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Missouri Valley preseason rankings: Will Loyola’s teamwork overcome Illinois State’s talent?

Also, don’t leave Southern Illinois out of the conversation

NCAA Basketball: Final Four-Loyola vs Michigan Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

For those of you that thought the Missouri Valley Conference has become Loyola’s league, you need to think again. The Ramblers had a spectacular run to last season’s Final Four and they return three starters from that team, but Illinois State has talent to spare and look scary good.

The Redbirds return four starters, three of whom averaged over 15 points per game and arguably the best recruiting class in the league. Milik Yarbrough and Phil Fayne were named to the league’s preseason all conference team and guard Keyshawn Evans landed on the second unit.

1. Illinois State Redbirds, 18-15 (10-8)

Illinois State won 28 games and tied Wichita State for the Valley title in 2017. That senior-led team had star power, chemistry and great defense. This year’s Redbird team reminds me of that squad. Dan Muller’s team is loaded with talent and are passionate about defending better this season.

Reigning Valley Newcomer of the Year Yarbrough, Fayne and Evans are joined by a fourth starter William Tinsley. That long and athletic group is joined by junior college transfer Zach Copeland (who according to multiple sources could be the best player on the team), former Loyola wing Matt Chastain and transfer Josh Jefferson. Some observers believe those three recruits are all-conference type players.

With seven players that could start and perform at a high level for any team in the Valley, the Redbirds will be hard to defend. But Muller’s team must work on the defensive end to succeed. They allowed the second most points in the Valley last year (73.3), but Muller insists they played better down the stretch, allowing 67.7 over their final four games.

2. Loyola Ramblers, 32-6 (15-3), Lost to Michigan in the Final Four

How could the team that won the league by four games and went the Final Four be picked any lower than first? Illinois State’s superior talent and size will tip the scales in their favor. Make no mistake, this Loyola team is good. Really good.

Player of the Year Clayton Custer is back to run the show, hit big shots and represent head coach Porter Moser on the floor and in the press conferences. The guy does everything. He was thirteenth in scoring (13.2 points per game), fourth in assists, eighth in field goal percentage, third in three-point shooting, sixth in steals, third in assist-turnover ratio and sixth in minutes played. He is the heart and soul of this Rambler team.

But he’s not alone. The other two returning starters Marques Townes and center Cameron Krutwig were both named to the Valley’s preseason second team. Krutwig led the Valley in shooting percentage and finished ninth in rebounding on his way to his Frehsman of the Year title. Townes averaged 11.1 points per game and it was his three-pointer that defeated Nevada in the Sweet Sixteen victory.

Guard Lucas Williamson was a huge part of last season’s success filling in for Ben Richardson while the senior captain was injured and joined Krutwig on the all-freshman team. Loyola got bigger in the offseason with the additions of 6’7 New Mexico transfer Aher Uguak and 6’9 freshman Franklin Agunanne. Highly rated freshman guards Cooper Kaifes and Isaiah Bujdoso give the Ramblers depth.

3. Southern Illinois Salukis, 20-13 (11-7)

Barry Hinson’s team has all five starters back and six seniors dot the roster of this 20-win team. Leading scorer Armon Fletcher (14.1 ppg) is the headliner, but the Salukis are deep and talented. Defensive stopper Sean Lloyd and senior center Kavion Pippen both averaged over 12 points per game. Pippen was named to the All-Newcomer team and Lloyd to the Valley’s defensive squad.

Marcus Bartley started the season injured but the former Saint Louis University guard averaged 3.5 assists and made over 38% of his long distance attempts. Look for Bartley to stand out. Former all-defensive unit member Thik Bol sat out all last season after blocking 76 shots the year before and averaging 9.1 points per game.

SIU is deep at the guard position. Aaron Cook was named to all-improved team while averaging 9.8 points and Eric McGill returns after missing most of last season with a hand injury. Oh and three-star ( freshman guard Darius Beane is waiting in the wings.

4. Bradley Braves, 20-13 (9-9)

After being one of the youngest teams in the nation, Bradley finally has some experience. Losing just one significant player from last season makes Brian Wardle’s team a contender.

