into Wednesday's home game against Loyola. The Braves come to Redbird Arena for a 7 p.m. game Saturday against Illinois State. Bradley handled ISU, 85-68, on Jan. 23 in Peoria.

Halfcourt hangover? Missouri State first-year coach Dana Ford doesn't expect his team to have a letdown from Jarred Dixon's half-court buzzer beater Sunday to shock ISU when the Bears travel to Evansville on Wednesday.

“We're going on the road against a team that handled us pretty easy at home (70-64 on Jan. 16),” said Ford. “I imagine our seniors (Dixon and Ryan Kreklow) will lead us and be focused on the next game.

“That team is as good as anyone in the league and it's taken two half-court buzzer beaters to knock them out of a first-place tie now,” said Ford, a former ISU player and associate head coach.

Valley morsels: Through Sunday's games, the MVC and Big East are the only conferences having all its members with double-digit win totals … Missouri State's Tulio Da Silva tied a JQH Arena record by going 8 of 8 from the field in Sunday's win over ISU, matching Alize Johnson for best single-game field goal percentage … Drake senior Nick McGlynn became the 25th Bulldog to join the 1,000-point club on Saturday against UNI. The 6-8 McGlynn needs five more blocks to become the school's all-time leader.

Contact Jim Benson at (309) 820-3404. Follow him on Twitter: @Pg_Benson

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Reporter for Lee Enterprises Central Illinois.

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