- Ky McKeon
Player of the Year: Alize Johnson, Sr., Missouri State
Coach of the Year: Paul Lusk, Missouri State
Newcomer of the Year: Milik Yarbrough, Jr., Illinois State
Freshman of the Year: Brendon Gooch, R Fr., Southern Illinois
1. Missouri State
Key Returners: Alize Johnson, Jarred Dixon, Jarrid Rhodes, Obediah Church, Ryan Kreklow, Ronnie Rousseau
Key Losses: Dequon Miller
Key Newcomers: JT Miller, Reggie Scurry, Abdul-Hakim Fofana, Mustafa Lawrence, Darian Scott, Tanveer Bhullar
Postseason Projection: 12-13 Seed
Outlook: Despite the recent regular season success the Missouri State Bears have experienced over the past 15 or so years, they’ve failed to make the NCAA Tournament since their last appearance in 1999, back when they were known as Southwest Missouri State. Paul Lusk hasn’t been able to push his squads over the hump like his predecessors Cuonzo Martin (two straight 24+ win seasons), Barry Hinson (169-117 w/ 4 NIT appearances), and Steve Alford (NCAA Sweet 16) were able to do during their tenures, but this season holds great opportunity. Many believe the Bears to be the Valley favorite this year with four starters returning, the addition of a promising crop of newcomers, and the departure of Wichita State to the AAC. If Lusk doesn’t find success this year, he may be faced with a toasty seat come early 2018.
There are plenty of reasons to be excited for this season if you’re a Bears fan, chief among which is the return of Alize Johnson, a 6’9” senior forward that should be the unanimous preseason Valley Player of the Year. Nobody in the conference can match Johnson’s versatility. Aside from being the best rebounder in the Valley (and one of the best in the entire country), Johnson shot 39.2% from downtown, 67.9% at the rim, and took trips to the free throw line at the 6th best rate in the conference. This offseason, Johnson won the MVP of the Adidas Nations Tournament, which is extremely impressive when you consider the bevy of talent around him: Jaylen Adams, Bruce Brown, Jeffrey Carroll, Michael Porter Jr., Mikal Bridges, and Yante Maten to name a few. Johnson’s shooting ability combined with his strength and quickness is simply unguardable, especially for a true big man. Oftentimes, Johnson will catch on the wing where he’s liable to pull from deep or drive by slower forwards. If the opponent matches a smaller wing on him, Johnson will dominate him in the post and on the glass.
In order to successful, MO State will need it’s peripheral pieces to step up to avoid defenses keying in too much on Johnson. The return of Ronnie Rousseau is enormous. Rousseau, a former JUCO All-American, started his first 14 games as a Bear before going down with an ankle injury and later leaving the team for personal reasons. Rousseau’s presence gives MSU another scoring threat (averaged 11.6ppg) and stabilizes their ball handling.
Joining Rousseau in the backcourt will be James “J.T.” Miller and Jarred Dixon. Miller is a graduate transfer from Howard, a high-scoring off-guard that serves as a good two-way player and one that should provide leadership on the floor. Dixon likely takes a backseat to Miller when it comes to starting, but the junior guard proved he could make large contributions off the pine last season. Dixon’s game relies almost entirely on mid-range jumpers; a trend in the direction of a more efficient style could be good for the 6’3” guard. Ryan Kreklow, a 6’4” 2-guard, will be relied upon to provide shooting off the bench.
Rounding out the starting five will be two seniors in 6’7” swingman Jarrid Rhodes and 6’7” post player Obediah Church. Rhodes is primarily a spot-up shooter on the wing where he shoots a cool 38.7% from downtown. Church is a paint-bound big man that ranked 45th in the country in FG% as a junior (64.8%). Together with Johnson, he forms the best one-two rebounding punch in the Valley. MSU was the best glass eating squad in the MVC last season thanks to their athletic frontcourt; with WSU gone, that dominance should only increase. Church is also a fierce shot blocker, ranking 20th in the country in block percentage last season and 2nd in the MVC. His ability to protect the rim is huge for a Missouri State team that puts an emphasis on not allowing shots near the basket. Last year, MSU ranked 5th nationally in shots allowed at the rim, however, they did rank 346th in defensive FG% at the rim (I think the former is a more relevant stat).
