Oct. 27, 2013
By Tom Weber
CARBONDALE, Ill. - The Missouri Valley Conference will hold its annual Media Day on Wednesday in Chicago, during which it will announce the preseason poll results and All-Conference team. Here's a look at my preseason ballot.
1. Wichita State
2. Indiana State
4. Missouri State
5. Northern Iowa
6. Southern Illinois
10. Illinois State
On paper, there are two very solid teams in the league (Wichita State and Indiana State). After that, well... In fact, trying to figure out the third-best team was mostly a process of elimination. I think three teams that have been at or near the basement in recent years (Bradley, Missouri State, SIU) are ready to move up. Here are some quick thoughts on each team.
1. Wichita State. The Shockers lost so much from last year's Final Four team -- including Carl Hall, Malcolm Armstead, Demetric Williams and Ehimen Orukpe. Still, they are ranked No. 16 in the preseason USA Today Coaches poll. They would do well to note how SIU was ranked for four weeks at the start of the 2007-08 season, coming off a Sweet 16 appearance, only to settle later for an NIT bid. Nothing is automatic in college basketball. Wichita has the likely preseason player-of-the-year in Cleanthony Early (13.9 ppg). Their next-best player is sophomore Ron Baker (8.7 ppg), who missed most of last season due to injury, but was a hero in the NCAA Tournament. Guys like Tekele Cotton (6.5 ppg), Fred VanVleet (3.6 ppg) and Chadrack Lufile (1.6 ppg) were role players last year who will have to step up big for the Shockers to return to the Big Dance.
2. Indiana State. It seems like Jake Odum (13.6 ppg) has been in the league forever. The savvy veteran point guard, paired with athletic swingman Manny Arop (12.0 ppg) and sharp-shooting Lucas Eitel (4.1 ppg), give the Sycamores one of the league's best backcourts. They have Justin Gant (7.5 ppg) and Jake Kitchell (2.7 ppg) returning in the front court. Having made the NCAA Tournament two years ago and the NIT last year, the Sycamores should be a dangerous team once again.
4. Missouri State. The Bears were the youngest team in the Valley last year, and after a terrible start to the season, finished a respectable seventh in the MVC. Freshman of the Year Marcus Marshall (11.5 ppg) is a special player. The Bears will be bolstered by the return of Jarmar Gulley, who missed last year with a torn ACL. They also have some young big men in Christian Kirk (8.7 ppg) and Gavin Thurman (6.9 ppg) who could develop into nice players. It also appears Keith Pickens (6.1 ppg) is going to give his knee another try this year after announcing his retirement last March.
5. Northern Iowa. The Panthers always seem to plug guys into their system without missing a beat. If that trend continues, then Northern Iowa could finish in the top half of the Valley. The top two returnees are Seth Tuttle (11.4 ppg) and Deon Mitchell (9.3 ppg) -- both solid MVC players. Matt Bohannon (4.7 ppg) is one of the league's better perimeter shooters. Tennessee transfer Wes Washpun is expected to boost UNI's athleticism. They really need some of their younger players, such as Austin Pehl (0.8 ppg) to improve.
6. Southern Illinois. Desmar Jackson (15.6 ppg) is one of the league's most explosive scorers, and Anthony Beane (9.2 ppg) is a rising sophomore. Those two players alone will keep SIU in most games. There are big questions at point guard and center, though, where the only player with Division I experience is Davante Drinkard (1.9 ppg). Coach Hinson overhauled virtually the entire roster in 16 months on the job, and if some of the new pieces like freshman Sean O'Brien come through, the Salukis could finish even higher.
7. Evansville. Graduation really did a number on the Purple Aces' roster. They lost four starters, and are about to find out what life is like without Colt Ryan, who has carried the program the last four years. They do return sophomores D.J. Balentine (8.1 ppg) and big man Egidijus Mockevicius (5.8 ppg), and the latter could develop into one of the better post players in the league. Still, this looks like a rebuilding year in Evansville.
8. Drake. Since the end of last season, the Bulldogs have had a coaching change and a lot of roster turnover. They have a couple of pretty good players coming back in big man Seth Van Deest (9.5 ppg) and guard Richard Carter (9.2 ppg). After taking a year off from basketball, forward Aaron Hawley will return for his senior year. Ray Giacoletti will need an immediate boost from his first recruiting class to avoid Thursday night basketball in St. Louis.
9. Loyola. First, a confession. I've not seen Loyola play. I know they lost three of their best players off last year's seventh-place team in the Horizon. I know they have a redshirt freshman named Milton Doyle who originally signed with Kansas. I don't know if they are ready to compete at this level until head coach Porter Moser gets a few more recruiting classes under his belt in the new league.
10. Illinois State. Quick. Name one player on the Redbirds' roster. Can't come up with one? Me either. I looked it up, and they do have Nick Ziesloft (4.5 ppg) and Kaza Keane (2.7 ppg) returning. That's it. All the new players may be really good somewhere down the road, but it likely won't be this season.
Here's my preseason All-Conference team.
Cleanthony Early, Wichita State
Jake Odum, Indiana State
Walt Lemon, Jr., Bradley
Desmar Jackson, Southern Illinois
Marcus Marshall, Missouri State
A tsunami swept through the MVC during the off-season and washed away most of its returning scorers. Twenty-four players averaged double figures last year in the MVC, and only eight of those players return. Two teams (Bradley, Indiana State) have two of them, while Wichita State, Northern Iowa, SIU and Missouri State each have one. That should make for a wild and unpredictable season.