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Missouri Valley Conference preseason power rankings: The race is wide open with Wichita State gone

NCAA Basketball: Missouri State at Wichita State
Missouri State’s Alize Johnson is the Valley’s best player.
Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Wichita State is gone and the new era of Missouri Valley Conference basketball begins with Missouri State laying claim to the favorite status. The Bears have the league’s best player in Alize Johnson, a deep and experienced squad, and one of the best recruiting classes in recent years.

Last year’s co-champion Illinois State has been decimated by graduation and graduate transfers, and an injury to their top recruit. The Redbirds will likely slip back into the MVC pack, while Northern Iowa and Loyola look to be Missouri State’s chief competitors.

Valparaiso replaces Wichita as the league’s 10th team and its transition from the Horizon League to the MVC should be easier than Loyola’s was in 2014.

Preseason Power Rankings:

  1. Missouri State Bears

Paul Lusk’s first six years as Missouri State’s head coach have not gone as planned, but he has accumulated the right mix of size, perimeter scoring, depth, and one star player that should lead the Bears to their first Valley championship since he replaced Cuonzo Martin in 2011.

Johnson averaged a double-double (14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds) on his way to Newcomer of the Year status in the MVC. The 6’9 Johnson has an inside-outside game not seen in the Valley since Doug McDermott was playing for Creighton. Johnson flirted with the NBA in the offseason and this August, was named the MVP of the Adidas Nations camp.

“He gets better,” Lusk said. “He’s better now than he was a month ago, he’s better than he was a year ago. The one thing he does, at a very high level, is that he competes.”

But Lusk has more than just one star player. Other big contributors from last year’s team are Jarrid Rhodes, Jarred Dixon, Ryan Kreklow and Obadiah Church. The physical Church grabbed almost six boards per contest and led the Valley with 2.4 blocks per game.

The wild card for the Bears is the return of guard Ronnie Rousseau (11.6 ppg, 2.9 apg). The senior started 14 games last season and then left the team for personal reasons. MSU was 11-3 with Rousseau and 6-13 without him.

Luck’s recruits are highly touted and led by junior Reggie Scurry. Division I graduate transfers Tanveer Bhullar (New Mexico State) and J.T. Miller (Howard) give the Bears additional experience and abilities. Bhullar is a 7’2 and Miller scored nearly 900 points at Howard.

2. Northern Iowa Panthers

As Lusk told me, “you should never bet against Ben Jacobson,” so I’m placing the Panthers second. There are three teams in the Valley with significant frontcourt strength, and those teams are Missouri State, Loyola, and UNI.

Jacobson has two potential all conference bigs in Bennett Koch and Klint Carlson. They have played significant roles for three years and this is their time to shine. Koch is the team’s leading returning scorer (11 ppg) and Carlson is the leader in rebounding. The left-handed Carlson is a threat from deep and Koch has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. He is the third Koch brother to play at UNI.

The return of guard Wyatt Lohaus is essential to the Panthers’ title hopes. The 6’2 junior played just six games last season due to an ankle injury but should be the quarterback to this year’s team. Sophomores Juwan McCloud and Spencer Haldeman gained valuable experience during their freshman seasons and will battle transfers Adam McDermott (Doug’s cousin) and Miles Wentzien, and freshman Tywhon Pickford for time on the UNI perimeter.

3. Loyola-Chicago Ramblers

Milton Doyle has left for the NBA, but Loyola might be even better. Porter Moser’s team returns three starters, a highly touted transfer, and a freshman class that is loaded with talent and size.

Donte Ingram was Doyle’s chief side-kick, averaging 13.6 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The 6’6 senior nailed 46 percent of his shots from long distance and will be the Ramblers’ go-to player. Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer are two other sharp-shooters in Moser’s arsenal, as both connected on better than 42 percent from long range.

Fairleigh Dickinson transfer Marques Townes sat out last season after averaging 11.5 points per game for the Knights as they qualified for the NCAA Tournament. Moser believes Townes will be a Valley star.

The Valley’s Sixth Man of Year Aundre Jackson is a triple threat performer. He averaged over 14 points and four rebounds per game and the 6’5 senior often played in the post and still found time to convert 45 percent of his three-point attempts.

Moser’s newcomers include a wave of big men to clean up the rare misses from Loyola’s snipers. 7-foot North Dakota graduate transfer Carson Shanks and a pair of freshmen — 6’7 Christian Negron and 6’9 Cameron Krutwig — show up to Chicago’s north shore with size and talent.

4. Illinois State Redbirds

No Valley team had a more difficult offseason. The Redbirds lost four starters to graduation and graduate transfers, a key bench player transferred, and their top incoming transfer (Zach Copeland) failed to qualify academically and will miss the season. Dan Muller’s coaching staff even sustained two departures.

Despite those losses, the Redbirds return three key members from last year’s co-conference champion squad in leading rebounder Phil Fayne (9.1 points per game and 6.3 rebounds), 7-foot Daouda Ndiaye and reserve guard Keyshawn Evans.

“It will be fun, but it will be different,” Muller said. “It will be a test for our team to see how long it takes to jell and what it takes to win.”

Joining those three will be Saint Louis transfer Milik Yarbrough and UTEP transfer Christian Romine. Yarbrough, whose father played for ILS, averaged 7.7 points and 4.6 rebounds per game at SLU, and at 6’6, Muller believes Yarbrough can be a special player in the MVC.