In addition to Miller, Lusk will have a nice array of bodies to choose from to fill out his rotation. Freshmen Darian Scott and Mustafa Lawrence should fill roles at the center and point guard positions, respectively. Scott is a talented shot blocker while Lawrence is a high-scoring guard that should provide leadership right away. Two JUCO imports, Reggie Scurry and Abdul-Hakim Fofana should also carve out playing time this season. Scurry is a top 50 JUCO recruit, a high-energy defensive wing with plus athleticism. Fofana has been described by many as an “athletic freak”. The Burkina Faso native can play either forward spot and should be a tough challenge defensively with his scoring versatility and leaping ability.
Bottom Line: Missouri State will likely continue its familiar style of play we’ve come to expect under Paul Lusk. The tempo will be slow and possessions will be milked. With the lineup makeup, expect to see a greater emphasis on outside shooting, but Johnson will be the focal point no matter which way the approach leans (post or perimeter). As stated above, MSU should be the best rebounding team in the conference, and their sagging defense should be a nightmare to score against in the paint. The Bears look poised to punch their first ticket to the Dance of the century, of the Paul Lusk regime, and of the “Missouri State” nomenclature era.
Key Returners: Aundre Jackson, Clayton Custer, Donte Ingram, Ben Richardson
Key Losses: Milton Doyle
Key Newcomers: Carson Shanks, Marques Townes, Christian Negron, Adarius Avery, Lucas Williamson
Postseason Projection: NIT
Outlook: Since joining the Missouri Valley back in 2013-14, the Loyola Ramblers have never finished with a conference record above .500, nor have they finished above 5th place in the final conference standings. With the return of four major lineup pieces and the addition of some high impact transfers and freshmen, Porter Moser’s crew looks poised to not only win the conference, but also make its first NCAA Tournament since 1985.
Loyola’s offense was the second best in the MVC last season thanks to its sure-handed backcourt and unconscious shooting – the Ramblers ranked 23rd in the country in 3P% (38.9%) and 33rd in 2P% (53.5%), allowing them to outscore most of its opponents when the defense failed to step up (as it often did). Moser has always instilled a consistent style of play on the offensive end, one that focuses on ball movement, eating clock, and finding open shooters. Two forwards (one of which is sometimes a wing in disguise) work in tandem in the paint, setting high-low screens and post-to-post screens to encourage catches on the block or elbow. Isolation play is not often seen in Moser’s offense; instead drive-and-kicks and pick-n-rolls reign supreme. The Ramblers never crash the glass, a side effect of their relative lack of size and focus on shutting down transition opportunities – LU ranked 25th in the country in stifling transition in 2016-17.
On defense, the Ramblers forced a lot of turnovers via steals thanks to their extended ball pressure, and the team rebounds well as a cohesive unit. However, gambling for steals and lack of interior size made it far too easy to score at times.
Milton Doyle’s departure is significant on both ends of the floor; he was arguably the team’s best overall defender and led the squad in scoring. Despite the departure, Loyola should be able to find success on both ends assuming the peripheral pieces from last season step up in roles. Aundre Jackson and Donte Ingram, the team’s two leading returning scorers, should form the starting frontcourt at the start of the season. Neither player is a true big man (Jackson has more of the game of a post player), which causes matchup issues against more traditional frontlines. Jackson stands only 6’5”, but he’s more than able to bang in the post with bigger defenders. Jackson ranked 6th in the country in effective FG% with his shooting slash of .690/.433/.717. While he’s most comfortable sealing his man in the post or cutting through the lane off post-to-post screens, Jackson also showed deadly range from deep. Pair this playing style with Ingram, a more perimeter-oriented forward that shot .586/.451/.667, and it’s not hard to see why the LU attack was so difficult to stop last season.
Jackson came off the bench most of the time last season, but I can’t see Moser keeping him on the pine this season. If he does decide to go with that strategy again, North Dakota transfer Carson Shanks and 4-star freshman Christian Negron could both see time up front. Shanks isn’t really anything special, but he’s 7 feet tall, something that can be incredibly valuable for a team that has been constantly height-challenged. Negron is a very skilled power forward that should be ready to contribute immediately.
Loyola’s backcourt should be solid once again this season with the return of Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson and addition of Fairleigh Dickinson transfer Marques Townes. Custer will handle point duties for the Ramblers; the 6’1” junior and former Iowa State Cyclone is one of the best shooters on the team, pouring in 41.7% of his threes on 132 attempts. Custer is an ideal table setter due to his strong handle, quickness, and shooting. Richardson, another 41% three-point shooter, will assume the cliché spot-up role. Defensively, Richardson isn’t able to matchup with more athletic 2-guards (and playing him next to Custer forms a small back line), but he’s one of the best trey bombers in the conference. Townes is going to be the guy pegged to take over the Milton Doyle role, a guy that will be able to go toe-to-toe with bigger wings on defense while providing versatile scoring on the offensive end.
