It’s no surprise that Wichita State is the favorite to win its fourth-straight Missouri Valley Conference title. After all, the Shockers have dominated the league in recent years. But is the gap narrowing?
As many as four other teams, led by Illinois State, believe they are poised for a run at the top. Though there were no coaching changes in the Valley, the turnover in talent, is huge.
The Redbirds return four skilled and athletic starters. While the Shockers are restocking the shelves, the new players in Gregg Marshall’s starting lineup are as talented as any we’ve seen in the Valley in years.
Missouri Valley Conference Power Rankings
1 Wichita State
The Shockers have won three-straight MVC titles and four of the last five. Despite losing two all-conference players Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, this year’s squad might have more overall talent. Three players will be key to the Shockers’ success, beginning with last year’s conference Freshman of the Year Markis McDuffie (7.4 points per game). Guard Landry Shamet, who re-starts his career after missing last year with injuries, and Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp, will join him. But it might be the play of center Shaq Morris that puts Wichita State over the top.
2 Illinois State
If there is a team that can stand up to the mighty Shockers, it is ISU. A pair of 6’8 budding stars Deantae Hawkins (10.3 ppg) and MiKyle McIntosh (10.9 ppg) bring scoring, athleticism and experience to Dan Muller’s team. Two senior guards, Paris Lee and Tony Wills, give the Redbirds veteran ball handlers as well. Lee (11.1 ppg, 3.6 assists per game) temporarily lost his starting job last season, but regained his spot and the Redbirds finished the season with a flourish.
3 Northern Iowa
Despite losing three program stalwarts, the Panthers return two proven, versatile post players in Bennett Koch (7.6 ppg) and Klint Carlson (7.4 ppg), but this team belongs to senior Jeremy Morgan. The 6’5 guard averaged 11.3 points per game and led the team in rebounding, while ranking second in assists. His breakout performance in last year’s NCAA Tournament is what has people most excited. His 16 points against Texas and 36 points against Texas A&M have fans expecting a Player of the Year kind of season.
Milton Doyle could finally fulfill his immense potential. The former Kansas recruit has been dogged with injuries during his Loyola career, but heads into his senior season with 1,119 career points. The Ramblers have more talent around Doyle this season — holdovers Donte Ingram and prolific outside shooter Ben Richardson will be joined by Iowa State transfer Clayton Custer and an incoming recruiting class rivaled only by Wichita State’s. Loyola will also be stronger inside with the additions of Aundre Jackson and Vlatko Granic.
5 Southern Illinois
A quartet of senior starters in Leo Vincent (8.1 ppg), Mike Rodriguez (8.3 ppg), Tyler Smithpeters and leading returning scorer Sean O’Brien, lead the team, with sophomores Armon Fletcher and Sean Lloyd expected to contribute. The Salukis’ recruiting class includes 6’7 rim protector and JuCo transfer Thik Bol.
6 Missouri State
The Bears return five of their top seven players from last year’s 13-win team. Leading scorer (12.7 ppg) and Valley Newcomer of the Year Dequon Miller averaged over three rebounds and exactly three assists per game. Paul Lusk’s team landed two players (Obediah Church and Jarred Dixon) on the all-freshman team, while junior Chris Kendrix (12.1 ppg) was part of the MVC’s most improved team.
7 Indiana State
Greg Lansing’s team always plays good defense and disciplined basketball. Emerging star Brenton Scott (14.6 ppg) is the only returner from last year’s two all-conference teams, and he will join seniors Matt Van Scyoc and Everett Clemons to form the nucleus of the club. The Sycamores should be better in the post with Brandon Murphy, Emondre Rickman and T.J. Bell sharing time.
Brian Wardle’s second season on the Hilltop will be significantly better. The Braves return virtually everyone from a 5-27 team, including two players (Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye and Luuk van Bree) from the all-freshman team. The Baby Braves are growing up and add proven transfers Alex Foster and JoJo McGlaston.
No team is set for a bigger fall than the Purple Aces. Marty Simmons’ team lost arguably the two best players in Evansville history and replacing them will not be easy. After a 25-win season, guard Jaylon Brown is the only returning player among UE’s top five scorers. Fellow senior Blake Simmons and junior transfer Ryan Taylor must fill some big shoes.
Ironically, Drake will be better this year than last, but that is true of most of the other teams in the Valley, so it will be difficult for the Bulldogs to climb the MVC ladder. Head coach Ray Giacoletti will build around outstanding guard Reed Timmer (16.8 ppg) and backcourt mate Graham Woodward (10.8 ppg). The Dogs will be more athletic with the return of injured wing C.J. Rivers and newcomer De’Antae McMurray.