2014-15 Missouri Valley Conference Preview: Is Wichita State capable of another undefeated year?

Photo: Peter Aiken | Getty Images North America

Wichita State was the story in the Valley last season, entering the NCAA Tournament with a perfect record. Are the Shockers capable of running the table again? (I’m talking about just for the MVC — just bringing up if they, or any team, can do that for a full season is ridiculous in my opinion.)

The short answer is it’s possible but very unlikely. It was already unlikely when the Shockers did it last year. Now the Shockers lost a great player in Cleanthony Early, and the MVC is much improved from top to bottom. Northern Iowa is a top-five mid-major, and Evansville has the pieces to make a huge jump.

 

1. Wichita State

Key losses: Cleanthony Early, Nick Wiggins, Chadrack Lufile, Kadeem Coleby

Key returners: Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet, Tekele Cotton, Darius Carter

Key additions: Rashard Kelly, Tom Wamukota, Zach Brown

Photo: Peter Aiken | Getty Images North America
Junior guard Fred VanVleet is the reigning MVC Player of the Year. (Photo: Peter Aiken | Getty Images North America)

Wichita State is once again the heavy favorite to win the MVC. While the Shockers will most likely not go undefeated, they are still a Top-25 club loaded with talent.

Remember how good Wichita State’s backcourt was last year? Well, those guys were all sophomores and juniors, and they are back for the 2014-15 season. Junior Fred VanVleet (11.6 ppg, 5.4 apg) returns to try and repeat as MVC Player of the Year, junior Ron Baker (13.1 ppg, 3.1 apg) should develop into the Shockers’ top scorer, and senior Tekele Cotton (10.3 ppg) will continue to be a defensive menace as well as an offensive threat.

On the front line, the Shockers lost Early, Kadeem Coleby and Chadrack Lufile. 6-foot-7 senior Darius Carter (7.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) will step into one of the forward spots. In only 18.2 minutes per game, Carter was an effective presence. He reached double figures in scoring 12 times, including one double-double.

A newcomer, most like freshman Rashard Kelly or junior college transfer Tom Wamukota, will occupy the final starting spot. Kelly, a three-star recruit, played a postgraduate year at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy. Wamukota, a 7-footer who played at Kilgore College last year, averaged 6.0 points and 6.8 rebounds.

Even with some questions in the front court, Wichita State remains a clear step ahead of the rest of the Valley.

 

2. Northern Iowa

Key losses: Chip Rank

Key returners: Seth Tuttle, Deon Mitchell, Nate Buss, Matt Bohannon, Wes Washpun, Jeremy Morgan

Key additions: Paul Jesperson, Taylor Olson

Northern Iowa is the only team with enough talent to truly compete with Wichita State for a conference title. The Panthers return their top six players from last year’s team, which finished third in the league. They also add an impact transfer in former Virginia guard Paul Jesperson. Jesperson, a 6’6″ wing, averaged 4.7 points and shot 37.0% from the field for Cavaliers during the 2012-13 season.

Jesperson joins an already deep backcourt. Northern Iowa returns a pair of point guards in senior Deon Mitchell (12.1 ppg, 3.4 apg) and junior Wes Washpun (8.3 ppg, 3.8 apg). It also brings back its top-two shooting guards, junior Matt Bohannon (9.9 ppg, 37.4 3P%) and sophomore Jeremy Morgan (6.0 ppg, 35.6 3P%).

Where the Panthers have an edge on the Shockers and possibly every team in the Valley is on the front line. Senior Seth Tuttle (15.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.3 apg) is an all-conference first teamer, and senior Nate Buss is coming off a breakout year where he averaged 10.6 points and 5.0 rebounds. At 6-foot-9, he can shoot better than 50% from 3-point range.

When Creighton left the MVC, people wondered when the conference would return to being a two-bid league. Two years removed from the Bluejays, this could be the year.