Moser has two more good options in the backcourt to throw at opposing teams. Adarius Avery was the 2nd leading scorer in the JUCO ranks last season (24ppg) and earned an Honorable Mention All-American nod. Like Townes, Avery will help fill the Doyle void with his size and athleticism from the wing. Lucas Williamson, a Chicago native, has a wide frame, which gives him the potential to develop into a good defender down the road. He isn’t the most explosive player on offense, but he’s a sound shooter, an apparent requisite attribute to be on the team.
Bottom Line: Loyola will be considered one of the favorites to take the Valley this season along with border rival Missouri State. The Ramblers have the experience, continuity, and talent to win the Valley and make some noise in the Big Dance.
3. Northern Iowa
Key Returners: Bennett Koch, Klint Carlson, Spencer Haldeman, Juwan McCloud
Key Losses: Jeremy Morgan, Jordan Ashton
Key Newcomers: Miles Wentzien, Tywhon Pickford, Adam McDermott, Austin Phyfe
Postseason Projection: CBI/CIT
Outlook: Ben Jacobson has built something special at Northern Iowa. Taking over for Greg McDermott back in 2006-07 and riding the now-Creighton coach’s three straight NCAA Tourney appearances, Jacobson has instilled a winning culture up in Cedar Falls and has taken the Panthers to four Tournaments of his own, earning a 5-seed in 2015. Jacobson’s squad faced adversity last season, sputtering to a 14-16 record, his worst since taking the reigns at UNI, thanks to a relatively inexperienced roster and a dearth of scoring. UNI ranked dead last in the Missouri Valley in offensive efficiency, a very uncharacteristic stat, but still held stout on the defensive end. With the Shockers out of the Valley and a more battle-tested squad, UNI looks poised to once again compete for the conference crown, a position it perennially expects to be in.
The fact that UNI was such an awful offensive team last season may come as a surprise considering the Panthers had one of the best offensive players in the MVC on their roster in Jeremy Morgan, and Jacobson’s squads are known for their methodical, deliberate offensive sets in which good shots are the end goal of every possession. Morgan was good last season, but he was mightily inefficient and was forced to do too much given the lack of perimeter talent around him. UNI’s offense revolved around Morgan – he would bring the ball up, pass to the wing, then dive down to the baseline where he was given the option to pop up off down screens on either block. This focus on Morgan may have done more harm than good for the Panthers overall, perhaps the Ewing Theory may come into play this season.
With Morgan gone, expect the offensive focus to shift to Bennett Koch, a 6’10” senior with a strong post game. Koch put up some gaudy performances in the latter half of the year, and Jacobson made it a point to feature him more in the game plan. Foul trouble and conditioning may have limited his court time last season, but UNI will need him on the floor to be successful this year. For how good of a scorer Koch is, his rebounding leaves much to be desired. The Panthers as a team were the second worst offensive rebounding team in the country last season, a consequence of their 4-out system surrounding a weak rebounder in Koch. That will need to improve, but so will the shot making, as 45.3% from 2 and 32.3% from 3 is not a recipe for success when combined with poor rebounding.
Klint Carlson will be another crucial piece to the UNI attack this year. Carlson’s passing ability makes him an asset on offense, allowing Jacobson to run sets with Carlson catching at the top of the key and surveying the floor for cutters or open shooters. As for shooting, Carlson will need to improve upon his disappointing .477/.255/.723 slash from a year ago; his hesitancy was a major reason his numbers were so low – confidence will be key in him becoming a more consistent contributor.
Jacobson will have a few options at point guard to replace the departed Morgan. Spencer Haldeman, Hunter Rhodes, Juwan McCloud and Wyatt Lohaus can all handle the basketball. McCloud is the likely first option as his shooting is not as strong as the others listed (17.8% three-point shooter) and his pass-first tendency is best suited for the role. On defense, McCloud is an excellent on-ball stopper, capable at starting a break off a timely steal. Lohaus and Haldeman could both start next to McCloud, giving Jacobson a lineup resistant to turnovers, however perimeter defense could suffer due to the lack of size. Lohaus is potential breakout scoring candidate off the ball, while Haldeman is the team’s most voluminous three-point shooter. Rhodes is a natural point guard, but he may be the best shooter on the roster.
