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College Basketball Previews: Creighton is best, but MVC should be beauty this year

By Matt Norlander | Staff Writer
Creighton was the Valley's best last year and that will almost definitely the case again in 2012-13. (US Presswire)

Of any league preview or assignment that I had this fall, this one got me the most juiced for the start of the season. I mean, it's the Valley! It's as competitive, entertaining and charming a league as college basketball has. And this year, again, it should be intriguing not only because it will have at least one team with a shot at reaching a Sweet 16, but the top half of the league should assemble into a race that's equal parts competitive, unpredictable and just plain good basketball. Do you know there was a five-way tie for third place in the Valley last season? I'd love to see something like that again.

  • Last year's regular-season winner: Wichita State

  • Last year's tournament winner: Creighton

  • Conference tournament: March 7-10 (Scottrade Center, St. Louis)

Five best non-conference games:

1. Creighton vs. Wisconsin (Nov. 23)
2. Wichita State vs. Virginia Commonweath (Nov. 13)
3. Illinois State vs. Louisville (Dec. 1)
4. Northern Iowa vs. UNLV (Dec. 19)
5. North Texas vs. Creighton (Nov. 9)

What I like: The litany of good-to-great players.

Name to know: Jackie Carmichael, Illinois State. (AP)

Why: Outside of Dougie Swish (are we OK with this awful nickname that I've concocted for Doug McDermott? Doesn't matter -- I'm going with it), the league is likable because of all the good talent coming back. Because of that, the MVC is almost definitely going to be better this season. You'll see the players I'm referring to in the sections below, but suffice to say league coaches consider this year's incumbent group of players to be the best assemblage of talent the Valley has seen in years and years.

What I don't like: Lack of athleticism.

Why: What does it tell you that the Valley was 31st in blocks and 29th in steals last year, according to KenPom.com? It means teams weren't aggressive enough defensively to build a culture of up-tempo games with bullish play. (The 65 possessions-per-game speed falls in the bottom half of conference-pace rankings.) Of course this league has nice athletes, but I'd love to see defense improve league-wide. That starts with this year's flagship team in Creighton, whose flagship player needs to get better on D if he's to have a chance at winning national player of the year, which I picked him to do. Defensively, only Wichita State was a top-75 per-possession team last year, and the Shockers lost most of that stalwart support for the upcoming season.

Player of the Year will be: Doug McDermott (Creighton). McDermott was seen as an elite, top-10 conference player entering last season. Then he went out and had one of the most stupidly productive offensive years that we could've imagined (67.8 true shooting percentage). His return brings expectations that are worthy of his game, at least offensively.

McDermott paced the Bluejays to a 57.8 effective field goal percentage year in 2011-12, second-best in the country to Missouri. His ability to make multiple plays in one possession could be even better than last year, according to his father and coach, Greg. His scoring will depend on how many double teams that he sees -- Creighton has a lot of players who can make 3's -- but with the versatility to play on the block, use on ball screens and pull up, he'll put up more than 20 in at least half his games this season.

The next best five:

Jackie Carmichael (Illinois State)
Colt Ryan (Evansville)
Carl Hall (Wichita State)
Gregory Echenique (Creighton)
Ben Simons (Drake)

And the five after that:

Anthony James, (Northern Iowa)
Seth Tuttle (Northern Iowa)
Malcolm Armstead (Wichita State)
Seth VanDeest (Drake)
Jake Odum (Indiana State)

Best freshman: Fred Van Vleet (Wichita State). Say this name out loud, right now, 14 times. Van Vleet is tiny (6-0) but said to be a great leader, solid distributor and played on a team full of small guys in AAU who beat almost everybody they played. He was chased by many a Valley team before Gregg Marshall ultimately snagged him.

