RTC Conference Primers: #12 – Missouri Valley ConferencePosted by Brian Goodman on October 25th, 2011
Reader’s Take I
- Back to Multiple Bids?: The Missouri Valley Conference is getting a little more attention entering this season than in the past, and rightfully so. Six of the top ten scorers in the league are back along with four of the top five rebounders. The league is looking to have the impact it had back in the 2005-06 season, when it sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament. Since then, only the automatic qualifier from the MVC Tournament has advanced to The Dance. With so many talented upperclassmen, there could be an opportunity for The Valley to get closer to that status of six years ago.
- Kyle Weems or Doug McDermott?: There are a lot of people that have probably forgotten that Kyle Weems of Missouri State was the MVC Player of the Year last season with all the buzz that Creighton’s Doug McDermott received over the summer. Going into 2011-12, one hotly-debated topic is whether Weems can repeat or if McDermott will build upon his MVC Freshman of the Year performance. McDermott was only the second freshman in the 100-year-plus history of the MVC to get first team all-conference honors. Weems tried to lead Missouri State to the NCAA Tournament, but came up just short. Due to the personnel losses by the Bears, including their coach, and all of the returning players for the Bluejays, can Weems surprise the “experts” and have even better success to repeat?
- New Ford Center: Evansville will start the season in a new downtown arena, the Ford Center. They open it in style with in-state powers Butler and Indiana visiting to start the season. This building represents the continual facility improvements for the Missouri Valley Conference member schools. Creighton started the trend with the Qwest Center (recently renamed CenturyLink Center). Northern Iowa followed suit with its own basketball building in the McLeod Center. Missouri State opened JQH Arena a couple years later and in Wichita, a new arena was built to complement Koch Arena as a place where the Shockers can play a game or two a year. Southern Illinois spent almost $30 million to renovate SIU Arena. So if you are looking for a conference that keeps upgrading the basketball environment like a major conference, this is where you should go.
- Scheduling Philosophies: In the past, the MVC member schools would hold back a game on their schedules to try to get a home-and-home series against a high-major school. Although this has worked out in the past, it sort of backfired this season. As a result, many of the final games scheduled for each team will come against a non-Division I school, and in other cases, a game was not even scheduled, leaving a gap between the end of the regular season slate and the conference tournament. Creighton and Illinois State chose to schedule one game fewer than the number of games they could have scheduled while the rest of the schools scheduled the likes of Loras College, Emporia State, Upper Iowa, Maryville and others as a regular season game on the schedule. With almost 350 teams in Division-I, that isn’t a good sign for a non-major, major conference.
Predicted Order of Finish
- Creighton (25-6, 15-3)
- Wichita State (24-6, 13-5)
- Indiana State (21-9, 11-7)
- Missouri State (20-11, 11-7)
- Northern Iowa (22-9, 10-8)
- Evansville (17-12 9-9)
- Bradley (15-16, 7-11)
- Illinois State (15-15, 5-13)
- Drake (13-17, 5-13)
- Southern Illinois (14-16, 4-14)
All-Conference Picks (key stats from last season in parentheses)
- G: Antoine Young, Creighton (13.1 PPG, 5.0 APG)—Young has been playing second fiddle to some of his teammates who get more notoriety, but this guard led the Missouri Valley Conference in assist-turnover ratio the past two seasons and also finished seventh in the league in scoring. As an ironman for the team playing almost 36 minutes per game in 2010-11, it could be a special year for Young.
- G: Colt Ryan, Jr., Evansville (15.7 PPG, 2.3 APG, 65 3FGM) – Although his numbers were a little lower after a spectacular freshman season, Ryan may be the leader the Purple Aces need in order to make some noise this season, especially breaking in a new arena along with some high-profile games.
- G: Toure’ Murry, Sr., Wichita St. (9.4 PPG, 3.4 APG, 4.5 RPG) – If the Shockers are going to make their way into the NCAA Tournament this season and not the NIT, then Murry will have to be the guy to help get them there. The returning leader in points, rebounds and assists will have to step up as a senior to account for their losses in the offseason.