Options are plentiful off the pine for Jacobson. Of the returning group, Isaiah Brown and Luke McConnell are the most likely to play major roles in the rotation. Brown was a fairly hyped recruit coming in last year, but his dreadful shooting numbers limited his playing time. The Panthers need Brown to have a Renaissance year in his second season in purple, as his size on the wing fills a major need in their rotation. McConnell is a solid backup for Carlson and Koch up front with his plus rebounding skills and ability to space the floor.
As for the newcomers, keep an eye on Tywhon Pickford, a 6’3” explosive guard that could wind up in the starting lineup before all is said and done. Pickford offers athleticism for an otherwise underwhelming athletic squad; he enjoyed much success in the Iowa offseason recreational league. North Dakota transfer Adam McDermott should provide shooting off the bench, while redshirt freshman Tanner Lohaus and true freshman Adam Phyfe bolster the frontcourt rotation. Miles Wentzien, a former JUCO All-American, could also carve out a role on the perimeter.
Bottom Line: Despite the loss of Morgan, I think we see a more poised UNI team offensively this season. Koch can handle the “go-to scoring” role, while a guy like Pickford or Wyatt Lohaus could provide the outside scoring punch needed to balance the equation. On defense, this team should be as solid as ever – Haldeman and McCloud are both pesky defenders that can create turnovers, Koch is a solid rim protector, and all the Panthers buy into Jacobson’s disciplined ideology of staying in front their men, getting out on shooters, and blocking out on shots. UNI should be a top five Valley team this season.
Key Returners: Darrell Brown, JoJo McGlaston, Koch Bar, Donte Thomas, Jayden Hodgson, Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye, Antoine Pittman, Nate Kennell, Luuk Van Bree
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Elijah Childs
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: The Bradley Braves just haven’t been the same since Jim Les left town. After failing to gain momentum under Geno Ford, BU hired Brian Wardle, the former Green Bay coach. Wardle had a tough assignment in his first season, as the Braves were the youngest team in the entire country. Unsurprisingly, Bradley sputtered to a 5-27 (3-15) record in 2015-16 but appeared to turn a corner under Wardle last season (13-20 (7-11)). This improvement is more impressive than it looks. Wardle’s 2016-17 squad was still the third youngest in the country, but he instilled a strong defensive mindset in his team and wasn’t shy about pulling guys that weren’t putting forth the requisite effort (Bradley ranked 5th in bench minutes last year). With literally everyone returning from last season (sorry to the two deep bench transfers), the Braves suddenly look like a dark horse candidate to make some noise in the Valley.
I’ll temper potential unrealistic expectations by saying Bradley has had one of the worst offenses in the country in each of the past two seasons. The offense should certainly be improved, but it will by no means be an upper echelon force in the country. Bradley was good at one thing last season – getting to the foul line. Poor shooting inside the arc, turnovers, and rebounding derailed the Bradley attack far too often for them to succeed on free throws alone. Darrell Brown returns to lead the offense after turning in an impressive freshman campaign where he led the squad in usage, ranked 7th in the conference in assist rate, and shot 37.2% from deep. He could be a bit erratic at times last season, forcing low percentage shots, but most freshmen tend to fall into that habit especially those that are expected to assume the lion’s share of the scoring load. With a year under his belt, I’d expect a jump in Brown’s efficiency numbers as he stakes his claim for a spot on the All-Conference squad.
Fellow sophomore Jayden Hodgson will form a dual point guard look along with Brown. Hodgson was far more successful playing off the ball where he could use his shooting ability to space the floor (39% from downtown). Hodgson posted a 26.4% TO Rate, which is far too high for anyone, and certainly not what a team wants from its point guard. JoJo McGlaston will fill out the backcourt, the lefty swingman is a valuable asset on defense with his shot blocking and stealing capabilities, but struggled finding his rhythm on offense last season. As one of only two seniors on the roster this year, look for McGlaston to step up into a mentorship role and continue to provide tough defense.
Bradley’s inside presence has been anything but stout over the last few seasons. Koch Bar and Donte Thomas both played well last year, but neither proved to be big enough or strong enough to gain position near the rim on a consistent basis – both guys like to step away to the near mid-range area. Thomas was the only major Brave contributor to register an offensive rating over 100.0 last season thanks to his finishing ability. The 6’7” senior is most effective in the pick-n-roll game, where he sets good screens and is able to flair out to the short corner or roll to the rim to convert buckets. Both Bar and Thomas are great rebounders on both sides of the basketball, and Bar ranked 7th in the conference in block percentage.
