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College Basketball Conference Previews: Missouri Valley

By Matt Norlander | College Basketball Writer

The Shockers have Cleanthony Early back, making them the preseason favorite. (USATSI)
The Shockers have Cleanthony Early back, making them the preseason favorite. (USATSI)

Before we look ahead we must acknowledge the recent past, the body blow this proud basketball league took last spring when Creighton ditched the MVC for the Big East. It was significant in a lot of ways, but put it in these terms: Outside of the Ivy League, whose membership is etched in something harder than stone, the Missouri Valley had the longest continual union of programs in college basketball without a school leaving or entering the conference. That length was nearly two decades before Creighton took Big East money and left the Valley scrambling to find a halfway decent replacement.

That replacement is Loyola of Chicago, a team with history -- it won the 1963 national championship -- but hasn't done much over the past 30 years. The Ramblers enter the league, and in doing so ensure the Valley will remain a round-robin schedule for the conference, offering up 18 games.

With Creighton out, Wichita State becomes the proudest program in the conference. That Final Four run last year was actually the second time WSU reached college hoops' ultimate stage (the other? 1965). Gregg Marshall has a program that is set up to become the Gonzaga of the Valley, should he opt to stay there and build the way Mark Few has over the past 15 years in Spokane.

Let's look at all of what the Missouri Valley is offering this season:

Coach's Take

"If you lose Creighton ... everybody's gotta play better schedules, get quality wins. I don't know how big the gap is between Wichita State and Indiana State. ISU only lost one kid to transfer. Wichita State, although they finished very strong and were very good, it's not like they ran away with second place in the league. They lost key components. After them, there's so many unknowns. The gap could be signficant [after WSU and ISU] because everyone lost a lot. Everyone in the league except ISU and Southern Illinois lost their best player."

More on Wichita State:

They lost their two best players, even though (Cleanthony) Early is really good. But last year I would've wanted (Malcolm) Armstead or (Carl) Hall out, personally. Don't get me wrong, they should be picked to win the league, but there's still going to be a lot of guys on that team with question marks. (Fred) VanVleet is going to be very good."

Three best players in the league:

"Walt Lemon, Jr. is the best player in the league. Cleanthony Early probably has to be on that list. Third would have to be Jake Odum."

Projected Order of Finish

Wichita State

The Shockers rebounded the ball so well last year. It was their most valuable asset. Losing senior big man Carl Hall will put a dent in that, and so when Wichita State is vying for an NCAA bid this year, they'll do it with a smaller lineup. At least the team has the best talent in the conference in Cleanthony Early (which he was blooming to last year), so production can come from other means and make WSU dangerous offensively, which should be a given. Ron Baker can score pretty much anywhere from outside 16 feet, and he'll be paired in the backcourt with Fred VanVleet, a sophomore guard who has breakout potential. Fun fact most college fans don't know: Kansas phenom frosh Andrew Wiggins' brother, Nick, plays at Wichita State. Some believe the fact his brother is in-state at WSU was a big factor as to why Andrew chose the Jayhawks. A final note here: the Shockers will be down one scholarship player this year because D.J. Bowles' career at the school was forced to end before it started. Bowles collapsed in practice during offseason workouts in September. After monitoring his heart and having a defibrillator installed, school doctors deemed him unable to compete.

Indiana State

The Sycs dropped seven of their final nine games last season, falling short after a good run and proud showing in the league. ISU had a very respectable team on defense, allowing .99 points per possession. The team got by in league play by getting to the foul line more often than everyone else in the MVC. Combine that with ISU's penchant for bolstered play on D in the paint and it's no surprise they were an improved team from the year prior. This season, senior guard Jake Odum will be vital, and could challenge for conference POY. He averaged 13.6 points, 4.5 rebounds, 4.6 assists and 1.5 steals last year, just terrific numbers. It's a team with experience but not loaded with seniors; forward Manny Arop should be the only one the starting lineup.

