2013-14 Mid-Major Preview: Missouri Valley Conference

Jeff Curry-US PRESSWIRE

The top team may be an obvious pick, but there's plenty of talent in the middle of the conference. The Valley is poised for another competitive year as teams will jockey for a second MVC bid into the NCAA Tournament.

As we march towards November 8 and the official start of the 2013-14 basketball season, Mid-Major Madness will be bringing you conference previews on a regular basis to get you ready for tip-off. We'll also be highlighting these conferences and speaking with experts and coaches on our weekly podcast. We continue with the Missouri Valley Conference.

There's no question that the departure of Creighton to the new Big East is a loss for The Valley, but that won't leave the MVC wanting for drama. Last season we saw a future Final Four team split the season series with the worst team in the conference, and parity tends to be the trend in the MVC. While the Shockers will likely place first this year (and the Salukis will still place last), to assume that any team will have an easy path to victory in this conference would be a mistake. The real drama will be in the middle of the conference, as the teams ranked two through five here will all make life miserable for one another throughout the season.

The reality that The Valley must face is that a second team in the NCAA Tournament is not guaranteed. Last year's duo of Wichita State and Creighton was truly exceptional, so duplicating that success may be difficult. However, the MVC used to send two or three teams to March Madness each year anyways, so a number of this year's teams will be aiming to step up and be that second Valley bid.

1. Wichita State Wheat Shockers

Last Season: 30-9 (12-6), 2nd Missouri Valley

Departures: Carl Hall (12.5 ppg), Malcolm Armstead (10.5 ppg), Demetric Williams (7.4 ppg), Jake White (3.6 ppg), Ehimen Orukpe (3.6 ppg)

Key Returners: Cleanthony Early (13.9 ppg), Ron Baker (8.7 ppg)

Significant Additions: Kadeem Coleby

It would be an easy pick to put the Shockers on top even if they had not been the banner Valley team last season after visiting the Final Four. With Creighton gone, last year’s #2 MVC team is easily the most athletic and talented squad this season. WSU may face some speed bumps with a number of important players leaving, but there are plenty of talented backups to take their spot in the starting rotation. Plus, one of the reasons WSU was so impressive in the NCAA Tournament was their depth, with nine players having started at some point last season.

Cleanthony Early is obviously the headliner for Wichita State, considering he’s not only a strong scorer, but also knows how to play hard-nosed Valley D and goes after the rebound. Kadeem Coleby will be the player joining him most often in the post. If Coleby can duplicate his success with the Ragin’ Cajuns then he's poised to be an efficient scorer, tenacious defender, and a solid rebounder. While Hall and Armstead are definitely going to be missed this season, there’s no reason to believe that the Shockers won’t actually be an even better team this next season.

2. Indiana State Sycamores

Last Season: 18-15 (9-9), 5th Missouri Valley

Departures: RJ Mahurin (10.1 ppg)

Key Returners: Jake Odum (13.6 ppg), Manny Arop (12 ppg) , Justin Grant (7.5 ppg)

Significant Additions: Demetrius Moore

Indiana State is poised to not only make a huge jump in the Valley standings, but to also be the only team that has a significant chance to steal the title from presumed Valley champion Wichita State. If it were not for senior forward RJ Mahurin transferring to play at the same college as his younger brother, the Sycamores would be returning every player from last season’s team.

The best thing this Sycamore squad has going for them is that their defense should be improved and more consistent now that there is more experience and depth. On the other hand, their scoring ability last season was a bit inconsistent, but I fully expect Jake Odum to effectively lead this team to a second place finish.

3. Northern Iowa Panthers

Last Season: 21-15 (11-7), 3rd Missouri Valley

Departures: Anthony James (13.2 ppg), Marc Sonnen (10.5 ppg), Jake Koch (10.4 ppg), Austin Pehl (.8 ppg), Chris Olivier (5 ppg)

Key Returners: Seth Tuttle (11.4), Deon Mitchell (9.3 ppg)

Significant Additions: Ted Friedman

For UNI the story of the season will be "next man up," as some talented backups will be taking the place of some departing seniors. The fascinating thing about the Panthers will be how they improve over the season, as there will be no seniors in the starting core. However, the trio of Tuttle, Mitchell, and Matt Bohannon will be a dangerous scoring threat that has the experience to lead the team and take over games.

The five position will be the biggest question as Jake Koch was a huge playmaker on both sides of the court for years. While his younger brother Bennett Koch is now a Panther, he will likely redshirt. Fellow freshman Ted Friedman will likely play some significant minutes as the center. All the same, UNI has a strong team that will simply get better as time goes on, making them a serious competitor in the Valley.

