TERRE HAUTE —
Change doesn’t often come to Missouri Valley Conference basketball. Until this season, it had endured with the same 10 members since the mid-1990s. But the reality of conference realignment finally hit the MVC where it lived last spring as Creighton departed for the new Big East Conference. The MVC responded by adding Loyola University.
It’s a blow for the league to lose Creighton, and though the league would be stronger with the Doug McDermott-led Bluejays in it, one thing that wouldn’t have changed much is the depth of talent in the league.
A majority of the MVC’s teams are in rebuilding mode or are starting over. The MVC was going to be top-heavy whether Creighton was there or not.
The good news for Indiana State fans is that the Sycamores are among the teams at the top. Everyone, save R.J. Mahurin, returns from last season’s NIT team.
ISU coach Greg Lansing had set this roster up for a championship run this season whether the league had changed or not. His timing couldn’t have been better. A successful season could give ISU staying power near the top as it will look very successful compared with many of its league brethren.
Wichita State and ISU stand above all the rest of the league. The league effectively splits into three categories: the contenders, the respectable and the rebuilders.
Short a blog where I used to write in depth about my MVC picks (I’m working on getting it back), here’s how I see the MVC this season:
1. Wichita State — The Shockers are one of those schools that doesn’t like the mid-major tag placed upon them. WSU spends more than typical mid-major, it draws more than a typical mid-major, and in the case of the recent Shockers, it has more talent than a typical mid-major.
That was born out last year when WSU made an exciting run to the Final Four. WSU lost some pieces from that team, but returns enough to make the Shockers the conference favorite.
Cleanthony Early will likely be preseason MVC Player of the Year. Long, athletic and skilled around the basket, he’s a load. The player MVC can’t sleep on is guard Ron Baker. He missed nearly all of the MVC season last year with a stress fracture injury, but I think he was the key reason the Shockers surprised everyone in the tournament. He can flat-out shoot.
Don’t sleep on guard Tekele Cotton either, probably the best perimeter defender in the league.
WSU seeks depth, but the one thing you know with a Gregg Marshall-coached team is that he will build belief with his team. There’s no bar of expectation with WSU, because Marshall always expects the best and has the talent in him that gets it out of his Shockers.
2. Indiana State — Last year’s end-of-season fade — ISU lost seven of its last nine — was excruciating to be sure. The upshot is that it provides fuel for the Sycamores’ fire this year. I’ve seen it burn in practices I’ve seen so far.
Unlike the 2011-12 season, when ISU’s roster came off too confident and too entitled after a NCAA Tournament bid, this year’s team is embarrassed that last season’s NCAA possibilities were left on the table. Moreover, some of the veterans from that 2012 team, notably Jake Odum, remember the failings of that season and don’t wish for a repeat. These Sycamores will be motivated.
And best of all, they’re talented. Swingman Manny Arop could astound and confound with inconsistent play last year, but he dedicated himself in the offseason to being better this season. If his build is any indication, Arop is as muscular and ripped as any player I’ve seen at ISU, and it’s a good sign.
I chose Odum as my preseason Player of the Year in the MVC, which drew set catcalls from MVC fans who thought I was being a homer.
Odum’s been on preseason All-American lists like Early has, but for Odum to achieve at a level I, and others, think he can, he has to strike the balance between deferring to his teammates on the floor and knowing when he needs to take over himself. I’m bullish on Odum and think he can do it.
ISU also needs Justin Gant to find the form he had early in last year’s MVC season. ISU was at its best when it had that triple threat.
ISU has more depth than any team in the league. Khristian Smith, Devonte Brown, Dawon Cummings, Lucas Eitel, Brandon Burnett and Jake Kitchell all have experience and can improve. Redshirt freshman T.J. Bell has looked good in practice and juco Demetrius Moore gives ISU its most athletic forward in years.
ISU certainly has to shoot better, and more consistently, than it did last year, but if it can, look out. If ISU achieves what its capable of, it is much closer to the Shockers than people might realize.
3. Northern Iowa — Every year the Panthers show up in the preseason top five, often the top three. The good news for UNI is that Ben Jacobson has built a solid, highly-thought-of program. The bad news? UNI has been stuck, if you want to call it that, as a top-five team that hasn’t had the consistency to break into the top two.
