Updated May 8 at 2:52 p.m.
The Missouri Valley Conference returned to its status as a two-bid league last season with Wichita State and Northern Iowa making the NCAA Tournament. The conference’s depth also improved as Evansville and Loyola won postseason tournament titles, and Illinois State advanced to the second round of the NIT.
While the bottom of the conference is expected to struggle, the top six teams return plenty of starters, setting up for another high-quality season in 2015-16.
1. Wichita State
2014-15 record: 30-5, 17-1; No. 10 Kenpom; No. 20 KPI; NCAA Tournament Sweet 16
Notable departures: Tekele Cotton, Darius Carter
Projected starters: Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, Evan Wessel, Shaquille Morris, Anton Grady
Gregg Marshall flirted with the Alabama job, but he is back at Wichita State, which makes the Shockers a clear favorite once again for the 2015-16 season. Not only do they still have the league’s best coach running the show, but they have arguably the two best players as well in senior guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.
The Shockers lose a pair of starters in guard Tekele Cotton and forward Darius Carter, so the team will not be quite as strong as it was last season. However, that does not mean Wichita State is not a preseason Top 25 team nationally.
Freshman Shaquille Morris backed up Carter last season, and he was giving the Shockers great mileage by the heart of the conference season. Fellow rookie Zach Brown also had a late-season emergence.
Although Wichita State loses two starters, the team may actually be better next season thanks to the addition of four high-quality transfers and recruits.
Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp, who becomes eligible midseason, can play both guard positions. This is the first time VanVleet will have a quality backup.
The late addition of Cleveland State transfer Anton Grady, who is eligible immediately, gives Marshall arguably the best frontcourt he has ever had. Grady averaged 14.3 points and 7.9 rebounds for the Vikings last season.
Incoming freshmen forward Markis McDuffie and guard Landry Shamet are borderline top-100 recruit
2014-15 record: 24-12, 9-9; No. 103 Kenpom; No. 127 KPI; CIT champions
Notable departures: Jaylon Moore
Projected starters: Duane Gibson, D.J. Balentine, Adam Wing, Blake Simmons, Egidijus Mockevicius
Although many considered Evansville’s season to be disappointing compared to preseason expectations, the Aces still made great strides, finishing in the top half of the Valley. Now they are set to return nearly everyone, including a pair of the league’s premier players in guard D.J. Balentine and center Egidijus Mockevicius, for another go.
There was speculation Mockevicius might go pro or transfer since he is expected to earn his degree this spring, but signs are currently pointing to the Big Mock sticking around for his final year.
The 6-foot-10 Lithuanian battled some injuries this season and missed out on a double-double average by a hair (12.5 ppg, 9.9 rpg).
Even though Balentine’s offensive numbers dipped, he still led the MVC with 20.1 ppg.
One thing that will separate Evansville from many other Valley teams next year is its depth. The Aces have two alpha dogs leading them, but they also return five other players who averaged more than five points per game.
3. Northern Iowa
2014-15 record: 31-4, 16-2; No. 11 Kenpom; No. 17 KPI; NCAA Tournament Round of 32
Notable departures: Seth Tuttle, Nate Buss, Deon Mitchell, Marvin Singleton
Projected starters: Wes Washpun, Matt Bohannon, Paul Jesperson, Jeremy Morgan, Bennett Koch
As is the case for many mid-major programs who lose a great senior class, Northern Iowa will have to rebuild a bit. However, this rebuilding project is fairly small.
The Panthers backcourt remains just as good if not better than last year. Wes Washpun is arguably the Valley’s most athletic player, and he is surrounded by phenomenal 3-point shooters in Paul Jesperson (42.5 percent), Matt Bohannon (39.1) and Jeremy Morgan (33.3).
Junior college transfers Aarias Austin and Taylor Olson also had great shooting success at that level. Austin knocked down 42.9 percent of his treys and dished out 5.5 assists per contest as well, while made 40 percent of his triples.
However, losing Seth Tuttle, Nate Buss and Marvin Singleton up front will have a huge negative effect.
Tuttle is one of the greatest players in program history and was instrumental to the team’s efficiency on both ends. Buss could stretch the floor with his 3-point shooting. Singleton was the garbage man, grabbing 4.9 rebounds per game, diving for loose balls and locking down defensively.
The onus will be on freshman Bennett Koch, brother of former Northern Iowa stars Adam and Jake, to develop into a usable big man. The Panthers also add a pair of freshman bigs in Luke McDonnell and Justin Dahl, who chose Northern Iowa over Illinois State, among others.
