Explaining my MVC awards ballot

Photo: AP / Stephen Haas

It was another relentlessly thrilling year of Missouri Valley hoops with a title race that came down to the final day. Earlier today, I submitted my ballot for All-MVC honors, and I’m here to share my picks with you.

For some context, I favor conference performance over non-conference performance, but both halves of the season matter to some extent. The same goes for favoring players from good teams over guys from bad teams: a player’s value can benefit from being on a good team, but it’s rarely a difference maker.

The voters comprise head coaches, sports information directions and media members. The way the MVC award ballot works, a voter cannot select a player from the team he/she represents or covers. So that’s why you will see 12 all-league players below instead of 10, as two of my top 10 were Loyola players.

Awards will be announced Tuesday-Thursday prior to the conference tournament.

First Team

Paris Lee, Illinois State (Player of the Year)

—This was so tough as there were no dominant stars in the Valley this year but a ton of very, very, very good players. Ultimately, I’m going with Lee as my player of the year because he’s a two-way player and the engine behind Illinois State winning its first MVC title in 19 years.

He’s the league’s leader in assists and steals while also being top 12 in points and 3-point percentage.

Milton Doyle, Loyola

—Doyle is the most balanced player in the Valley. He’s the only player to average at least 15 points, 4 rebounds and 4 assists, and…there’s no one else who really comes close to those numbers. He’s also top 5 in the league in steals.

He never got that elusive triple-double, but he had four games with at least 10 points, 7 boards and 7 dimes while the rest of the MVC had four such games combined.

Markis McDuffie, Wichita State

—It’s a bit odd to have a first teamer who played just 25 minutes per game, but that’s the nature of the Wichita State beast. McDuffie is the MVC’s biggest matchup nightmare as a 6’8″ forward with guard skills who can also defend well on the perimeter.

His traditional stats don’t pop off the page: 11.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. But in league games he finished 3rd in offensive rating with a top 25 usage rate.

Deontae Hawkins, Illinois State

—Lee may be my player of the year, but Hawkins is actually Illinois State’s leader in points (14.1), rebounds (6.8) and 3-point percentage (42%). He posted five double-doubles and scored in double figures all but three times in 2017.

Hawkins finished the season 6th in offensive rating in league play, 5th in effective field goal percentage and 6th in defensive rebounding rate.

Alize Johnson, Missouri State

—Johnson was the only MVC player to average a double-double this year, and he also had two 20-point, 20-rebound games while the rest of the conference had none.

Sure, Johnson’s defense isn’t so great. But he was one of the Valley’s top offensive presences with a 109.1 offensive rating and 27.2% usage rate.

Second Team

Landry Shamet, Wichita State

—In his redshirt freshman season, Shamet was one of the Shockers’ top players, averaging 11.4 points and 3.4 assists. In league games, he led the Valley in offensive rating (144.3) and effective field goal percentage (71.3) while finishing 6th in assist rate (24.1).

Wichita State’s balanced attack and Shamet’s low usage rate probably helped his numbers out, but he was the best player on the floor in many of the Shockers’ games, particularly toward the end of the year.

(Shamet received the 5th spot on my ballot, filling in Doyle’s absence and technically putting him on my first team.)

Jeremy Morgan, Northern Iowa

—After dropping 28 points on Missouri State in UNI’s conference opener, the preseason player of the year had plenty of struggles in the Valley. Then again, he was also playing on a team with few other weapons, so defenses could key in on him.

Morgan finished the year averaging 14.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks, but in conference play all those numbers came down. He also shot just 38.2% from the field and 29% from three in Valley games. Still, considering how valuable he is to a team that came from behind to finish third, he’s right up there with the best players in the conference.

Jaylon Brown, Evansville

—Sure, someone has to score for Evansville, but Brown did a pretty remarkable job during his senior season filling the shoes of D.J. Balentine. The 6’1″ guard led the Valley with an efficient 20.6 points per game and also dished out 3.1 assists.

He finished 4th among MVC starters in PER and 6th in offensive rating for players with at least a 24% usage rate.

Sean O’Brien, SIU

—The Salukis exceeded expectations this year largely thanks to O’Brien. I may be a little biased because the one time I saw him this season, he dropped 19 points (9-of-11 FG), 10 rebounds and 4 assists in a win at Loyola.

O’Brien fell a bit short of averaging a double-double with 12.4 points and 8.5 rebounds. Although he posted only 2.7 assists per game, I’d like to see how many “hockey assists” he had. (Spoiler: I think it would be a lot.)