1. Creighton Bluejays
Did lose a good player in their point guard, senior Antoine Young, but everybody else is back. An explosive team in transition, and Echenique is a mismatch for every team in this league down low. The Bluejays have size, athleticism, a lot of skill and are well-coached. Man, if they can improve the defense even incrementally, it's a Sweet 16 team, no question. McDermott's the toughest matchup in the league because he can post the small guys and drag the big ones out to 20 feet. Grant Gibbs is the other Bluejay name/guard to look out for this year.
2. Northern Iowa Panthers
Anthony James is a small-but-responsible guard who has a great in-between game while also becoming a 3-point shooter you have to respect. James also likes to drive and, toward the end of last season, got better at getting to the foul line. He's a bit undersized as a two, but coaches tell me he's going to be as reliable a guard as this league has. Aside from James, there's Seth Tuttle, the sophomore forward who was the best freshman in the league last season. He's helped by senior Jake Koch, who is Northern Iowa's answer to all the league's interior forces. Deon Mitchell is the sophomore who could have a breakout year. The Panthers' only loss of impact is Johnny Moran.
3. Illinois State Redbirds
A lot of people are thinking big things in the league for Illinois State -- so long as the point guard play is up to snuff. That's currently a huge question. Freshman 1 Nic Moore followed former Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich to SMU (Jankovich is the coach-in-waiting while Larry Brown holidays with the Mustangs in his winter years.) Freshman Kaza Keane is the most talented, but can he earn the spot this year over Johnny Hill and/or Anthony Cousin, who are better defenders? Jackie Carmichael is a stud. Know his name now; he deserves pub and recognition. A kid by the name of Tyler Brown, senior shooting guard, is this team's second-best player.
4. Wichita State Shockers
This team was a five seed last year and fell in one of the best Round of 64 games the NCAAs had to offer when it lost on the final possession to Virginia Commonwealth. The group loses a lot but still will have enough to compete for the No. 2 spot in the conference. The name to know is senior guard Malcolm Armstead, a former junior college guy and a transfer from Oregon. Carl Hall, newcomer of the year, is back for his senior season and has huge expectations.
5. Evansville Aces
Undersized team last year, but this year they should be beefed up and have a household-name Valley player in Colt Ryan. I've only caught a little tape of him, but coaches assure me that he is the real deal. "He reads defenses and screens so well," one coach said. They run the motion offense for Ryan, and he's a menace coming off curls. The system is made for him, and he's blooming. Aside from Ryan, Troy Taylor and Ned Cox make up what could be the Valley's best, most reliable backcourt. Ryan Sarwvell is a lanky forward who made the league's All-Freshman team. Evansville doesn't have a recent history of being really good, but my fifth-place prognostication in a stacked league suggests the program is on the upswing.
6. Drake Bulldogs
Ben Simons is the player who won't get a lot of national pub unless he erupts for the Drake this season. Simons is a 6-8 wing who's able to hit a lot of shots and is the Bulldogs' best. Seth VanDeest is coming off a year away due to injury, but he was a fantastic 6-11 guy for this team before that. I'm thinking he returns to form. This team can be dangerous due to a senior guard, one-year transfer from Utah named Chris Hines who averaged double figures in the Mountain West. Richard Carter is a junior college guard with impact potential, but the loss of Rayvonte Rice to Illinois will hurt.
7. Indiana State Sycamores
It's about Jake Odum, who's healthy and a good leader for this group. Last season was a reality check for the Sycs, as they were picked in the top half of the league but didn't play up to snuff. They've got a transfer from Gonzaga (Manny Arop), and this will again be a reliable man-to-man team. This group beat Vanderbilt last year, so it has the capability. But the offense was way too erratic last year to warrant much optimism.
8. Missouri State Bears
Team's got six freshmen, four of whom are "true" freshmen, plus took a huge blow when Jarmar Gulley blew his right ACL in July. Gulley was a junior college transfer who would've been a big force for Paul Lusk's team this year. He was the team's leading returning rebounder and second-leading scorer last season. There is only one senior on this team, Anthony Downing, who is also a former junior college player. Redshirt freshman Dorrian Williams could be starting point guard; Williams missed all of last year due to a torn labrum.
9. Bradley Braves
Was the worst offensive team -- by a country mile -- in the league last season, but that was in part because Will Egolf ripped up his ACL for the second time in his career in June 2011. The Braves will rely on Egolf to have a big year, his sixth and final season of eligibility, in addition to Walt Lemon, Jr., Jordan Prosser and Dyricus Simms-Edwards.
10. Southern Illinois Salukis
The Salukis are rebuilding from soil, but the good news is they return four starters and have one of the best newcomers in the league in junior Desmar Jackson. He averaged almost 15 points per game at Wyoming. Love this quote from one coach, who said Jackson will be a "dye shot in their arm."

Previously in previews:

No. 10 -- Conference USA
No. 11 -- West Coast
No. 12 -- Western Athletic
No. 13 -- Colonial
No. 14 -- Horizon League
No. 15 -- The Ivy League
No. 16 -- Summit League
No. 17 -- MAC
No. 18 -- Atlantic Sun
No. 19 -- Sun Belt
No. 20 -- MAAC
No. 21 -- Patriot League
No. 22 -- Ohio Valley
No. 23 -- Big West
No. 24 -- SoCon
No. 25 -- NEC
No. 26 -- Big South
No. 27 -- Southland
No. 28 -- Big Sky
No. 29 -- America East
No. 30 -- MEAC
No. 31 -- Great West
No. 32 -- SWAC

For more college basketball news, commentary and discourse, follow @EyeonCBB and @MattNorlander on Twitter. And be sure to like us on Facebook.

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