Although this team loses plenty, it returning players grouped with Ben Jacobson‘s coaching ability makes Northern Iowa a sure bet to once again finish in the top half of the conference. If Koch or a freshman can develop into serviceable interior player, the Panthers will compete for a top-two spot.
4. Illinois State
2014-15 record: 22-13, 11-7; No. 52 Kenpom; No. 73 KPI; NIT Second Round
Notable departures: Daishon Knight, Reggie Lynch, Bobby Hunter, John Jones
Projected starters: Paris Lee, DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, Deontae Hawkins, MiKyle McIntosh, Nick Banyard
Illinois State has a talented top four players, but not much after that. The losses its two best players, Daishon Knight and Reggie Lynch, will hurt a ton as the Redbirds try to make their first NCAA Tournament since 1998.
Still, the Redbirds have the pieces to compete for a top-three spot with three starters and several reserves returning.
Junior DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell was the MVC Newcomer of the Year after transferring from junior college. The 6-foot-5 guard is poised to be one of the league’s top scorers next season.
The Redbirds also return sophomore Paris Lee, who was one of the Valley’s leaders in assist-turnover ratio as well as a 3-point threat.
Freshmen MiKyle McIntosh and Deontae Hawkins round out the core group of returners. Hawkins particularly stood out with a strong finish to the season.
2014-15 record: 24-13, 8-10; No. 129 Kenpom; No. 143 KPI; CBI champions
Notable departures: Christian Thomas, Joe Crisman
Projected starters: Milton Doyle, Earl Peterson, Devon Turk, Montel James, Maurice Kirby
Loyola faces a big loss as Christian Thomas departs. Thomas is in the top-20 on the program’s all-time scoring list. Although he is only a generous 6-foot-5, he was one of the league’s more effective post players.
However, the Ramblers return four starters in addition to most of their bench. Junior guard Milton Doyle could be a competitor for MVC Player of the Year, and he is surrounded by some talent.
Junior college transfers guard Earl Peterson and forward Montel James emerged as two of the Valley’s better newcomers. Peterson helped carry the Ramblers in their CBI run, and James a consistent force all year.
Junior guard Devon Turk is arguably the MVC’s best outside shooter, and freshmen Ben Richardson and Donte Ingram learned to play their roles in their first season.
In addition to returning a strong group, Loyola also addressed its biggest weakness — lack of size — by signing junior college forward Maurice Kirby. The 6-foot-9 Phoenix native, who will have three years of eligibility, averaged 8.0 points and 7.9 rebounds at Coffeyville Community College, where James and Peterson also played their JUCO ball.
Kirby was on the roster at Virginia Tech before transferring to Coffeyville.
6. Indiana State
2014-15 record: 15-16, 11-7; No. 172 Kenpom; No. 198 KPI
Notable departures: Justin Gant, Jake Kitchell, Tre’ Bennett
Projected starters: Devonte Brown, Brenton Scott, Khristian Smith, Matt Van Scyoc, T.J. Bell
In some ways, Indiana State’s 2014-15 season was a pleasant surprise. In other ways, it was a disappointment.
After losing their two best players, the Sycamores struggled in non-conference play but started 5-0 in the MVC. In the final month and a half of the year, they posted a 6-8 record, including an embarrassing 81-53 loss to Loyola in the MVC Tournament quarterfinals.
Indiana State will have one of the conference’s best backcourts with junior Devonte Brown and freshman Brenton Scott returning.
The Sycamores lose their best ball handler and facilitator with Tre’ Bennett transferring, but that is a loss they can handle. Junior college transfer Everett Clemons, who averaged 6.2 assists at Vincennes last year, can help fill that role.
Indiana State should remain strong on the wings as well with junior Khristian Smith expected back and Citadel transfer Matt Van Scyoc becoming eligible. Van Scyoc led the Bulldogs two seasons ago with 14.3 points per game and shot 36.5 percent on 3-pointers.
However, the interior will be an issue for the Sycamores. With Justin Gant and leading rebounder Jake Kitchell exhausting their eligibility, Indiana State loses 9.1 of its 32.5 rebounds per game.
6-foot-8 sophomore T.J. Bell played just 12.5 minutes per game last season but was fairly productive with 3.1 points and 2.6 boards per contest. The Sycamores will need him to cut down on his fouls and turnovers to become an effective presence inside.