Donte Ingram, Loyola

—Ingram had a breakout season thanks to improved shooting and rebounding. He averaged 13.7 points with a 63.4 effective field goal percentage. In conference games, he finished 4th in offensive rating, 3rd in eFG%, 5th in defensive rebounding rate and 6th in turnover rate.

 

*MiKyle McIntosh, Illinois State

—McIntosh missed five games after tearing his meniscus and wasn’t the same upon returning for the final four games of the year. But before the injury, he was actually my leader for player of the year.

He averaged 12.8 points and 5.8 rebounds, and his versatility as a 6’7″ forward who could shoot and play inside made the Redbirds extremely tough to guard when he, Lee and Hawkins were clicking.

(McIntosh was the 9th player on my ballot because of the voting rules.)

*Conner Frankamp, Wichita State

—Frankamp got my second-team vote even though I think he’s just barely outside the top 10 players. After struggling to get going early in the year, he shot 50.6% from three in Valley play and his 140.9 offensive rating ranked second in the league. He was also 7th in steal rate.

(Frankamp was the 10th player on my ballot because of the voting rules.)

Others I considered: Darral Willis Jr. (Wichita State), Phil Fayne (Illinois State), Aundre Jackson (Loyola), Dequon Miller (Missouri State), Obediah Church (Missouri State), Brenton Scott (Indiana State)

Defensive Team

Obediah Church, Missouri State (Defensive Player of the Year)

—Church’s 10.11 block rate is the most by a Valley player playing at least 25 minutes per game since Bradley’s Patrick O’Bryant in the 2005-06 season. (O’Bryant was then a top-10 pick in the 2006 NBA Draft, although he flamed out of the league pretty quickly.)

Jeremy Morgan, UNI

—Northern Iowa built its late-season run on defense, climbing into the top-50 defenses on Kenpom, and Morgan is easily their best player on that end of the floor. (Credit freshman guard Juwan McCloud for also being a ball hawk, though.) Morgan was the only player to finish top five in the conference in blocks and steals. In fact, no other player finished in the top 10 in both categories.

Paris Lee, Illinois State

—Lee is the only MVC player to average at least two steals per game this year, and he played fewer minutes than each of the four guys behind him for the steals title and at a slower tempo than three of them.

Zach Brown, Wichita State

—Brown is the Valley’s best lockdown defender. His numbers don’t stand out much as he barely cracked the league’s top 15 in steal rate and rarely blocks shots. But his 93.2 defensive rating ranked 6th among guys with at least 600 minutes in conference play.

Look at Wichita State’s box scores and see how often an opponent’s top perimeter player struggled. That’s typically Brown’s doing.

Tony Wills, Illinois State

—Here’s another one of the Valley’s lockdown fellas. His 1.8 defensive win shares ranked 4th among MVC guards. In league games, he was also 3rd in steal rate and 11th in block rate.

Others I considered: Markis McDuffie (Wichita State), Phil Fayne (Illinois State), Milton Doyle (Loyola)

Freshman Team

Landry Shamet, Wichita State (Freshman of the Year)

—This was a no-brainer. Shamet was 2nd in the MVC with 4.7 win shares. The next-best freshman was teammate Austin Reaves at 1.8 WS.

Darrell Brown, Bradley

—Bradley made a nice jump forward this year, an adding Brown was a big part of that. He averaged 12.5 points with 37.6% 3-point shooting and 2.8 assists.

Dru Smith, Evansville

—Marty Simmons may have his next star to follow in the footsteps of D.J. Balentine and Colt Ryan. Smith averaged 5.5 points, 2.9 assists and 2.7 rebounds. In league games he finished 2nd in assist rate, top 15 in steal rate and top 25 in block rate.

Koch Bar, Bradley

—Bar is going to be a nightly double-double threat in the Valley, and maybe even as soon as next year. In 21.2 minutes, he averaged 6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 1.2 blocks. For a young big, he did a pretty solid job of defending without fouling.

Jordan Barnes, Indiana State

—Barnes had a very good year backup Everett Clemons with 6.5 points and 2 assists per game. Wichita State’s Austin Reaves had better overall numbers, but I gave the last spot to Barnes because he was a much more indispensable piece to his team.

Others I considered: Austin Reaves (Wichita State)

Newcomer Team

Alize Johnson, Missouri State (Newcomer of the Year)

—There were a handful of great newcomers in the Valley, but Johnson still managed to run away with this award in my eyes. No other newcomer was as important to his team as Johnson, who took over several games for the Bears.

Landry Shamet, Wichita State

—It was also a no-brainer for Shamet to be among the top two of the All-Newcomer Team, and he was a hair behind Johnson for my Newcomer of the Year vote.

Shamet is also my only freshman on the All-Newcomer team.

