Southern Illinois' vice grip on the No. 1 slot in the Missouri Valley Conference is weakened by the losses of coach Matt Painter and its best two inside players from last season's team that went 25-5 overall, 17-1 in the league.
|Darren Brooks will once again lead the Salukis in the MVC. (Getty Images)|
Wichita State isn't dropping, which is why it wouldn't shock SportsLine.com if the Shockers finished ahead of Southern Illinois.
Top three: G Darren Brooks, F LaMar Owen, G Stetson Hairston.
On the decline: Even without Painter and big men Brad Korn and Sylvester Willis, the Salukis have enough back -- specifically Brooks, the reigning player of the year -- to stay on top of the league for at least one more season. New coach Chris Lowery is in an admirable position, considering the Salukis' last two coaches -- Bruce Weber (Illinois) and Painter (Purdue, next season) -- left to take over Big Ten programs.
|1. Southern Illinois|
|2. Wichita State|
|5. Northern Iowa|
|6. SW Missouri State|
|8. Indiana State|
|9. Illinois State|
Top three: F Jamar Howard, G Randy Burns, C Paul Miller.
On the rise: The only thing between the Shockers and a serious run at Southern Illinois is quality play at point guard. Sophomore Adam Liberty, who backed up conference assist leader Fridge Holman a year ago, will get the first crack at it. The pieces around him are in place, with Howard, Burns and Miller among the league's best at each position.
Southwest Missouri State
Top three: G Blake Ahearn, F Tamarr Maclin, G Anthony Shavies.
On the rise: All those freshmen from a year ago become sophomores, which is why the Bears are poised to climb the conference ladder despite losing two starters. Ahearn will be especially interesting to watch in his second season. Could the guy be any more automatic from the line? He made 117 of 120 last season, a 97.5-percent rate that set an NCAA record.
|F -- Marcellus Sommerville, Bradley|
|F -- David Moss, Indiana State|
|C -- Paul Miller, Wichita State|
|G -- Darren Brooks, Southern Illinois|
|G -- Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa|
|F -- Jamar Howard, Wichita State|
|F -- LaMar Owen, Southern Illinois|
|C -- Tyler Best, Evansville|
|G -- Trey Guidry, Illinois State|
|G -- Randy Burns, Wichita State|
Player of the year
Darren Brooks, Southern Illinois
Newcomer of the year
Tyler Best, Evansville
LaMar Owen, Southern Illinois
Top three: G Nate Funk, G Tyler McKinney, G Kellen Miliner.
On the decline: McKinney is back from a scary eye injury that cost him the last month of the season -- and cost Creighton, in all likelihood, a spot in the NCAA Tournament -- but the entire starting frontcourt is gone. Creighton is picked No. 4 out of respect to the program Dana Altman has built, not because of the obvious talent on hand.
Top three: G Lonnie Randolph, F Klayton Korver, G Chaun Brooks.
On the rise: The Bulldogs return all five starters from one of the most improved teams in the MVC, plus three other players who averaged at least 10 minutes per game. Also, this being Tom Davis' second season, the familiarity factor ought to work in Drake's favor.
Top three: G Ben Jacobson, G Erik Crawford, G Brooks McKowen.
On the decline: It's likely that nobody in the Missouri Valley has more backcourt depth than the Panthers, but it's just as likely that nobody in the conference has less frontcourt experience. Northern Iowa lost its starting center and power forward from last season's second-place team, which is why SportsLine.com expects this tumble to the middle of the pack.
Top three: G Andre Burton, G Lucious Wagner, F Matt Webster.
On the rise: Watch the Aces make their move in Steve Merfeld's third year, what with five players with massive starting experience back. With Clint Cuffle the lone departed regular, Evansville could double last season's victory total -- especially considering Evansville won just seven games.
Top three: F David Moss, F Amani Daanish, G Eric Gray.
On the rise: Moss and Daanish give the Sycamores a quality pair of forwards, and Gray and Tyson Schnitker have the makings of a decent backcourt. That's a good starting point, and if Moss becomes a star this season, Indiana State should improve on last season's 5-13 mark in league play.
Top three: G Trey Guidry, F Gregg Alexander, G Vince Greene.
On the rise: The Redbirds would have rocketed up the league standings this season had power forward Marcus Arnold not decided to transfer to Illinois, where he will be eligible next season. Illinois State ought to get out of the Missouri Valley basement, but the Redbirds could be hard-pressed to finish ahead of anyone but Bradley.
Top three: F Marcellus Sommerville, F Daniel Ruffin, G J.J. Tauai.
On the decline: Sommerville is awfully good, but he's awfully alone this season after the losses of fellow 15-point scorers Phillip Gilbert and James Gillingham.