Taking the crown from Wichita State is a tall task, but even if the Panthers finish behind the Shockers, they could still snag an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

 

 3. Evansville

Key losses: None

Key returners: D.J. Balentine, Egidijus Mockevicius, Duane Gibson, Blake Simmons, Adam Wing, Jaylon Moore, Jaylon Brown

Key additions: Taylor Stafford, Willie Wiley

Photo: AP Photo |Al Behrman
Sophomore guard D.J. Balentine led the MVC in scoring last season. (Photo: AP Photo |Al Behrman)

Evansville won only six games in the MVC last season, but with everyone returning the Aces are a prime pick to move way up in the standings. The overall record was nothing impressive last year, but they showed an ability to stick with Wichita State and Indiana State, the top two teams.

Junior guard D.J. Balentine is hands down the best scorer in the conference. He averaged 22.8 points, and he also found the open man for 4.2 assists per game. Rarely does a team totally shut him down. He was held to single-digit scoring only twice. Meanwhile, he hit the 30-point mark six times.

Balentine is joined by by sophomore Duane Gibson at point guard, a guy who struggled here and there in MVC play but was ultimately a very impressive freshman. Gibson averaged 6.7 points and 3.8 assists. He had 11 games with at least five dimes. But he also struggled taking care of the ball, committing 3.1 turnovers per game. Improving that assist to turnover ratio is crucial for Evansville’s success this season. Junior Adam Wing and sophomore Blake Simmons, the son of head coach Marty, also return.

This backcourt would already be one of the better ones in the Valley, but it gets even better with the addition of junior college transfer Taylor Stafford. Stafford averaged 18.3 points and shot 36.6% from 3-point land at Eastern Arizona.

Up front junior Egidijus Mockevicius, one of the Valley’s premier big men, returns. Mockevicius averaged 10.5 points, 8.3 boards and 2.0 blocks per game as a sophomore while shooting 62.7% from the field. Reserve forward Jaylon Moore, a senior who averaged 4.2 points per game is also back.

Another junior college transfer, Willie Wiley, will also have an immediate impact. Wiley averaged 13.6 points on 54.5% shooting and also grabbed 8.3 rebounds per contest.

 

4. Illinois State

Key losses: Zach Lofton, Nick Zeisloft

Key returners: Daishon Knight, Bobby Hunter, Reggie Lynch, Paris Lee, John Jones

Key additions: DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, Justin McCloud, MiKyle McIntosh, Deontae Hawkins

Illinois State loses talented but unreliable scorer Zach Lofton, wing Nick Zeisloft and third-string point guard Kaza Keane. But the Redbirds return everyone else from a team that won 18 games.

Seniors Bobby Hunter and Daishon Knight and sophomore Paris Lee return to anchor the backcourt.

Hunter was a consistent presence for the Redbirds, scoring in double figures 22 times. He also led the team with 2.4 assists and 1.5 steals per game. Knight led the team with 13.2 points per game and also rebounded well for a guard with 4.6 boards per contest. Lee had some freshman growing pains, but ultimately he was successful with averages of 6.7 points and 2.3 dimes.

With junior college transfers DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and Justin McCloud joining the program, the Redbirds’ backcourt should actually be better than last year.

Forward Reggie Lynch, who was one of the league’s top freshmen last season returns and should start once again. He played only 20.3 minutes per game last season but averaged 8.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. As long as he can continue to produce in larger quantities of minutes, he will be one of the Valley’s premier big men.

The Redbirds’ frontcourt gets a big boost in freshmen Deontae Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh, who could both compete for MVC Newcomer of the Year this season.

 

5. Southern Illinois

Key losses: Desmar Jackson, Marcus Fillyaw

Key returners: Anthony Beane, Jalen Pendleton, Sean O’Brien, Bola Olaniyan, Tyler Smithpeters

Key additions: Jordan Caroline, Deion Lavender, Ibby Djimde

Southern Illinois could be getting some addition by subtraction with the departure of leading scorer Desmar Jackson (18.6 ppg). Jackson was undoubtedly a tremendous talent, but the Salukis often lived and died by his success.

