As the season approaches, Mid-Major Madness will be taking a closer look at its preseason Power 15 teams.
Evansville took the step forward during the postseason last year that everyone had been waiting for over the last couple of years by winning the CIT. The Purple Aces struggled during the year to beat the Wichita State juggernaut, and couldn't pull off a win against Illinois State despite three attempts.
But there was something that clicked in the team after that season-ending loss to the Redbirds, and five wins later, the Purple Aces were hoisting a trophy.
Perhaps it was the coming to fruition of the spark that was shown when Evansville knocked off Northern Iowa in the first conference game of the year, a spark that seemed to dissipate after losses against Indiana State and Loyola in the next couple of games.
If that spark ignited in March and started to burn bright enough to win one tournament, could this be the year for Evansville in the Missouri Valley?
It is hard to see why it wouldn't be the case as the Purple Aces return every significant player from last season. They don't lose key inside players like both Northern Iowa and Wichita State. They don't lose one of their best defenders. They have everyone back that needs to be there.
Evansville has all of the offense, all of the defense, and all of the momentum that no one else in the Missouri Valley has. They may finally have the mix that can get past Wichita State, although that will still prove difficult. But there is no Tekele Cotton to stop DJ Balentine any longer. And there is no Darius Carter to prey on Egidijus Mockevicius, and force him into foul trouble.
And Illinois State will still be strong, but they also lose a lot of what made them a difficult matchup for the Purple Aces.
We will get the chance to see things put to the test early as Marty Simmons has really challenged this team. Beginning with Belmont, and through the Wooden Legacy (Providence, Santa Clara/Arizona, Boise State/Michigan State), along with Arkansas, Murray State and Fresno State, the Purple Aces have a lot of chances to put a strong win on the board. That is opposed to their run through the MEAC/SWAC, which will gain them no favor with the selection committee.
It makes it all the more important that Evansville roll off some wins early in the year to counteract that impression.
Although winning the Missouri Valley Conference might also help with that.
Evansville returns two players who should be all-conference in the Missouri Valley and the majority of its CIT-winning squad from last season. This is a team built to win and win now, with the right window in the Missouri Valley and a schedule that will both test and show off the skill that Evansville has on its roster. At a minimum, this is the second-best team in the Missouri Valley and the Purple Aces have the talent and skill to make not only a run in conference, but also at an at-large bid with the schedule they have.
The Purple Aces will be making someone take an early trip home in March, most likely in the NCAA Tournament.