Two-time defending Missouri Valley Conference champion Loyola University Chicago better be playing its best basketball at the end of the season. The Ramblers went to the Final Four in 2018 and tied with Drake for the regular season title last season. This year, they will have to earn their crown during a grueling three-game season-ending stretch, as demonstrated by the 2019-20 MVC schedule, which the league has provided to Mid-Major Madness.
Porter Moser’s team travels to league favorite Missouri State on Saturday, Feb. 22 and then hosts last year’s co-champion Bulldogs on the Feb. 25 before finishing the season at defending tournament champion Bradley on the Feb. 29.
Those four teams will likely be picked to finish atop the MVC in some order when the league holds its media day later this month. After opening the season at Valparaiso, the Ramblers host Missouri State and travel to Drake. By Jan. 8, we will already have a sense of where the league race is headed.
Loyola returns all-league center Cameron Krutwig, but graduated the Valley’s last two Players of the Year in Clayton Custer and Marques Townes. Replacing those two and injured guard Cooper Kaifes will be difficult for Moser and his remade coaching staff.
Easing all of those pains is the return of a healthy Lucas Williamson and what some are calling the best recruiting class of Moser’s career.
Tournament Champion Bradley
Bradley hopes to capture some momentum from last season’s Arch Madness championship and claim a regular season crown. The Braves return two all-league players in guard Darrell Brown (Second Team) and forward Elijah Childs (Third Team), and the conference’s best sixth man in Nate Kennell.
Brian Wardle’s group entertains Drake on New Year’s Eve and then plays three of its next four games on the road. One of those games (Jan. 15) is at Missouri State.
While the Valley plays an 18-game balanced schedule, there are some abnormalities. As an example, Bradley plays Northern Iowa twice in its first six games, without having to play War on 74 rival Illinois State, Valparaiso, Loyola nor Indiana State at all in that stretch.
Missouri State’s Potential
Missouri State has made Dorian-sized waves with its recruiting class and influx of talent. The Bears return two all-conference players and a plethora of high-level newcomers. All-Valley forward Tulio Da Silva and third-teamer Keandre Cook were each part of last season’s all-newcomer team. Dana Ford has two four-star freshmen and two established veteran transfers joining the squad.
The Bears play five of their first nine conference games on the road, including travels to Loyola and Drake. Only one of their first four home games occurs during an attendance-rich weekend. MSU was 5-4 in home games and in road games last season.
Illinois State and Bradley are ancient rivals with the two red-and-white teams separated by less than 40 miles along Interstate 74. The War on 74 is as heated a fan rivalry as there is in the Valley.
After losing eight straight to the Redbirds, Bradley has won the last three against their regional rival. The two square off in a pair of Wednesday games (Jan. 22 in Peoria and Feb. 26 in Normal) with Bradley leading the all-time series, 66-62.
Drake and Bradley are the two senior members of the Missouri Valley Conference. The two Valley squads have met 153 times with the Braves winning on 87 occasions. Drake swept last season’s two contests and the Bulldogs and Braves open the conference season on New Year’s Eve in Peoria.
In year two of Walter McCarty’s coaching career, Evansville has a brand new team. The Purple Aces have two high-level newcomers in Kansas transfer Sam Cunliffe and talented sophomore DeAndre Williams. During Evansville’s undefeated foreign excursion, Williams, who was invited to the NBA’s Top 100 camp, averaged over 20 points per game.
Unfortunately for McCarty’s Aces, they open up with three of their first four games against Missouri State (Dec. 31), Bradley (Jan. 8) and Loyola (Jan. 11). If UE survives its opening fortnight, it has a chance to be a surprise contender.
Valparaiso is another re-tooled team with a chance to surprise. With two highly rated transfers and the returns of injury-plagued Ryan Fazekas and all-freshman team member Javon Freeman-Liberty, the Crusaders are poised to contend.
Eron Gordon (Seton Hall) and Nick Robinson (Saint Joseph’s) are proven commodities, while Fazekas and Freeman-Liberty are all-league-type players. Fazekas (Providence transfer) made 43 percent of his long-distant shots and Freeman-Liberty is an elite defender. Each averaged over 11 points per game.
Valpo opens the conference season entertaining Loyola and thens travel to Evansville (Jan. 4) for a key matchup between between the two potential sleeper teams.
Can Drake Repeat?
Darian DeVries is the Valley’s reigning Coach of the Year and his Bulldogs were the MVC’s surprise team in 2019. But this year, Drake will be challenged early. The Bulldogs open the conference season at Bradley (Dec. 31), and after a home game with Indiana State, host Loyola (Jan. 7).
The Bulldogs graduated two all-league players, but return every other contributor from last season. A trio of former Florida Southwestern State teammates lead this year’s team. The Murphy twins (Tremell and Anthony) and D.J. Wilkins were spectacular in their first season in Des Moines. They’ll be joined by returning junior Noah Thomas and 7-footer Liam Robbins.
After that opening three games, Drake has a favorable stretch (at Valpo, hosting Illinois State, and traveling to Southern Illinois and Evansville).
Wide Open Race
Last year’s wide-open race (both Loyola and Drake lost six games) is a precursor for a similar Missouri Valley season, so a team like Northern Iowa, who rarely loses in Cedar Falls, could be the X-factor.
Ben “Jake the Giant Killer” Jacobson knows how to upset more highly rated teams. Don’t be surprised if the Panthers knock off several of the favorites at inopportune times. If sophomores A.J. Green and Austin Phyfe live up to their enormous potential, UNI could crash the upper echelon party.
Those two early games with Bradley could alter the Valley’s power structure. It finishes with Indiana State, Southern Illinois and Evansville before battling Drake on the final game of the season.