- F: Doug McDermott, So., Creighton (14.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 40% 3FG) – After an amazing freshman season, McDermott was one of the main players for the Team USA U-19 squad. He is getting a lot of attention coming into 2011-12 as a sophomore and is on track to eventually unseat the Creighton all-time leading scorer, Rodney Buford.
- F: Kyle Weems, Sr., Missouri State (16 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 66 3FGM) – Weems is the reigning Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. He had several opportunities to transfer during the offseason since he already had his degree and a new coach came in to fill the void left by Cuonzo Martin’s departure, but he decided to stay with the Bears for one final year.
6th Man: Jake Odum, So., Indiana State (4.1 APG, 1.8 SPG) – Odum was one of those players that surprised everyone in the league and helped lead Indiana State to the NCAA Tournament last season. If it wasn’t for McDermott’s season, Odum would have likely been the MVC Freshman of the Year. He leads a team with a lot of returning veterans and could have another nice season in the sophomore campaign.
Impact Newcomer: Jeff Early, Jr., Southern Illinois: The JUCO transfer may be the key to whether Southern Illinois can raise its stock and finish higher than this preseason prediction. With so many veteran players coming back to Valley schools this season, Southern Illinois has the most options at this award with nine newcomers on the roster.
Creighton (NCAA Seed: #7): Creighton has received a lot of recognition over the summer with two of their players in the spotlight. Doug McDermott played for the Team USA U-19 team in Latvia over the summer. Although they came back with a fifth-place finish, McDermott was a focal point of the team and one of the more consistent players. Center Gregory Echenique spent August and September playing for his native Venezuela National Team that tried to qualify for the 2012 Olympics. The experience both of those players received against international competition will be invaluable as it translates back to their college games this season. The Bluejays also return arguably the best point guard in the league in Antoine Young. Throw in another returning starter, Jahenns Manigat, Gonzaga transfer Grant Gibbs and one-time starters Josh Jones and Ethan Wragge, and the Bluejays appear to be pretty deep. A trip to the Bahamas gave the incoming freshman an opportunity to get some team bonding and experience. The only question mark that could derail Creighton is dealing with injuries. Gibbs and Wragge are returning from injury during last season and it will be important to see if they can handle a full season back on the court.
- Wichita State (NCAA Seed: #11)—The Shockers were excited and yet disappointed after last season. Although they played longer than over 340 schools at the end of the season and won a championship, it was not the one they wanted. The NIT was nice, but they were expected to make the NCAA Tournament last season and they are again expected to contend for a bid this season. Since Gregg Marshall came to town, the wins have increased during his tenure each season including a school-record 29 wins in 2010-11. There is a great core of returning players, but the questions include whether they can replace the losses of JT Durley, Gabe Blair and Graham Hatch. The backcourt is solid with Toure’ Murry, a four-year starter, Joe Ragland and David Kyles. Where things get a little murky is in the frontcourt where Ben Smith and Garrett Stutz will likely be playing more minutes. A solid group of incoming players could fill some of those holes, but it may take some time for them to adjust to the new environment. They too benefitted from an offseason trip to Brazil.
- Indiana State (NIT)—No one expected Indiana State to be the lone MVC representative in the NCAA Tournament last season. I even picked Indiana State to finish last in this preview last year. However, Greg Lansing’s first year evolved as the season went on and he inspired the Sycamores to continue fighting. Early injuries benefitted ISU by having unproven players out on the court to give them confidence. The result created a solid core heading into this season. Jake Odum will be the focal point, but he also has seniors Dwayne Lathan and Carl Richard around him. Lathan broke his arm back in April and recently had an illness that kept him in the hospital for several days. The Sycamores may not be able to deal with losing players like they did last season and that will be a deciding factor on whether they can move up past the Shockers and Bluejays.