5. Valparaiso Crusaders

Alec Peters has left for the NBA, but unlike Loyola, the Crusaders won’t be better. That’s not to say they’ll be bad. Valpo has averaged over 25 wins per game over the past five years, the Crusaders won’t fall into oblivion over night.

“The Valley has been a conference we’ve admired for a long time,” head coach Matt Lottich said. “A lot of that has to do with the success the league teams have had.”

Tevonn Walker will lead the way as the Crusaders’ lone returning starter. The 6’2 guard was named to the Horizon League’s All-Defensive team and averaged 11.9 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. Walker will be joined by some high level transfers.

Joe Burton averaged 4.7 points per game at Oklahoma State. Bakari Evelyn played in 18 games during his freshman season at Nebraska, and Markus Golder was an explosive scorer at North Idaho Community College.

Lottich has been particularly impressed with the offseason work of Walker’s high school teammate Max Joseph. The two guards played together in Montreal.

6. Southern Illinois Salukis

Barry Hinson has three returning starters from last year’s team and a fourth if you consider Tyler Smithpeters’ return with a redshirt senior season. Budding star Armon Fletcher averaged 11.1 points per game despite battling injuries. The 6’4 junior can be an explosive and game changing player.

6’8 Thik Bol is a rim protector, averaging 6.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game, and some improvement on offense would greatly enhance SIU’s chance for success. Guard Sean Loyd averaged 7.6 points per game, but is a difference maker on defense.

Another Saint Louis transfer, Marcus Bartley, is expected to make significant contributions in Carbondale. The 6’4 junior was a prolific three-point shooter for the Billikens. JuCo transfers Eric McGill and Kavion Pippen will fill Saluki gaps. McGill is a highly rated point guard and the 6’10 Pippen (Scottie Pippen’s nephew) brings needed depth behind Bol.

7. Bradley Braves

This could be the year Brian Wardle’s team breaks through. The third-year coach has been building culture, depth, and identity in Peoria and has virtually every player back from last year’s 13-win team. Wardle’s squad was last year’s third-youngest in college basketball. He relishes the idea of having seniors on the 2017-18 team.

“We want to build a program to last,” Wardle said. “Year three, this is the deepest most talented team we’ve had. We’re excited about the pieces we have and the culture we have built.”

Seniors Jo Jo McGlaston and Donte Thomas provide the veteran leadership and both players averaged around eight points per game. Juniors Antoine Pittman, Luuk van Bre and Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye were all six point per game scorers.

Two players, point guard Darrell Brown and 6’11 Koch Bar are the latest Bradley players to be named to the Valley’s All-Freshman team. Van Bre and Lautier-Ogunleye received those honors two seasons ago.

Wardle’s stacking of classes has been impressive and transfer Luqman Lundy (Northern Oklahoma College) could be the shot in the arm that moves the Braves high enough in the standings to avoid the first day of the league’s postseason tournament. The 6’3 Lundy is an explosive player who can score (13.6 ppg), rebound (4.9 per game) and dish (5.6 assists per game).

8. Indiana State Sycamores

After a 23-win season four years ago, the Sycamores have twice won 15 games and 11 last year. Coach Greg Lansing’s team pulled off the upset of the Valley season last year by defeating Butler, but had little else to celebrate.

One bright spot for the Sycamores is the scoring ability of Brenton Scott. The senior guard averaged 15.9 points per game, but the rest of the lineup is less accomplished.

Lansing has depth at center in Brandon Murphy and Emondre Rickman, but neither player averaged more than 4.2 points per game, and the Sycamores need some kind of offensive threat in the post.

Sophomore point guard Jordan Barnes and freshman combo guard Tyreke Key could become major contributors. Key averaged 37.3 points per game and was named ‘Mr. Basketball’ in Tennessee’s Class A division.

9. Evansville Purple Aces

After two straight exceptional seasons, the Purple Aces fell off last year. Teams do that when they lose two program-changing players in the same season. The Aces never recovered from the loss of D. J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius.

They did manage to have the league’s leading scorer for the fourth straight year, but went just 6-12 in league play. Jaylon Brown averaged 20.9 points per game in head coach Marty Simmons’ motion offense.

Ryan Taylor steps into the featured spot after averaging 14.1 points per game last year. Point guard Duane ‘Boo’ Gibson and returning (from injury) Blake Simmons are the veterans commissioned with linking current Purple Aces to their successful past.

Simmons fished in that Lithuanian pond for another big man with a hard to pronounce last name, when he signed 6’9 transfer Dainius Chatkevidius from Vincennes University. 6’7 red-shirt freshman John Hall and 6’9 true freshman Evan Kuhlman also bring some much needed size to the Aces’ lineup.

10. Drake Bulldogs

The only new coach in the Valley, Niko Medved, has the unenviable task of turning around a Drake program that hasn’t reached double digits in the win column in four years.

Medved was the Southern Conference Coach of the Year at Furman and hopes to do for Drake what he did for Paladins.

The Drake offense revolves around Reed Timmer, who is also the league’s reigning Scholar Athlete. Timmer averaged 15.3 points per game and will be joined by a host of perimeter players, including De’Antae McMurray and Graham Woodward.

If Drake is going to improve, it will need interior production from juniors Casey Schlatter and Kory Kuenstling, sophomore Nick McGlynn, and German freshman Antonio Pilipovic.