As mentioned above, Bradley used its bench extensively last season, consistently playing 9 or 10 bodies each contest. Up front, Luuk van Bree, a 6’9” Dutchman, gives the Braves a floor spacer at the stretch four spot. On defense, van Bree proved to be an asset as well last season ranking 9th in the conference in block percentage and 12th in steal percentage. Callum Baker will also provide depth at the 4 and 5 position; he’s a post-up style of big man with a good nose for offensive boards. In the backcourt, Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye, Antoine Pittman, and Nate Kennell will all see plenty of floor time off the pine.
With so many guys returning, its unlikely any of the three newcomers see much floor time, but Elijah Childs has a shot to be a contributor down the road. I’ll also send a shout out to Ryan Stipanovich, a sweet-shooting 6’7” wing and actual brother to my fraternity brother in college. Go Ryan.
Bottom Line: It’s rare to see a team return so much from a previous season as the Braves do this year. While this wasn’t a great squad in 2016-17, an extra year and minute continuity does pay dividends in college basketball. If Brown blossoms into a star and the roster as a collective settles for better shots, Bradley is a sexy dark horse candidate to finish in the top four of the Valley.
5. Indiana State
Key Returners: Brenton Scott, Jordan Barnes
Key Losses: Everett Clemons, Matt Van Scyoc, Laquarious Paige, TJ Bell, Niels Bunschoten
Key Newcomers: Qiydar Davis, Devin Thomas, Clayton Hughes, Daniel Huenermann, Tyreke Key
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: In his seven years in Terre Haute, Greg Lansing has done a pretty good overall job leading the Indiana State basketball program. However, with three straight losing seasons, including a disastrous 11-20 (5-13) 2016-17 campaign, Lansing’s seat is getting mighty hot. The coach’s perpetual rollover in his contract was canceled back in March, meaning the ISU athletic department is growing impatient with Lansing’s recent results. Peeling back the layers a bit, though, we see that ISU really wasn’t a poor team last year – the Sycs lost five contests by one possession and another two in overtime, proving they were indeed a competitive squad, but unfortunately weren’t blessed by Lady Luck. With several players leaving the program from last year’s squad and five newcomers entering, ISU will be a new-look team in 2017-18, which could kick start a revival to Lansing’s career.
Offensively, expect to see a somewhat similar approach from the Sycamores – a perimeter-based attack that features a heavy dose of guard-to-guard ball screens revolving around two paint patrolling frontcourt pieces. The loss of Everett Clemons is enormous from a playmaking and leadership standpoint, but the backcourt should be in good hands with returning All-Conference performer Brenton Scott and rising sophomore Jordan Barnes. Scott will use the lion’s share of the Sycs’ possessions, gunning from outside the arc and attacking the basket off the bounce. Last season was Scott’s least efficient of his three-year career, a likely side effect of being the clear focus of the opposing defense. Barnes has every capability in assisting in the playmaking and scoring roles; with Clemons gone, Barnes likely shifts over as the team’s starting point guard. The St. Louis native showed poise as a freshman, dishing out the league’s 13th best Assist Rate, while also ranking 13th in Turnover Rate. His three-point shooting ability will also be key for a team that shoots the long ball at one of the highest rates in the country.
Defensively, ISU plays a chaotic brand of hybrid man-to-man that covers the entire half court. The Sycs shade the three-point line, pressure the ball heavily, and switch most screens to the point where the defense almost has a zone quality to it. Scott and Clemons were two of the best stealers in the MVC last season thanks to their ability to stick with ball handlers while annoying the crap out of them. Barnes isn’t quite the level of defender Clemons was, but Lansing will have a major upgrade on the wing spot in Louisiana Tech transfer Qiydar Davis. If Davis can get fully healthy for the start of the season (he’s coming off a knee injury), he could be one of the best defenders in the Valley. Davis can guard multiple positions on the floor with his athleticism, and is an excellent rebounder, shot blocker, and stealer at 6’5”.
If Davis can’t get back to full speed, expect a guy like freshman Clayton Hughes or perhaps even reserve Demonte Okinnaka to get some run at the three. Hughes looks like the real deal on film; he can shoot, beat his man off the bounce, and is capable of playing above the rim. He committed to UCF and UNCW (coaching changes) before ultimately deciding to come to Terre Haute. Lansing could also go super small and insert freshman Tyreke Key alongside Barnes and Scott. Key is an electric scoring combo guard who should be able to fill it up either in the starting five or off the pine. He’ll be a key piece to ISU’s future.