Southern Illinois retains one of the league’s most talented scorers in junior guard Anthony Beane. Beane averaged 21.4 points on 52% field-goal shooting in the team’s final 12 games, and he was a big reason for the Salukis’ turnaround at the end of the last season.

Junior Jalen Pendleton (9.1 ppg, 3.5 rpg) once again joins Beane in the backcourt, and the Salukis also add three freshmen in Jordan CarolineDeion Lavender and K.C. Goodwin.

The Salukis return a pair of sophomore forwards who performed well as freshman in Sean O’Brien and Bola Olaniyan. O’Brien started 24 games and averaged 6.7 points and 5.2 rebounds. Olaniyan started receiving more playing time in late January and February, and he succeeded when given extended minutes. The Nigeria native posted a pair of double-doubles.

 

6. Missouri State

Key losses: Jarmar Gulley, Keith Pickens

Key returners: Marcus Marshall, Austin Ruder, Ron Mvouika, Christian Kirk, Gavin Thurman, Dorrian Williams

Key additions: Loomis Gerring, Camyn Boone

Missouri State has the potential to finish as high as third in the MVC this year, but the Bears have a lot to replace after losing Jarmar Gulley and Keith Pickens.

The biggest piece for Missouri State is Marcus Marshall. Marshall, a junior guard, was averaging 14.3 points last season through 12 games until a knee injury ended his season. He was also the MVC Freshman of the Year two seasons ago. He has successfully rehabbed that knee and should once again be one of the conference’s better players.

Senior Ron Mvouika and sophomore Austin Ruder, a sensational outside shooter, also return at guard. Junior Dorrian Williams, who averaged 3.4 assists last season, should once again man the point guard spot.

With Gulley and Pickens gone, the Bears’ front line won’t be as deep. Senior Christian Kirk and junior Gavin Thurman return, but they started only a combined 10 games last year. The Bears will need junior college transfers Camyn Boone and Loomis Gerring to make a big impact.

 

7. Bradley

Key losses: Walt Lemon Jr., Tyshon Pickett, Jordan Prosser

Key returners: Omari Grier, Auston Barnes, Ka’Darryl Bell, Xzavier Taylor

Key additions: Josh Cunningham, Mike Shaw, Tramique Sutherland, Warren Jones, Kendahl Amerson, Jermaine Morgan

Bradley loses its two best players from last season but could actually be better this year with a great recruiting class coming in. The key will be getting this new group to mesh.

Former guard Walt Lemon Jr. was a tremendous player, but overall the Braves’ backcourt is much improved. Junior Omari Grier (10.4 ppg) returns, and coach Geno Ford adds a trio of junior college transfers with two years of eligibility who should be effective.

Tramique Sutherland was a dominant player at Hill College, averaging 19.3 points, 7.6 rebounds and 8.2 assists. Kendahl Amerson averaged 17.5 points and shot 39.5% from 3-point range at Eastern Utah. Warren Jones averaged 16.8 points and shot 40.9% from deep, and he’s capable of playing both guard positions.

Senior Auston Barnes (8.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) returns and is joined by three key newcomers. Transfer Mike Shaw brings BCS experience with two seasons at Illinois, and junior college transfer Jermaine Morgan averaged 8.5 points and 8.4 boards at Moberly Area Community College.

Freshman forward Josh Cunningham will also be an immediate contributor. Cunningham was a top-100 recruit nationally in high school.

 

8. Indiana State

Key losses: Jake Odum, Manny Arop, Dawon Cummings, Lucas Eital, Demetrius Moore

Key returners: Khristian Smith, Justin Gant, Devonte Brown, Jake Kitchell

Key additions: Grant Prusator, Tre’ Bennett

Indiana will have a down year after losing star point guard Jake Odum and Manny Arop. The Sycamores return a pair of solid pieces in junior Khristian Smith and senior Justin Gant, but they won’t be enough to pull the team out of an Arch Madness play-in game appearance.