Evansville

I'm higher on Evansville than most. The loss of all-leaguer Colt Ryan (understandably) has people thinking the Aces will struggle to finish top-five in the Valley this season. So why am I buying in? A sophomore named D.J. Balentine could be setting up for a very nice year. And the team will be loaded with juniors. It's not a total rebuild, and this league isn't ultra-daunting, so a third-place finish -- which I think is Evansville's ceiling -- is not out of the question. The Aces will have a variety of looks to give opponents, and if they continue to not turn the ball over while being consistent from 3, then of course they'll be in the thick of the race. Sophomore 6-10 big man Egidijus Mockevicius gives this team something not all Valley clubs can boast: legitimate power on the block.

Missouri State

In just his third season, Paul Lusk looks to make his move in the Missouri Valley. The Bears have everyone back but Anthony Downing, who led the team in scoring a season ago. MSU, which plays very slow, has to be a better team on offense by a significant margin. Those 61 possessions per game (Missouri State's pace last season) don't leave a lot of room for error. The team should be improved in size and ability in the frontcourt, meaning MSU won't be the erratic shooting team of last season. Jarmar Gulley is back after missing last season with a torn ACL. He, junior Christian Kirk and Colorado State grad transfer Emmanuel Addo could combine for one of the best frontcourts in the league. Also keep an eye on Marcus Marshall, a sophomore who was the Freshman of the Year in the league last season.

Northern Iowa

The Panthers lost Anthony James and Jake Koch, two of the most important guys on a team that went 21-15 a year ago. The Panthers' forte was ... free-throw shooting. Hey, it's always a nice luxury to have, but foul shooting doesn't make headlines unless the freebies aren't falling in. This was a good team that was oddly just horrible at rebounding the ball offensively, ranking 335th nationally according to KenPom.com, bringing in just 24.9 percent of its misses. Player-wise, Seth Tuttle is the star for the Panthers. I think he's going to have a great year. The 6-8 forward plays well around the hoop at both ends and is a dark horse to contend for POY in the league. The Panthers will need contributions in a big way from point guard Deon Mitchell, who could help establish a nice inside-outside game for UNI.

Bradley

Walt Lemon, Jr. is the man for the Braves, who last season were pretty much the definition of average. But Lemon was one of the better defensive guards in the country, in addition to being vital with the ball. Just an all-around, classic Missouri Valley stud. The Braves will look to him for big-time production this season. Geno Ford brings in a respected recruiting class within the conference, and there's certainly potential for Bradley to finish higher than I'm projecting here. Tyshon Pickett and Jordan Prosser are a couple of seniors who can give the team direction. With a lot of new players to the mix, I'm expecting Bradley to show flashes but ultimately stumble in building what I think is going to be a fun but frustrating ride this season. After all, this team was near the bottom of the MVC in overall points-per-possession offense and defense. Questions exist at point guard, which is never desired when there are uncertainties with a team's overall makeup.

Southern Illinois

The Salukis are slowly working their way back from the end of the 2011-12 season, which was an 8-23 campaign, irregular for this program. In his second season, veteran coach Barry Hinson continues the rebuild. Senior Desmar Jackson will be huge. He'll basically be the reason SIU won't finish last in the conference again this season. Anthony Beane will be paired up in the backcourt with Jackson, and they'll make a fine combo. The Salukis were a responsible, able team around the rim on offense last year, and that will not be challenge to duplicate because the three seniors SIU lost were 6-5 or shorter. Name who needs to produce a lot more this year: Davante Drinkard.

Illinois State

Despite entering last season with point guard question, ISU maintained its offensive identity. The problem was the team's inclination to hit these big skids. The Redbirds had two three-game and one six-game losing streak last season. In this year's Valley, ISU would be primed for a top-three finish -- if it didn't suffer from what I think is the biggest loss any team is facing. Jackie Carmichael is gone, the wiry big man who helped Illinois State find relevance again in the Valley throughout the course of his career. He's not the only big loss, though. Tyler Brown was the guard who led ISU in points per game last season, and he's gone, too. All in all, you ready for this? The Redbirds bring back only two players with Division I experience. The roster has 11 scholarship players, nine of which are freshmen (three) or junior college transplants (five). And John Jones is a 6-9 junior who's had to sit the past two years. Two players with D-I history on the roster. All others are jucos or freshmen. Five junior college kids, three freshmen eliglbe to play and one who sat out, junir who sat out for two years. Expecting Illinois State to overcome that in one season is a little too much. The Redbirds will rely a lot on Kaza Keane, a sophomore point guard who fought for playing time a lot last season.