The frontcourt was a source of weakness for ISU last season; the Sycs were one of the worst teams in the country at finishing near the rim, were a brutal rebounding team, and rarely were able to get anything of significance off post-ups. Lansing hopes he’s found a solution to these issues with JUCO import Devin Thomas and Swiss big man Daniel Huenermann. Thomas should immediately start at the four spot alongside likely Brandon Murphy. The 6’8” JUCO transfer was ranked the 28th best JUCO prospect of 2017 and possesses strong scoring ability from both the post and perimeter, and rebounding prowess. Huenermann will likely come off the pine to start his career, but the 6’11” European has mounds of potential with his shooting and ball handling capabilities. Redshirt sophomore Bronson Kessinger and junior Emondre Rickman should also both see floor time at the 4 and 5 spots this season.
Bottom Line: Indiana State had a rough year last season, but there’s reason to believe they should be a much-improved team in 2017-18. Brenton Scott appears to have adequate help on the offensive side of the ball, and the frontcourt should finally be a threat to score and compete on the boards. Lansing’s seat is hot, but he’s still a capable coach eager to compete in the Missouri Valley. If everything clicks, ISU could finish in the top half of the MVC.
6. Illinois State
Key Returners: Phil Fayne, Keyshawn Evans
Key Losses: Mikyle McIntosh, Paris Lee, Deontae Hawkins, DJ Clayton, Tony Wills
Key Newcomers: Milik Yarbrough, William Tinsley, Elijah Clarance, Jerron Martin, Christian Romine, Taylor Bruninga
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Illinois State has the very unenviable honor of being the Valley team that lost the most this offseason. After a 28-7 (17-1) season, arguably the best in Redbird history, Dan Muller loses four starters including MVC Player of the Year, Paris Lee. The new-look 2017-18 Redbirds have a lot of unknowns on their roster, which could mean a rebuilding year in Normal. Muller has never won less than 18 games in his five-year coaching career – he may struggle to hit that mark this season.
ISU was elite last season because of its defense, the 19th-ranked unit in the country, led by a unit of long, athletic, interchangeable pieces. While the core of that unit is now gone, Muller has a strong history of leading good defensive squads, and this year’s team has the requisite athletes to still be respectable on that end. Two of the most important pieces to this year’s defense will be Phil Fayne, the only returning starter, and center Daouda Ndiaye. Fayne led the Valley in offensive rebounding percentage last season and ranked 8th in block percentage. The Redbirds allowed 10 less point per 100 possessions when Fayne was on the court last season; when paired with Ndiaye, teams found it nearly impossible to score at the rim. It’s unclear whether Muller will be willing to pair the two together in the starting five, particularly with SLU transfer Milik Yarbrough coming in, but the Birds should always have a fierce shot blocker in the game anchoring the paint.
Yarbrough is arguably the most important player on the ISU roster this season. His versatility, both on offense and defense, is reminiscent of Mikyle McIntosh. On offense, Yarbrough can slot into the four or three spot thanks to his post-up, ball handling, and three-point shooting ability. On defense, the former SLU Billiken, will be able to matchup with just about any position on the floor.
The backcourt will be led by 2016-17 top reserve Keyshawn Evans, a 6’0” combo guard with a good-looking jumper. Evans is deadly from deep, but proved he could also play the role of an unselfish facilitator. He’ll be paired up in the backcourt with returning sophomore Madison Williams and JUCO import William Tinsley. Elijah Clarance, a bouncy 6’4” freshman, will serve as his primary backup along with Texas Southern transfer Jerron Martin.
Williams really struggled last year as a freshman, but it’s hard to read too much into his struggles given the lack of opportunity he received. Tinsley offers plenty of intrigue if slotted alongside Yarbrough at the 3 and 4, respectively. Tinsley was ranked as the #54 JUCO recruit thanks to his versatility and athleticism. Together with Yarbrough, Tinsley should be able to continue the strong defensive tradition. Clarance and Martin will jostle for position as primary lead guard backup. Clarance appears to have the inside track as the future ISU point guard thanks to his prominent leadership ability and size at the position. Martin was never really a consistent contributor in the SWAC, a sign that he’ll likely serve more as a mentor than an on-floor playmaker.