Aundre Jackson, Loyola

—Jackson wasn’t far behind Johnson either for my Newcomer of the Year pick. The 6’5″ forward’s 14.5 points per game were 7th in the Valley (and tied with Johnson for the most among newcomers), and his 67.7 field-goal percentage ranked 5th in the nation and 1st in the MVC.

Phil Fayne’s 59.2% was second.

Darral Willis Jr., Wichita State

—Willis looked like a player of the year candidate early on but was virtually nonexistent during an 8-game stretch in the middle of the season. Still, he averaged 10.2 points and 5.1 rebounds in just 17.2 minutes, making his efficiency numbers good enough to rank No. 2 in the Kenpom Player of the Year race.

 

Phil Fayne, Illinois State

There’s a bit of a drop-off between Willis and Fayne, but I still had no doubt giving the latter an All-Newcomer nod as well. The big question for Illinois State coming into the season was a post presence, and the 6’9″ Fayne provided that with 9.6 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.0 blocks per game.

*Thik Bol, SIU

—Bol gave SIU its best post presence since Barry Hinson took the job in 2012. The 6’8″ forward had four double-doubles and flirted with a triple-double Feb. 19 against Indiana State with 19 points, 11 boards and 6 blocks.

He finished the year averaging 9.3 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.4 rejections.

(Bol took my final spot on the Newcomer Team because of the voting rules.)

Others I considered: Ryan Taylor (Evansville), DJ Clayton (Illinois State), Jordan Ashton (UNI), Clayton Custer (Loyola)

Coach of the Year

Dan Muller, Illinois State

Muller brought Illinois State to its first MVC title since the 1997-98 season and possibly has the Redbirds in a position to land an at-large should they lost in Arch Madness, something the program has not done since 1985.

The 17-1 record is the best by an MVC team not named Wichita State since 2003-04, and its a program best for Illinois State.

The ballot has you rank three coaches for Coach of the Year, and I ranked Gregg Marshall (Wichita State) second and Brian Wardle (Bradley) third.

 

The 10 beat writers voted on the next two categories (Bench Team and Most Improved Team), and each was allowed to vote for players from the school he covers.

Bench Team

a.k.a. What An Expansion Team in the Valley Would Look Like

Aundre Jackson, Loyola (6th Man of the Year)

—Another no-brainer.

Rashard Kelly, Wichita State

—Talk about a guy who knows how to play his role. Kelly was a big recruit for Gregg Marshall three years ago but has been a reserve for the first three years of his career. That didn’t stop him from still being a difference maker for the Shockers this year with 5.4 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.

DJ Clayton, Illinois State

—The Redbirds don’t have a ton of depth, but Clayton played a big role off the bench with 6.5 points, 4.2 rebounds and 1.6 assists per contest.

Dru Smith, Evansville

—Not much more to say than what was said under the Freshman Team section. Smith looks like a future Valley star and should be starting next season.

Keyshawn Evans, Illinois State

—Point guard depth was a big question for Illinois State entering the season, because Paris Lee can’t play 40 minutes every night. After barely playing as a freshman, Evans made a nice jump as a sophomore backing up Lee with 5.6 points and 2 assists per game. He also became the team’s biggest 3-point threat on the bench at 38.9%.

Others I considered: Rauno Nurger (Wichita State)

Most Improved Team

Jaylon Brown, Evansville (Most Improved Player)

—We all knew Brown’s numbers would skyrocket with all that Evansville lost from last year, but he exceeded expectations. His scoring average shot up nearly 10 points to 20.6, and he did so efficiently with a 58.0 true shooting percentage.

Donte Ingram, Loyola

—Ingram used to be mostly an energy guy with a respectable mid-range jumper and a couple of gritty post moves. Now he’s one of the Valley’s most lethal shooters and a double-double threat every night.

Deontae Hawkins, Illinois State

—There wasn’t a whole lot of separation between Brown, Ingram and Hawkins. You could vote any of those guys most improved player, and I wouldn’t have any problem with it.

In the end, I put Hawkins third simply because he was already the most developed of the three last season, so his jump wasn’t as dramatic.

Rauno Nurger, Wichita State

—Nurger was a nobody riding the bench in Wichita for two seasons before breaking out in a big way as a junior. He played just 15 minutes per game but averaged 5.3 points and half a block while shooting efficiently from two and three.

Obediah Church, Missouri State

—Church was already a very solid player, and he only became more efficient on both ends of the floor. Kind of like Hawkins, he went from being an already above average to a big force in the Valley.

Others I considered: Bennett Koch (UNI), Keyshawn Evans (Illinois State), Conner Frankamp (Wichita State)

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