Watch Out For…
- Missouri State (NIT)—Missouri State has some rebuilding to do. Six returnees join six newcomers along with new head coach Paul Lusk. Lusk was an assistant at Purdue, but is familiar with the MVC as he played his college ball at Southern Illinois. The Bears have to start to wonder when their name will get called on Selection Sunday. Everyone may remember Missouri State getting snubbed in 2006 when they were sitting with an RPI of #21. They won the MVC regular season last year and became the first top MVC tournament seed and regular season champion in 18 years to not get a bid to the NCAA Tournament. Kyle Weems will be a great asset, but after him, there are questions. Will DePaul transfer Michael Bizoukas be the answer at point guard? Will Keith Pickens be ready after knee surgery? One expected contributor, Dorrian Williams, is out for the season. Right now Lusk is using pencil to set his starting lineup as it could change a lot during the season.
- Northern Iowa (NIT)—The Panthers hope to make a return after stumbling down the stretch last season. After losing Lucas O’Rear for the season to injury, Northern Iowa lost eight of its last ten games. With new leaders and new focus, it could be a whole different story. Freshman Deon Mitchell will likely start at point guard. Johnny Moran, who has seemed to play for UNI forever, and his team leading 65 three-pointers last season, returns for his senior year. Anthony James broke out last season as a quality scorer (12.4 PPG) and Jake Koch keeps the family tradition going with solid play in the frontcourt. To be formidable, the Panthers will need improved balance, unlike last season, when the squad buried a school-record 250 three-pointers. Austin Pehl will be out the first 5-6 weeks of the season with a stress fracture in his shin. But with the freshmen on the roster, Northern Iowa and Ben Jacobson think they will have a deep team.
- Evansville—The Purple Aces have been working hard to get into that upper echelon of the MVC the past few years and head coach Marty Simmons is starting to get some results. After making the postseason last year in the CBI, the opening of a new $127 million arena and a lot of high profile games, it is very possible Evansville will be the conference sleeper. The top four scorers — Colt Ryan, Kenneth Harris, Denver Holmes and Ned Cox — all return to the fold. What they are missing is someone on the inside to fill the middle after they let JUCO transfer Dustin Clements out of his letter of intent. Although the MVC is known as a guard league, having freshmen filling in the middle maybe tough to fight off teams like Creighton, Wichita State and Northern Iowa.
- Bradley—Bradley fired Jim Les and brought in Geno Ford from Kent State. He knows how to win and just came up short the past few seasons in the crazy Mid-American Conference. With Bradley he feels this is a step up and a great opportunity, but an uphill battle. The cupboard isn’t completely bare. Although Sam Maniscalco could have been a huge help, he transferred to Illinois. Dyricus Simms-Edwards almost transferred but ultimately decided to stay and Taylor Brown comes back after a year off to evaluate a health condition. There are questions as to how he will rebound from a year off. Center Will Egolf tore his knee over the summer taking him out this season. He also tore it a couple of years ago. Walt Lemon could be another bright spot after a nice freshman season. Ultimately there are a lot of questions surrounding the Braves, but the influx of new coaching staff may fire up the fans as well as the players to a better season than last year.
- Illinois State—The Redbirds may still be a year away. They come into the season with no seniors but eight juniors to take on the load. Part of that junior class includes JUCO transfers Tyler Brown and Darius Clark. Brown brings in some extra scoring while Clark’s big body at the guard position makes them a little more physical. That may have caused Justin Clark to transfer during the offseason. However, the incoming players will help Jackie Carmichael get a little more space to get around. Head coach Tim Jankovich is trying to do whatever he can to turn his team around after last year’s frustrating season. He welcomed John Jones who will also be doing track and field to the team hoping for more athleticism. If the Redbirds are motivated enough, they may be able to move up from last season.
- Drake— Over the summer, I had Drake a lot higher when projecting the upcoming season. However, one month can change a lot of things. Injuries and drama have plagued the Bulldgs this summer. First, center Seth VanDeest injured his shoulder in a summer league game which required surgery. Then Ravonte Rice and Kurt Alexander were arrested for shoplifting socks at a local store. Kraidon Woods missed the team’s international trip due to academic issues. Frank Wiseler decided to leave the game of basketball and just last week, Reece Uhlenhopp is out 6-8 weeks due to a stress fracture in his foot. With year number four for head coach Mark Phelps, he may need to start a support groupif the Bulldogs do not have a good season.