Finally, Muller will have a couple of new bigs to slot in the frontcourt rotation behind Fayne, Ndiaye, and Yarbrough. Taylor Bruninga, a 6’8” freshman out of Mapleton, Illinois was a big-time scorer in high school and should be able to carve out a role as a stretch four down the road. Christian Romine is a 6’9” transfer out of UTEP. Like Martin, Romine wasn’t really a factor in his previous school’s rotation, but his body may still be needed as a deep reserve.
Bottom Line: It’s hard to peg what type of team ISU will be this season. There is absolutely no star power on this roster, nor any proven playmakers. Evans has the potential to break out and become the leader on offense, but this will likely be a team that struggles on that end. Muller played a slow tempo last season, something he’ll likely instill again due to the squad’s lack of firepower. On defense, ISU should be as strong as ever; the athletes are there to make scoring a nightmare for opposing Valley offenses. This season will tell us a lot about how good of a coach Dan Muller is as he attempts to make his inexperienced team better and mount a charge to the top of the MVC standings.
7. Southern Illinois
Key Returners: Thik Bol, Armon Fletcher, Sean Lloyd
Key Losses: Mike Rodriguez, Sean O’Brien, Leo Vincent
Key Newcomers: Eric McGill, Marcus Bartley, Kavion Pippen, Brendon Gooch (redshirt)
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: The Salukis developed into a mini MVC dynasty back in the early 2000s, punching a ticket to the Big Dance in six straight seasons from 2001-02 to 2006-07. Since then, SIU has struggled to regain clout in the Valley. Barry Hinson, the former Missouri State Head Coach, has led the Salukis to two straight winning seasons and two straight top five conference finishes after starting his Carbondale career 40-57. With the loss of All-Conference performer Sean O’Brien and point guard Mike Rodriguez, expectations are low for SIU this season, but Hinson appears optimistic about his teams chances. An influx of transfers has bolstered the Saluki rotation, giving Hinson what he calls the deepest team he’s had in Carbondale.
SIU was a squad that focused on attacking the rim in the half court last season, eschewing the three-pointer in the process. Only four players on the team attempted more than 50 threes last season and two have graduated. Armon Fletcher, the team’s leading returning scorer (and best defender), was SIU’s most voluminous three-point shooter, but the 6’4” wing has only hit on 32% of his career attempts. Shooting was a major issue for the Salukis in 2016-17 and was the primary reason they often struggled on offense. Sound ball handling and the creation of turnovers on the defensive end kept the offense respectable, but the shooting prevented SIU from climbing the national ranks. Hinson expects this aspect to improve this season with Fletcher and off-guard Sean Lloyd notching another year under their belts. Lloyd posted the best PPP (points per possession) differential on the team last season and 2017-18 could be break out a year for the 6’5” Philly native. Unlike Fletcher, Lloyd isn’t quite as limited to the spot-up jumper on offense, proving he could score off penetration and earning trips to the charity stripe. One of these two will need to step up as the go-to scorer as the Saluki offense relied heavily on the production of Rodriguez and O’Brien last year.
Thik Bol is the lone returning starter in the frontcourt. Bol performed well in his first season at SIU, showcasing a soft touch on offense and the ability to run the floor in transition. On defense, Bol ranked #1 in the MVC in block percentage and was also one of the best rebounders in the conference on both ends. On offense, Bol is more of a finesse style big man, preferring to shoot over his defender instead of overpowering him in the paint. Bol shot an impressive 71.9% at the rim last season but a woeful 34.7% on two-point jumpers. Smarter shot selection and further basketball development this offseason should do Bol wonders in 2017-18.
Hinson’s bullishness on the upcoming season comes in part due to his incoming transfers, Marcus Bartley (SLU), Eric McGill (JUCO), and Kavion Pippen (JUCO). Bartley and McGill, along with sophomore Aaron Cook, will battle for the starting point guard spot. Bartley is probably better off playing off the ball with his excellent shooting ability, while McGill is more of a true point guard that focuses on getting his teammates involved in the offense and making plays. Pippen (Scottie’s nephew) will provide depth behind Bol and senior Jonathan Wiley up front.
Two more guards, Tyler Smithpeters and Brendon Gooch should also crack the rotation this season. Smithpeters missed last year due to injury, but the redshirt senior was a regular starter back in 2015-16; he represents SIU’s greatest shooting threat, connecting on 40.5% of his deep balls as a junior. Gooch, a redshirt freshman, has impressed in offseason workouts; he’s a big wing that can matchup with multiple positions on defense.