Loyola (Ill.)

The newcomers to the league went 15-16 last year and 5-11 in the Horizon. I can't see a huge jump in the first season of Valley play. The MVC is a tougher league than Horizon, and Loyola last season used a deeper bench with a younger team to see what might come of the combination. It was beneficial on offense at times, but overall the Ramblers didn't have the D to keep up. Now three key players are gone, and it's still relatively unknown who will step in and lead this team. Will it be sophomore guard Devon Turk, or junior wing Christian Thomas? The good news is Porter Moser, coach of Loyola, knows the Valley. He coached Illinois State for four seasons during the mid-aughts (never won a conference title).

Drake

Ray Giacoletti spent the past few seasons up in Spokane, serving as an assistant to Mark Few at Gonzaga. The Drake job offers a lot of challenges. This program has not historically been that great. It was a 15-17 team a year ago under Mark Phelps, who for five seasons pretty much kept the Bulldogs around the .500 mark. The good news is Giacoletti, who saw plenty of bigs work well within the Gonzaga system, will have a kid named Seth VanDeest to work with for one year. The legit center will give the Bulldogs some matchup advantages against most teams in the Valley. This Drake team has a lot of older players, and if there's a shot at this group overachieving and finishing seventh or eighth in the league, it lies with that fact. Richard Carter is one of those seniors, a compact point guard who has potential to be all-league.

Our Preseason All-Valley team

G: Jake Odum, Indiana State
G: Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
G: Walt Lemon, Jr., Bradley
F: Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa
F: Cleanthony Early, Wichita State

Our Preseason Valley Player of the Year

Cleanthony Early, Wichita State

Early has a lot of natural talent, is really aggressive and bloomed in front of our eyes last March. He could afford to get some more muscle weight, but there's no one else in the league with as much skill and confidence as Early. He can play just about anywhere on the floor, and I don't know if there's a player who can take him one-on-one defensively in the league.

Our Preseason Valley Newcomer of the Year

Jordan Swopshire, Bradley

With the top teams in the league not needing a lot of help from freshmen, Swopshire is the best of the bunch on a Bradley team with a lot of new faces.

Our Preseason Valley Coach of the Year

Marty Simmons, Evansville

Coach-of-the-year choices are based on one of two things: first-place finishes or greatly exceeding expectations. Gregg Marshall is the easy pick, but it'd be startling to not see the Shockers take first. So I'm selecting here based on projections. And no one thinks Evansville's going to finish third. Simmons has challenges but pieces to make it interesting near the top of the league.

Three Numbers to Know

70: The percentage of wins for home teams in the Valley last season. That's the second-best home-winning clip in the country. It's a tough league to win on the road, truly.

100: The 2009-10 season was the last time the MVC earned 100 wins collectively outside of its conference. This looks like a challenge to match this year.

4: The number of league games decided by 20 points or more last season, the fewest of any conference. The Valley plays close, folks.

Missouri Valley Conference
Finish

Gary Parrish

Jeff Borzello

Matt Norlander

Doug Gottlieb

Jerry
Palm

Jon Rothstein
1.
WICHST

WICHST

WICHST

WICHST

WICHST

WICHST
2.
INDST

INDST

INDST

NIOWA

INDST

INDST
3.
NIOWA

NIOWA

EVAN

INDST

NIOWA

NIOWA
4.
MOST

MOST

MOST

MOST

MOST

BRAD
5.
ILLST

EVAN

NIOWA

ILLST

BRAD

MOST
6.
BRAD

BRAD

BRAD

BRAD

EVAN

LOYCHI
7.
EVAN

ILLST

SILL

EVAN

LOYCHI

ILLST
8.
DRAKE

SILL

ILLST

DRAKE

ILLST

EVAN
9.
SILL

DRAKE

LOYCHI

SILL

DRAKE

DRAKE
10.
LOYCHI

LOYCHI

DRAKE

LOYCHI

SILL

SILL
 
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