That appears to be the case again this season. UNI was 11-7 in the league in 2013 and lost Anthony James, Marc Sonnen and Jake Koch to graduation. The most important Panthers who return are Deon Mitchell, a talented swingman, and Seth Tuttle, a hard-working and gritty forward.
UNI usually plays its way through early-season hiccups and coagulates by season’s end. This Panthers team figures to be no different.
4. Missouri State — The Bears fly under the radar a bit because they’re not flashy. They also started very poorly a year ago before becoming a respectable MVC team by season’s end.
Anthony Downing is the only player of consequence that doesn’t come back. Everyone else is back, including Jarmar Gulley, who missed 2013 with a knee injury. Marcus Marshall was the MVC Freshman of the Year in 2013. Keith Pickens, Gavin Thurman, Christian Kirk and Nathan Scheer provide experienced depth.
Missouri State could easily push UNI for third, and if things don’t break right for ISU, could slide that far up as well. But this MSU group needs to prove it can do it over a full season.
5. Bradley — The Braves lost forward Dyricus Simms-Edwards, who could do a little bit of everything, but return kinetic guard Walt Lemon Jr. Tyshon Pickett, another forward, is in Simms-Edwards’ mold and can score. Center Jordan Prosser is also back.
Past that, the Braves lack experience, but Geno Ford is further into his rebuilding process than some of his league peers are. In his third year, he’s mixing and matching the right pieces to fit how he wants to play. Bradley is middle-of-the-pack, but in a down year for most MVC teams, they are solidly so.
6. Evansville — I’ll be honest. I have rationale to sort out the final five teams, but the truth is that you could throw darts at a board and not be far off on the final five.
To wit, I had Evansville pegged as a play-in team when I began the picking process. Not only does the loss of Colt Ryan hurt, but also the departure of glue guys like Troy Taylor and Ned Cox. The Purple Aces might be a play-in team by past MVC standards, but likely won’t be this time.
The Aces aces return a few more pieces than some of their counterparts, including most of its frontcourt. Guards D.J. Balentine and Adam Wing are back, along with forward Jaylon Moore and Lithuanian threats Rokas Cesnulevicius and Egidijus Mockevicius.
7. Southern Illinois — Coach Barry Hinson is in the second year of a major rebuilding project. The Salukis finished 6-12 a year ago, much better than most thought possible.
Hinson will have to work his magic again as SIU lost more talent, but the Salukis do return two of their top three scorers, including talented Desmar Jackson. SIU could easily be worse, but Hinson’s performance last season is reason enough to believe the Salukis can exceed expectations again.
8. Loyola — The conference newbies are an unknown to most MVC fans. Here in Terre Haute, we know all about former Terre Haute North star Matt O’Leary, who will embark on his sophomore season with the Ramblers.
Loyola isn’t experienced and isn’t built for MVC play. Christian Thomas is their leading scorer and he returns, but there are just two seniors and five sophomores. The Ramblers get the edge over Drake and Illinois State as coach Porter Moser, in his return to the MVC, is a known quantity to his own players in his third season, something that isn’t a luxury for either the Bulldogs (new coach) or Redbirds (new players).
9. Drake — The basketball gods always seem to have it in for Drake. Had it kept its roster of the last two seasons intact, the Bulldogs would easily be a top-half MVC team.
But they didn’t. New coach Ray Giacoletti won’t quite be starting from scratch, but the loss of five of the Bulldogs’ top seven scorers from a year ago will make it tough.
Center Seth VanDeest and guards Richard Carter and Karl Madison provide experience, but the Bulldogs are largely an unknown quantity and that usually spells trouble, depleted league or not.
10. Illinois State — The Redbirds were already behind the 8-ball when their top six scorers from last season departed — to graduation or otherwise. Even with those top six a year ago, the Redbirds were a mid-pack team.
Then things started to unravel. Juco guard Daishon Knight, expected to help immediately, was indefinitely suspended. Then freshman forward MiKyle McIntosh was ruled out for the season as an academic non-qualifier.
The Redbirds are decimated. Guards Kaza Keane and Nick Zeisloft are the only familiar names. Year two in the Dan Muller era could be a long one in Normal.
Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at (812) 208-2643 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.