Leading scorer Darrell Brown is a combo guard who averaged 13.5 points and 4.3 assists per game. The 5’10 guard will be joined by defensive-minded senior Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye. Sharp shooting Nate Kennell made 69 threes last year and up front the Braves have 6’11 Koch Bar and the emerging Elijah Childs. The 6’7 sophomore was voted to the All-Freshman team after averaging 8.4 points and 6.2 rebounds per game.

5. Northern Iowa Panthers, 16-16 (7-11)

Ben Jacobson’s team has struggled the past two seasons, but is poised to break that trend. UNI is younger than most typical Panther teams, but their youngsters are good. Freshman A.J. Green is a top-100 recruit that Jacobson expects to perform right away.

Sophomores Tywhon Pickford and Austin Phyfe expect to play huge roles this season. Pickford (9.1 points & 7.8 rebounds per game) landed on the Valley’s freshman and newcomer teams after breaking the UNI freshman rebounding record. The 6’9 Phyfe played behind three seniors and is ready to be the man in the middle.

6. Indiana State Sycamores, 13-18 (8-10)

Coach Greg Lansing is rebuilding the Bulldogs. Junior Jordan Barnes is the league’s leading returning scorer (17.4 ppg) and set an Indiana State season record with 117 three-pointers. He is an elite MVC player. Emerging sophomore Tyreke Key scored over 3,200 points in high school and averaged 8.3 points per game last year.

Transfers Cooper Neese (Butler), Christian Williams (Iowa) and Allante Holston (North Texas) bring talent and in Williams’ and Holston’s cases experience. Williams played in 54 Hawkeye games and the 6’7 Holston has 98 D1 games under his belt. Neese scored 2,496 prep points.

7. Valparaiso Crusaders, 15-17 (6-12)

Matt Lottich’s team will be significantly better this season. After a year of adjusting from the Horizon League to the Valley, the Crusaders have a bit of a chip on their collective shoulders. And they are better. Holdovers Bakari Evelyn (12.6 ppg) and Markus Golder (9.5 ppg) lead the charge, but there are talented transfers lending a hand.

Ryan Fazekas (Providence) and Deion Lavender (UAB) are solid D1 talents. Lavender, who also played a season at SIU, was eighth in Conference USA in assists. In Fazekas’ two seasons (58 games) at Providence the 6’7 wing made 19 starts and buried 56 three-pointers.

Fazekas and 6’3 freshman Javon Freeman are three-star recruits. Freeman was an all-state perform from Chicago’s highly respected Whitney Young High School.

8. Missouri State Bears, 18-15 (7-11)

New coach Dana Ford (Tennessee State) is rebuilding, but he does have three seniors to build around. All-defensive team member Obediah Church, leading returning scorer Jarred Dixon (9.1 ppg) and Ryan Kreklow (91% from the line) are the seniors.

Highly touted freshman Jared Ridder originally signed with Xavier but transferred closer to home. Top-100 junior college transfers ( Keandre Cook and Kabir Mohammed should provide immediate help. Grad-transfer Josh Webster (Texas Tech) is a welcome addition at the point.

9. Drake Bulldogs, 18-15 (10-8), Lost in CIT second round

First year coach Darian DeVries is rebuilding from scratch. The former Creighton assistant recruited grad-transfers Nick Norton (UAB) and Brady Ellingson (Iowa) to fast-forward the process. He also landed three highly rated junior college players, all from the same school.

Florida Southwestern State twins Tremell and Anthony Murphy brought freshman D.J. Wilkins along to Des Moines. Tremell Murphy was ranked as a top-20 junior college player. 6’8 senior center Nick McGlynn returns after being named to the Valley’s most-improved team. He averaged 11.8 points and 5.7 rebounds last season.

10. Evansville Purple Aces, 17-15 (7-11)

This third brand new coach faces a large rebuilding job as well. Walter McCarty returned to his home town from the NBA’s Boston Celtics. The former Kentucky Wildcat hit the ground running and there is great excitement in Evansville, but his best recruits are sitting out this season.

6’5 junior K.J. Riley (6.8 ppg) is the leading returning scorer. Former Eureka College (D3) grad transfer Shea Feehan joins the team as a three-point specialist, and 6’9 Dainius Chatkevicius who averaged 4.8 points and 5.4 rebounds last year has to produce in the post for McCarty’s NBA-style offense to succeed.