Although the MVC no longer has top 25 teams, we could see three crack the top 100 between Missouri State, Loyola and Illinois State, something that hasn’t happened in KenPom since 2014-15. So don’t buy the “Death of the Valley” talk just yet. It may not be the powerhouse it used to be, but it can still be a top 10 league in 2017-18.
Now let’s take a deeper look.
1. Missouri State
Alize Johnson is the undeniable favorite to win MVC Player of the Year, and he’s got the supporting cast he needs to deliver Missouri State’s first conference title since 2010-11.
Missouri State returns backcourt scorers Jarred Dixon and Ronnie Rousseau III, who averaged 11.6 points and 2.9 assists before leaving the team for personal reasons in January. The Bears’ problem is they don’t have a true point guard. Highly touted freshman Greg Williams may miss the year again after another hernia operation, leaving Dixon as the most likely starter for opening day. That’s not a terrible thing. Dixon has been one of the MVC’s best bench players for two years and he posted a solid 18.2 assist rate in league games last year, but it would’ve been nice to have a pass-first guard on the floor with so many skilled scorers around.
Enough about the backcourt questions, though. Missouri State’s frontcourt is loaded. Not only do they have Johnson, a two-way player who’s a freakish athlete and averaged a double-double last year, but they have the Valley’s best interior defender in junior Obediah Church and a stretch-four in senior Jarrid Rhodes, who dropped 20 points on 10 shots in MSU’s exhibition loss to Kansas State.
2. Loyola Chicago
Loyola may not have a superstar like Alize Johnson, but it owns the deepest roster in the league. The Ramblers were the only team with two All-MVC picks in the official poll: wing Donte Ingram and forward Aundre Jackson.
While the Ramblers lose an all-conference player in Milton Doyle, their backcourt remains strong with two-way playmakers Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer. Toss in Fairleigh Dickinson transfer Marques Townes and sophomores Bruno Skokna and Cam Satterwhite, and Loyola’s backcourt can attack you in a number of different ways.
Porter Moser likes utilizing a small lineup, but for the first time in a while he has the luxury of size in 6’9″ freshman Cameron Krutwig and 7-foot graduate transfer Carson Shanks.
3. Illinois State
This is the toughest team to predict in the Valley. After an historic 28-win season, the Redbirds lost five of their top six scorers. But between forward Phil Fayne, point guard Keyshawn Evans and center David Ndiaye, Illinois State has a veteran core that should keep them in the top half of the league, and potentially in the conference title race. Unfortunately, Ndiaye is out six weeks with a stress fracture, the same injury that’s kept freshman guard Elijah Clarance out of preseason practice.
If the Redbirds are going to win a second straight conference title, they’ll need big years from transfer Milik Yarbrough and William Tinsley. Freshman forward Taylor Bruninga will receive important minutes as well, especially early on with Ndiaye out.
4. Northern Iowa
With Wichita State leaving and Illinois State falling, UNI has been a popular pick to contend for the league title. I’m not buying it. At least not yet. Jeremy Morgan did basically everything, and we’ll see how this team does without him. It’s possible the Panthers could benefit from spreading the wealth instead of having one dominant force surrounded by role players, but Morgan didn’t have the ball in his hands quite as much as you may think. His 25.4 percent usage rate in MVC games ranked 12th.
In Bennett Koch, UNI has a big man who can score, which isn’t a given for every team in the conference. But Koch still needs to make big strides defensively and on the glass to become an all-conference talent. If the Panthers will compete for a top three spot, they’ll also need junior guard Wyatt Lohaus, who missed most of last season with an ankle injury, to stay healthy, and senior forward Klint Carlson to live up to his Arch Madness and NCAA Tournament performance from two years ago.
Bradley is still at least a year away from competing for the MVC title, but the Braves will make a big jump this season. I like their chances to avoid the dreaded Thursday night Arch Madness play-in game for the first time since 2009-10 and even sneak into the top half of the standings.
Brian Wardle, now in year three at Bradley, returns everyone from a defensive-minded group that grinded out seven MVC wins. While last year Wardle relied on freshmen and sophomores, now he’s relying almost exclusively on upperclassmen. Sophomore Darrell Brown is a sleeper for the All-MVC Team.
The new kid on the block, Valparaiso comes to the Valley after winning five Horizon League titles in the last six years. The Horizon is a quality mid-major conference, but the Valley is still a step up, even without Wichita State. And while Valpo returns a potential all-conference player in senior guard Tevonn Walker, they’ll need to replace Horizon League Player of the Year Alec Peters and second-leading scorer Shane Hammink.
One big advantage for Valparaiso? The Valley isn’t known for its size, and the Crusaders have a pair of sophomore giants — 7-foot Jaume Sorolla and 7’2″ Derrik Smits — who received valuable minutes last year.
Between the conference change and relying on some newcomers and young bodies, this team is almost as hard to predict as Illinois State. It wouldn’t be shocking to see Valpo climb into the top three, nor would it be crazy for them to slip into the Arch Madness play-in round.
7. Southern Illinois
Consider this almost a tie for sixth with Valpo. The Salukis lost their two best playmakers in Mike Rodriguez and Sean O’Brien, and Marcus Bartley, a 6’5″ point guard who transferred from St. Louis, will miss most of non-conference play with a broken wrist. By the time Bartley returns, he’ll have gone about 21 months without playing an official college basketball game. Maybe he won’t skip a beat, but more likely he’ll need to shake off some rust and will have limited non-conference games to do so.
While SIU’s point guard issues are concerning, they have a pair of solid scorers in juniors Armon Fletcher and Sean Lloyd Jr., who broke out with 26 points in two Arch Madness games last year.
Evansville may not win a ton of games, but at least Marty Simmons has an exciting backcourt. In an underwhelming 2016-17 campaign, two of the highlights were the emergence of Dru Smith and the resurgence of Duane Gibson . Smith made the All-Freshman team while Gibson averaged 7.1 points and 3.8 assists coming off a torn meniscus.
The Aces also have one of the league’s best scorers in junior wing Ryan Taylor and welcome back a healthy Blake Simmons, a third-year starter who missed 2016-17 with a torn ACL. So yes, when all four of these guys are clicking, Evansville can compete with some of the league’s better teams. But they’ll be held back by not having a go-to scorer, unless Taylor can develop into one.
Drake has a successful young coach and a team that returns four of its top five scorers. Niko Medved has already rebuilt one program, taking Furman from nine wins in 2013-14 to 23 wins and a shared conference title last year. His teams showed tremendous defensive improvement over the last two years, and that’s something the Bulldogs desperately need. They finished in the bottom 50 in defensive efficiency each of the last three years.
Offensively, this team is quite dangerous, spacing the floor with a ton of shooters. That offense carried them to a 5-4 start in the Valley last year before they lost their final 10 games.
10. Indiana State
Greg Lansing has had a good run at Indiana State, but you’ve got to wonder if the end is nigh. The Sycamores are headed for their fourth straight losing season, and after tying for last place in 2016-17, they lost six of eight best scorers.
If Indiana State is going to avoid another last place finish, it’ll come from its backcourt. Brenton Scott is an all-conference talent, and point guard Jordan Barnes is coming off an impressive freshman season. The Sycamores also have high hopes for 6’7″ junior college transfer Devin Thomas, a top 30 JUCO player in last year’s class.
The Catch and Shoot’s All-MVC Picks
Alize Johnson, Missouri State (*Player of the Year*)
Donte Ingram, Loyola
Aundre Jackson, Loyola
Brenton Scott, Indiana State
Phil Fayne, Illinois State