4. Missouri State Bears

Last Season: 11-22 (7-11), 7th Missouri Valley

Departures: Anthony Downing (13.7 ppg), Drew Wilson (2.5 ppg), Tomie Aromona (.9 ppg), Ryan Carmichael (.6 ppg)

Key Returners: Marcus Marshall (11.5 ppg), Jamar Gulley

Significant Additions: Ron Mvouika

Last season’s most inexperienced Valley team is poised to make a large leap in the standings in spite of losing leading scorer Anthony Downing. Reigning MVC Freshman of the Year Marcus Marshall will be a potent scoring threat and should lead the team in buckets, but his potential won’t be the story of the season. Seniors Pickens and Gulley are both returning after a season ruined by injury. Pickens is a decent scorer, but his real ability lies in his defensive prowess (something the Bears sorely lacked last season), whereas Gulley is a powerful inside scorer who missed last season as a medical redshirt.

Ron Mvouika is a community college transfer who averaged 19.3 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.6 assists last season. As a 6-6 guard he has a size advantage over many at his position and should inject some offense into last season’s worst field goal shooting team.

As a side note, the Bears may have the Valley’s most difficult out of conference schedule, playing against Texas A&M, Virginia or SMU, and defending national champion Louisville.

5. Bradley Braves

Last Season: 18-17 (7-11), 7th Missouri Valley

Departures: Dyricus Simms-Edwards (12.3 ppg), Jake Eastman (6.4 ppg), Will Egof (10 ppg), Jalen Crawford (5.5 ppg), Shayok Shayok (2 ppg), Jimmy Gavin (1.3 ppg), Milos Knezevic (.8 ppg)

Key Returners: Walt Lemon Jr. (15.6),  Tyshon Pickett (11 ppg), Jordan Prosser (5.5 ppg)

Significant Additions: Johnah (3’4") and Jarret (4’5") Sahrs. No, really, you should read this.

Bradley is poised to take a small step up in the Valley this season, as this well built team doesn’t have many major positional holes. For each starter leaving, the Braves have a quality player that will be able to step up into the position. Obviously I’m not saying that BU won’t have holes in their game (the biggest being a lack of three-point shooting), but the team should be good, but not great, in every aspect of the game. Guard Walt Lemon, Jr. will be the clear leader of the team, and there’s enough firepower on this team from other positions that they should challenge any team they play.

It doesn’t hurt that Bradley’s out of conference schedule is probably the second easiest in the conference after Loyola’s. Games on the road against Illinois and Arizona State will be difficult, but the rest of the schedule before conference play should be fairly winnable.

6. Evansville Purple Aces

Last Season: 21-15 (10-8), 4th Missouri Valley

Departures: Colt Ryan (20.1 ppg), Ned Cox (10.8), Troy Taylor (6.9 ppg), Lewis Jones (6.1 ppg), Jordan Jahr (3.7 ppg), Jordan Nelson (2.2 ppg)

Key Returners: D.J. Balentine (8.1 ppg), Egidijus Mockevicius (5.8 ppg)

Significant Additions: Duane "Boo" Gibson

I am picking Evansville to finish sixth in the Valley, but they may be the one team I’m vastly underrating. I think they’ll drop from fourth to sixth because they are losing one of the best players in the MVC and they are an incredibly young team. This year’s Aces squad has no seniors, and six of the thirteen scholarships are committed to freshmen. All the same, UE has the ability to compete in the Valley if they can fulfill their potential. For one, D.J. Balentine will need to step up and be a consistent scorer for the Aces, otherwise their offense will be entirely impotent. Secondly, big man Mockevicius led conference play in blocks last season and has shown incredible tenacity on defense, earning him the spot of conference all-rookie center. If the Lithuanian sophomore is more aggressive on the rebound he could be a dominant center in the Valley. The one big flaw in the Aces' game is defending the three, where teams will definitely continue to exploit the lack of quickness on the perimeter.

The x-factor for Evansville will be freshman point guard "Boo" Gibson who can really do it all. He’s a competent scorer, has a keen eye for the easy assist, and even has been known to fight for rebounds. If Gibson adapts to college ball quickly then Evansville could be a step ahead of some of the other teams in the conference.