- Southern Illinois—The Salukis begin the season where it left last season—with more drama. Diamond Taylor was recently suspended indefinitely due to the breaking of team rules. With eight newcomers, this will either turn out to be a genius move or the Salukis will finish at the bottom. One positive heading into the season is the conference’s top returning rebounder Mamadou Seck (8.1 RPG). Davante Drinkard will redshirt this year as a sophomore taking away 347 minutes of frontcourt experience and having four true freshman compete for some playing time in the middle.
Reader’s Take II
Here Today, Gone Tomorrow?
- Gregg Marshall, Wichita State—Since his arrival in the Missouri Valley Conference, there has always been speculation that Marshall would use Wichita State as a stepping stone to a high-major job. After the Shockers won the postseason NIT, his name was floated around several times during the offseason with open head coaching positions at places like North Carolina State, Georgia Tech, and even Missouri. Although he signed an extension with Wichita State during the offseason, there is still that chance that he could leave if the Shockers make it to the NCAA Tournament this season.
- Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa—Although the Panthers finished lower than usual in 2010-11, Jacobson’s name was still thrown around with coaching possibilities and he even flew down to Texas A&M to see what they had to say. He ultimately chose to stay with UNI. It is very possible he saw what former coaching colleague Keno Davis went through after his successful season at Drake. Davis took a job at Providence and a short three years later, he was looking for a new job. He recently signed on with the Big 10 Network. Jacobson could be someone who stays at Northern Iowa for the long term.
- Chris Lowery, Southern Illinois—From one extreme to another, Lowery is one coach who will be on the hot seat coming into this season. After a bevy of transfers over the past few seasons and continuing to look for that right combination of players, this season will be a make-or-break season for the Salukis and their head coach. Many expected Lowery to be let go after last season, but with Southern Illinois as an institution in such financial trouble, they could not afford to hire a new coach. If SIU finishes in the bottom half of the league in 2011-12, that may be the last straw.
Spotlight on… Scheduling
The MVC has had a little more trouble than in past years on scheduling games against bigger names, especially at home. One positive is that nine of the ten member schools are involved in some type of multi-team event and ones that have some bigger teams. Southern Illinois probably gets one of the better fields in the Diamond Head Classic where they get to open against Kansas State. Indiana State is part of the Old Spice Classic opening against Texas Tech with Minnesota, Dayton and Arizona State in the field. The other marquee non-con matchups:
- Bradley gets Wisconsin in Chicago
- Drake is getting Mississippi in the Paradise Jam
- Illinois State plays Rutgers and then maybe Illinois in Cancun
- Northern Iowa plays Providence in South Padre
- Missouri State gets Baylor and St. Mary’s in Las Vegas.
- Wichita State opens with Colorado and then either Maryland or Alabama in the Puerto Rico Tipoff
- Creighton takes on Iowa in Des Moines.
Evansville is the only school not in a multi-team event, but they almost don’t need one. After getting to host Butler and Indiana to start the season, the Purple Aces also go to North Carolina. After those games, we will get a better indication what they may be like this season. Outside of the MTE matchups, the MVC schools host a total of six games on their home courts against high major schools — Creighton vs. Nebraska, Creighton vs. Northwestern, Drake vs. Iowa State, Northern Iowa vs. Iowa, Missouri State vs. Oklahoma State, and Evansville vs. Iowa. Half of those are yearly matchups already. So even if the MVC was winning and getting multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament, it is not likely they would get a home-and-home series with schools from the major conferences anyway.
The MVC is looking to re-establish itself as one of the better non-major conferences in the country. A lot is riding on the basis of a good set of returning veteran players along with some extra buzz in the league. The fanbase is one of the smartest and most passionate ones in college basketball. The big question is whether it can translate on the basketball court. The desire to become a multiple-bid league will all depend on the performance during non-conference play. Nine of the ten Valley schools are involved in some type of multi-team event where they will get the opportunity to play high-major competition. The key is to win as many of those games as possible. The secret of the 2005-06 season when the MVC last had multiple bids to the NCAA Tournament is that the conference had great success in the non-conference games and put itself in the position to get those four bids. So keep your eye on the MVC in the non-conference. If they all do well, look out. The MVC will be back and will set itself up for the inevitable next round of conference realignment.