2014-15 record: 9-22, 6-12; No. 258 Kenpom; No. 276 KPI
Notable departures: Gary Ricks Jr., Jordan Daniels, Chris Caird, Trevor Berkeley, Karl Madison
Projected starters: C.J. Rivers, Graham Woodward, Reed Timmer, Kale Abrahamson, Jacob Enevold Jensen
Drake is improving under Ray Giacoletti, who is entering his third year as head coach. With a few more possessions going their way in an overtime loss to Loyola, the Bulldogs would have finished as the No. 6 seed for the conference tournament.
The Bulldogs had one of the league’s top freshman in guard Reed Timer and a budding star in 7-foot sophomore Jacob Enevold Jensen.
Even with this talented pair returning, Drake loses more than half of its scoring.
Incoming freshman Billy Wampler, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, is a three-star recruit on Scout who could earn some immediate playing time on the wings. The Bulldogs have three other recruits who stand 6-foot-8 or taller, including another 7-footer.
Giacoletti also has some high-level talent coming in via the transfer market.
Former Northwestern wing Kale Abrahamson has the potential to be a high-level scorer in the Valley. Abrahamson, a 6-foot-8 forward, shot 34.8 percent from beyond the arc in two seasons with the Wildcats.
Penn State transfer Graham Woodward averaged 2.8 points and shot 39 percent from deep his freshman year before transferring.
The Bulldogs will also take an overseas trip this summer, which could help team chemistry and better prepare them for the upcoming season.
8. Southern Illinois
2014-15 record: 12-21, 4-14; No. 226 Kenpom; No. 282 KPI
Notable departures: Jordan Caroline, Deion Lavender, Jalen Pendleton, K.C. Goodwin
Projected starters: Mike Rodriguez Jr., Anthony Beane, Sean O’Brien, Bola Olaniyan, Ibby Djimde
Remember when Southern Illinois went to six straight NCAA Tournaments and made a pair of Sweet 16’s? Those days are long gone, and they’re not returning anytime soon.
The Salukis were set up with a fairly promising, young roster, but transfers decimated them this offseason. Forward Jordan Caroline and guard Deion Lavender, two of the Valley’s better freshmen, are leaving the program, as if sixth man Jalen Pendleton.
Returning electric scorer Anthony Beane and versatile forward Sean O’Brien gives the Salukis to solid pieces to work with. Adding junior college guard Mike Rodriguez, who averaged 16.7 points and 4.3 assists, will give a boost.
However, Southern Illinois will need to catch some big fish on the recruiting trail this spring to have a fighting chance at a top-six finish next year.
9. Missouri State
2014-15 record: 11-20, 5-13; No. 262 Kenpom; No. 253 KPI
Notable departures: Christian Kirk, Gavin Thurman
Projected starters: Dorrian Williams, Dequon Miller, Austin Ruder, Chris Kendrix, Camyn Boone
The Bears have the pieces to be competitive next season.
Although sophomore Austin Ruder struggled with his shot last season, he was a 40 percent 3-point shooter as a freshman. Junior Camyn Boone is an undersized but effective forward.
Junior guard Dorrian Williams, who led the team in minutes, had a 1.6 assist-turnover ratio.
Getting big scoring out of junior college transfer Dequon Miller will be crucial for Missouri State. Miller recorded 20.7 points and 7.2 assists per game last season at Motlow State while shooting 44.1 percent from beyond the arc.
Coach Paul Lusk enters 2015-16, his fifth season at the helm, with a 58-71 record and only one postseason appearance, which came two years ago in the CIT. A second straight season finishing in the conference tournament play-in game could spell trouble for his job security.
2014-15 record: 9-24, 3-15; No. 270 Kenpom; No. 288 KPI
Notable departures: Josh Cunningham, Auston Barnes, Omari Grier, Tramique Sutherland, Nate Wells
Projected starters: Ka’Darryl Bell, Warren Jones, Ronnie Suggs, Donte Thomas, Mike Shaw
Bradley is in major rebuilding mode. The Braves brought in a young, successful coach in Brian Wardle to replace Geno Ford, but Wardle is working with far and away the MVC’s worst roster.
Bradley had some talented players set to return, but most of them transferred following the coaching change. That leaves the Braves with two players who averaged more than 15 minutes per game in the 2014-15 season, and one of those players missed 12 games due to injury and suspension.
That player is junior guard Warren Jones, who led the Braves with 11.9 points per game. Although Jones can fill up the scoring column, he often does so inefficiently, shooting just 34.0 percent from the field and 29.6 percent on 3-pointers last season.
If the Braves are going to win more than a couple of MVC games this season, Wardle will need to make some big signings on the recruiting trail this spring.
Wardle has a few talented incoming freshmen signed on for next year, but none so outstanding that they will make a huge difference in their first season.