Smith had a breakout sophomore year and will be the Sycamores’ best player. At 6-foot-6, he can score in a variety of ways and takes a good balance of 2- and 3-point shots.

Offensively, Gant primarily plays on the perimeter. He averaged 10.2 points and shot 42.0% from deep, but he grabbed just 3.8 rebounds per game. But defensively, he can hang with other big men. He was top-10 in the MVC last season for block percentage, according to kenpom.com.

6-foot-10 senior Jake Kitchell will have an opportunity to grab some more minutes in this thin frontcourt. Coach Greg Lansing used Kitchell more often during the second half of last season, and Kitchell was relatively effective.

Replacing Odum’s point guard play will be extremely difficult, but it is necessary for the Sycamores to succeed. Junior college transfer Tre’ Bennett, who averaged 20.6 points at Lamar State, will likely fill that role.

 

9. Loyola (Chicago)

Key losses: Nick Osborne, Matt O’Leary

Key returners: Milton Doyle, Christian Thomas, Jeff White, Devon Turk, Joe Crisman

Key additions: Earl Peterson, Donte Ingram, Ben Richardson, Montel James, Jay Knuth

Loyola returns four starters and sixth man Devon Turk, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything special considering this group finished last in the MVC last season. But with some development and after seeing the new conference for a full season, the Ramblers could be a better group this year.

Sophomore guard and reigning MVC Freshman of the Year Milton Doyle is back. However, he suffered a torn labrum and will likely miss some time. If he needs surgery, he will miss the whole season. Doyle averaged 14.9 points and 3.6 assists last season.

He is joined in the backcourt by Turk (8.7 ppg, 38.6 3P%), junior Jeff White (9.8 ppg, 3.0 apg, 41.8 3P%) and senior Joe Crisman (5.4 ppg).

The Ramblers also add three pieces to the backcourt in freshmen Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson and junior college transfer Earl Peterson. Ingram and Richardson are both ready to contribute as rookies. Peterson’s has a reputation as a scorer, and the Ramblers will especially need that from him if Doyle cannot get healthy. He averaged 16.7 points per game at Coffeyville Community College.

On the front line, undersized senior forward Christian Thomas (13.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Although Doyle gathered up the accolades last season, Thomas was arguably the team’s best player. His 112.6 offensive rating was top-15 in the Valley, according to kenpom.com. Thomas will get help from 6-foot-7 junior college transfer Montel James, also a Coffeyville product.

 

10. Drake

Key losses: Richard Carter, Seth VanDeest, Aaron Hawley

Key returners: Gary Ricks, Jordan Daniels, Chris Caird, Jacob Enevold Jensen, Trevor Berkeley

Key additions: Casey Schlatter

Coach Ray Giacoletti still has a lot of work cut out for him in year two. The Bulldogs lost leading scorer Richard Carter and fellow starters Seth VanDeest and Aaron Hawley, leaving the team with a lot to replace.

The good news for Drake is that senior guard Gary Ricks is returning from his injury. Ricks was not a major player as a junior, but last season he was off to a strong start, averaging 10.9 points and 3.2 assists before a fractured bone in his foot ended his season. If he stays healthy, he could be the Bulldogs’ leading scorer.

Senior guard Jordan Daniels will also be one of the team’s top scorers. He became eligible eight games into last season and posted 10.2 points per game. He was not a particularly high-volume 3-point shooter, but he did shoot somewhat often from long range and connected on 46.6% of his treys.

The development of 7-foot sophomore center Jacob Enevold Jensen will be critical, as he will take on part of the production VanDeest left behind. Jensen averaged 5.0 points and 4.9 rebounds as a freshman.

 

MVC All-Conference Team

Fred VanVleet, Wichita State

D.J. Balentine, Evansville

Ron Baker, Wichita State

Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa

Egidijus Mockevicius, Evansville

 

MVC Preseason Player of the Year

Fred VanVleet, Wichita State

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