7. Loyola (Chicago) Ramblers

Last Season: 15-16 (5-11), 7th Horizon League

Departures: Ben Averkamp (14.8 ppg), Jordan Hicks (9.0 pg), Cully Payne (7.9 ppg)

Key Returners: Christian Thomas (12.1 ppg), Devon Turk (8.7 ppg), Joe Crisman (4.9 ppg)

Significant Additions: Cody Johnson

The newest Valley team is going to figure out rather quickly how they’ll fare in their new conference rather quickly with three of their first five games against Southern Illinois, Drake, and Ill. State. If you will note, those are the three teams I have picked to finish below the Ramblers, so early wins or losses will be indicative of their placement in the conference.

The reason I expect Loyola to at least do relatively well against the improved Valley competition is because they are actually a team on the upswing. The Ramblers may have lost leading scorer Averkamp, but Christian Thomas and Devon Turk are steadily improving players who should lead their squad to some wins. The big question mark will be post play, as the five spot will be manned by sophomore JuCo transfer Cody Johnson and RS freshman Jeremy King, so it’s difficult to know how effective they will be.

8. Drake Bulldogs

Last Season: 15-17 (7-11), 7th Missouri Valley

Departures: Ben Simons (14.1 ppg), Chris Hines (9.7 ppg), Jordan Clarke (9.3 ppg), Joey King (6.9 ppg), Micah Mason (5.4 ppg), Jeremy Jeffers (3.3 ppg), Kori Babineaux (2.0 ppg)

Key Returners: Seth VanDeest (9.5 ppg), Richard Carter (9.2 ppg)

Significant Additions: Trevor Berkeley, Blake Danielak

Like most of the teams that will sit in the Valley’s basement this season the Drake Bulldogs are losing significant talent. Unlike those other teams, the Bulldogs actually have some returning starters. Although the Bulldogs will be dropping a spot in the rankings, due to strong talent and depth in the post I think they have a chance to be consistently competitive in Valley matchups. If he can stay healthy I expect that VanDeest will be a solid producer, while freshman forward Danielak seems ready to make a difference on this team.

As a side note, sophomore forward Daddy Ugbede may be the surprise breakout player for the Bulldogs this season. He wasn’t given much playing time last season, but he showed flashes of talent that could make a difference on this team.

9. Illinois State Redbirds

Last Season: 18-15 (8-10), 6th Missouri Valley

Departures: Tyler Brown (18.1 ppg), Jackie Carmichael (17.4 ppg), John Wilkins (6.7 ppg), Bryant Allen (8.6 ppg), Johnny Hill (7.7 ppg), John Ekey (6.4 ppg), Geoffrey Allen (3.5 ppg), Jordan Threloff (2.5 ppg), Zeke Upshaw (2.5 ppg), Anthony Cousin (.9 ppg)

Key Returners: Erm… Nick Zeisloft (4.5 ppg)?

Significant Additions: Michael Middlebrooks, Daishon Knight, Zach Lofton, Bobby Hunter, MiKyle McIntosh

On a positive note, I expect Illinois State to make plenty of money off of season programs, because no casual fan will have any idea who these players are without one. The usually competitive Redbirds have lost every single starter and most of their backups from last season, resulting in a team cobbled together in an impressive effort by first year coach Dan Muller. In fact, look up at "Significant Additions" and you will see the names of the likely starting five. There’s no question that the starters for ISU’s squad have raw talent, the question is these four JuCo transfers and a freshman can play well enough to win. While I would love to be proven wrong, the answer is no.

As an addition to this, "Significant Addition" Daishon Knight has actually been suspended indefinitely after being arrested for aggravated battery. He was expected to be the starting PG.

10. Southern Illinois Salukis

Last Season: 14-17 (6-12), 10th Missouri Valley

Departures: Josh Swan (career ending injury), Jeff Early, Kendal Brown-Surles, Dantiel Daniels, TJ Lindsay,

Key Returners: Desmar Jackson (15.1 ppg), Davante Drinkard (1.9 ppg)

Significant Additions: Bronson Verhines and Sean O’Brien

The Valley’s last place team from last season got a whole lot worse. While I actually have a quite a bit of confidence in Coach Hinson to develop these team and rejuvenate it moving forward, this season is not the beginning of the comeback. While leading scorer Desmar Jackson is returning and should frustrate some opponents, the team is quite literally losing every other experienced player from last year’s squad. In fact, the second most experienced player on the team is now 6-9 Forward Davante Drinkard, who will play the role as the only big man on the entire team. The problem is that in his 12.6 minutes a game from last season he wasn't exactly impressive (or even really all that good), averaging just 1.9 points and rebounds a game and racking up plenty of turnovers when he played any significant minutes.

The position to watch is the four spot, as senior JuCo transfer Bronson Verhines and freshman Sean O’Brien will likely both see significant playing time at that position.

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