St. Louis — It was probably asking too much.
The question was posed to the Missouri Valley Conference coaches: Which team that finished in the bottom half of the league has the chance to be this year’s Drake?
The silence from the press conference dais was deafening.
No coach wants to single a team out, unless it’s their own, but despite the fact that the top five from last season’s Valley standings were picked in the top five in the preseason poll for this season, the Valley seems poised for parity again once you get below the obvious choice of Creighton as the league favorite.
The likelihood of an exact Drake scenario seems remote. The Bulldogs’ magical league championship run, the Bulldogs hadn’t come close to a league crown since the Nixon administration, was a lightning-in-a-bottle, once-a-generation type of occurrence.
However a Drake-like scenario, where a team from the bottom half rises up to contend, is still a very real possibility, especially considering there are 75 underclassmen spread across the 10 league rosters.
Can Indiana State be that team? If the league pundits are to be believed, apparently not, considering the Sycamores were picked seventh. But the other way of looking at it is that ISU was named second-best of the rest, so perhaps ISU isn’t as far off as one might think.
The Sycamores have 10 underclassmen, so they fit right in with the rest of the league. And many of those underclassmen will have the burden of important roles. Aaron Carter will be asked to display versatility beyond his years as a swingman. Tyler Cutter will need to shoulder point guard duties, especially early on when Harry Marshall is ineligible. Isiah Martin will need to be a rock inside. Carl Richard, already heralded as ISU’s next star, will be asked to do a little bit of everything.
It’s not the recipe for a Drake-like revival, and no one at ISU is crazy enough to say they’re that team. However if the young players mesh with the smattering of veterans around them, Tunnell at the four-spot and Marshall at point guard, who knows?
“When you look at the league every team has guys back who have had some success. The teams near the top just have a few more. What it comes down to is how a team’s recruiting class is and how those young guys are going to develop,” ISU coach Kevin McKenna said.
ISU forward Jay Tunnell based his case on ISU improvement based on one factor.
“I think it’s our athleticism. We’ve been a good team, a solid team that knew how to play, but this year we have some guys … we have Isiah, who’s 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot wingspan. Josh [Crawford] who is 6-11 with a 7-foot wingspan. Some of the athletes that have come in have changed the dynamic to the way coach wants to play,” Tunnell said.
Of course, every other team in the conference has a similar case to make. Be it Evansville’s experience in its starting lineup, an infusion of new talent at Wichita State and Missouri State, or a real live point guard at Northern Iowa, every team has Drake in the back of its mind.
“Our players believe they can compete in the league right now, of course, they’re young and they’re going through this for the first time and haven’t had their nose bloodied,” Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. “Once they have had their nose bloodied, how do they react? If they react quickly and they’re tough enough physically and mentally to handle a Division I season, then, sure, Drake set the precedent last year and we can certainly point to that.”
Marshall pointed out the double-edged example Drake set for everyone. Hope is abundant, yet, the Valley doormats for a generation also took away any excuse a team might have to stay perpetually mediocre.
“I think when someone like Drake makes a run, it gives everyone hope. You hope you have those young guys come along quickly, but you have those young guys who can help those young guys come along,” ISU coach Kevin McKenna said. “Along the way, you hope you catch some breaks and the guys get confident.”
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (800) 783-8742, ext. 4 or email@example.com.
St. Louis — It was probably asking too much.
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