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4 games to watch in a loaded Missouri Valley Conference

Northern Iowa, Loyola, and Bradley should all contend at the top of the league

NCAA Basketball: Missouri Valley Conference Tournament Championship Bradley vs UNI Joe Puetz-USA TODAY Sports

When the season finally gets underway, fans will see a more balanced and deeper Missouri Valley Conference. Northern Iowa and Loyola have practically their entire rosters returning from last year, Bradley is the two-time Arch Madness champion, and Missouri State has re-loaded with a ton of talent.

Those schools should contend near the top of the standings, but Valparaiso is hoping to build on last spring’s Arch Madness run to the title game and Indiana State has a solid nucleus and high-level recruits. Southern Illinois, last year’s surprise team, should be even better in Bryan Mullins’ second year at the helm. Drake lost all-conference center Liam Robbins to Minnesota, but Darian DeVries returns a stellar group of returning perimeter players. Illinois State and Evansville have remade their rosters, but both have the talent to compete.

Here are some of the games that will determine the regular season race:

Jan. 3: Northern Iowa at Bradley

UNI is the defending regular season champion and Bradley has won two straight conference tournament titles. What else do you need to know? Four-year starter Darrell Brown has graduated from Bradley, but the league’s best 4-man, Elijah Childs (14.8 points per game, 8.7 rebounds per game), returns, and Brian Wardle had three talented players sitting out last season. Joining emerging star Ja’Shon Henry (9.7 ppg, 6.2 rpg), senior guard Danya Kingsby and 7-footer Ari Boya are transfer Terry Nolan Jr. (9.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg at George Washington) and Kevin McAdoo (8.6 ppg at Eastern Michigan). Highly regarded Netherlands forward, native Rienk Mast missed last season due to injuries.

Northern Iowa returns two first-team performers in Valley Player of the Year A.J. Green and center Austin Phyfe. After averaging 19.7 points per game, Green entered the NBA’s Draft pool, but decided to return to Cedar Falls for his junior year. Phyfe was clearly the come-back player of the year in 2020. After a disastrous, injury-filled season, he returned to score over 11 points and grab more than eight rebounds per game. UNI’s emerging star is Trae Berhow. The 6’5 wing averaged 12.5 points while converting 45 percent of his shots from deep. Head coach Ben Jacobson also signed Iowa’s Player of the Year in guard Bowen Born. The 5’11 scorer racked up 2,494 career prep points.

UNI swept the Braves during the regular season last year, but Childs missed one of those games and the Braves played short-handed due to injuries during much of the Valley season. The second conference game of the season for each of these teams could set the tone for the rest of the race.

Jan. 10: Loyola at Bradley

Loyola swept the regular season series between these two Valley powers. For Bradley to get over the hump and win a regular season crown, Wardle’s team will have to be more successful against Loyola and UNI; the Braves were 11-3 against other Valley teams and 0-4 against these two, and two of their first four games are against the Panthers and Ramblers. This is a critical game for Bradley’s psyche and its chances at a regular season title.

Jan. 31: Missouri State at Indiana State

These were two surprising teams last season. The Bears were the preseason favorites and the Sycamores were picked near the bottom, but Indiana State won 18 games — including 11 during league play — and Missouri State split its 18 conference games to finish one game under .500 overall. Injuries were a part of the MSU problem.

Dana Ford brings back third-team center Gaige Prim, who averaged 13.7 points per game in just 22 minutes per contest. As a part of the all-newcomer team, there were times when Prim was the most dominant player in the league. If he is healthy, he is a game-changer. At 6’8, Prim is the fourth-tallest player on this year’s team. Holdover Darian Scott is 6’11, transfer Nic Tata (Blinn College) is 6’11, and Hawaii transfer Dawson Carper is 7-foot. Starting sophomore guards Ja’Monta Black and Isiaih Mosley won a state title as high school teammates, while junior college stars Keaton Hervey and DeMarcus Sharp bring some proven talent to the wing position.

Greg Lansing’s Sycamores can’t wait to get back at it. First-team guard Tyreke Key returns and sophomore forwards Jake LaRavia and Tre Williams are poised to make leaps in their second seasons. The 6’8 LaRavia (9.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg) landed on the all-newcomer and freshman teams. Williams averaged 7.2 points and blocked 37 shots. NC Central transfer Randy Miller Jr. has Sycamore fans excited as the 6’2 guard averaged over 14 points per game before his previous season was ended by injury.

The showdown between the two front courts will be fascinating. MSU’s are talented and physical, while the Sycamore bigs are less imposing but efficient. Veteran guards Key and Miller will have an advantage over the younger Bear guards. These two teams should be battling for fourth place and this game will be a key to who finishes in that position.

Feb. 27: Northern Iowa at Loyola

This is the Valley’s last game of the season. These two Valley heavyweights played two overtime games last season, with each team winning at home. Loyola returns virtually every player of significance from last year’s 21-11 team that finished second to the Panthers during the regular season. All-conference center Cameron Krutwig returns after averaging 15.3 points, eight rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. The nation’s best passing center also managed 39 steals. Krutwig’s roommate and fellow senior Lucas Williamson is the league’s premier defender and averages nine points per game. Left-handed wing Tate Hall (13.0) made the Valley’s all-newcomer and third team all-conference squads.