Bottom Line: Nobody is higher on the Salukis this season than Barry Hinson, which makes sense considering he’s the coach of the program. While I would like to share Barry’s enthusiasm of my Dad’s alma mater, I’m hesitant to call this team a true MVC contender. SIU has a real question in terms of a lead scorer – Fletcher was a peripheral piece on offense last season, but Lloyd may be able to step up into this role. If Bartley or McGill turn out to be a revelation, then SIU could finish in the top four. Otherwise, we’re looking at a squad that should once again be solid on defense (thanks to Thik Bol), but struggle to find themselves on the offensive end.
Key Returners: Tevonn Walker, Max Joseph, Jaume Sorolla
Key Losses: Alec Peters, Shane Hammink, Lexus Williams
Key Newcomers: Bakari Evelyn, Joe Burton, Markus Golder, Parker Hazen, Mileek McMillan, Marten Linssen
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Matt Lottich inherited a talented squad at Valpo from Bryce Drew, complete with an experienced core and one of the best players in the country in Alec Peters. After turning in an impressive regular season and dominating the Horizon League, Valpo’s season ended in disappointment as Peters went down with an injury and the Crusaders fell in an ugly 43-41 contest to Milwaukee in the Horizon Tourney. Valpo now shifts to the Missouri Valley, a league that has historically been much stronger than the Horizon, but one that may struggle to reclaim past glory without the stability of Wichita State’s recent run of dominance.
We’ll learn a lot about Lottich this season as he boldly ventures out into the world sans Alec Peters, a player that many consider to be one of the best ever to play in the Horizon. Valpo was a completely different team without Peters last year, going 1-3 in the four contests he sat, and struggling mightily when he rested on the bench. Here’s an illustration of the importance of Peters last season, per Hoop Lens:
Valpo was a considerably worse team on both ends of the floor when its star player wasn’t on the floor.
The Crusader attack will shift from a frontcourt-focused game plan to a perimeter one. Tevonn Walker will look to step up as the “go-to guy”, a dynamic guard with a deadly pull-up jumper that he likes to use coming off ball screens (shot a respectable 40% on mid-range jumpers last season). Walker’s versatility should make him one of the better scorers in the Valley this year. Valpo runs a weave style of offense, where three guards run a sort-of hand-off, crisscross motion at the top of the key, looking to pick off defenders with high screens at the elbow or drive against complacent defenders off a quick reversal. Walker’s speed and pull-up ability makes this type of motion very hard to guard.
Past Walker, consistent offensive contribution may be tough to find. Micah Bradford and Max Joseph, two veteran guards will likely start next to Walker in the backcourt. Bradford is a willowy pass-first point guard with a decent jumper. Last season, Bradford struggled finding his shot and taking care of the ball; both areas will need to improve for the Crusaders to be successful this season. Joseph is mostly a spot-up shooter, but he showed flashes of penetration ability late in the year. He’s not nearly the dynamic playmaker Walker is, but he is one of the team’s better perimeter defenders on the other end.
Bradford and Joseph can’t become complacent in their roles, for Lottich has burgeoning guard talent ready to swipe minutes at a moment’s notice. Two transfers, Bakari Evelyn (Nebraska) and Joe Burton (Oklahoma State) should both fight for starting spots – Evelyn at the point guard spot and Burton on the wing. Evelyn wasn’t given much of an opportunity at Nebraska, but Burton saw a good chunk of PT at OSU during his sophomore year, proving to be a capable scorer from multiple spots and contributing solid assist and rebounding numbers.
The frontcourt is chock full of unknowns this season, especially on offense where Lottich will need to find some semblance of a consistent scorer. Jaume Sorolla and John Kiser look to have the early inside tracks at the starting gigs, but neither has a strong hold on them. Sorolla is limited offensively; he’s a weak finisher around the basket, but he is capable of getting good post position. His freshman campaign showed a lot of potential on the rebounding and defensive aspects of the game, but he likely won’t be a considered a huge threat on offense. Kiser started getting run late in the year; he’s the type of player that can contribute in multiple areas on the floor, but his size may deter Lottich from running him at the 4. Derrik Smits (Rik’s kid) is the tallest player on the roster and offers some potential on offense thanks to his feathery lefty touch and ever-increasing shooting range, but he’s still raw at this point.
Production in the frontcourt will likely need to come from one of Lottich’s newcomers. Parker Hazen, a 3-star recruit, could be a future star on this team. His game is a little reminiscent of Peters, a stretch-four type that can play both forward spots. Hazen can score from all three levels of the floor and his size gives him an advantage in the playing time fight. Markus Golder, a JUCO import, will provide athleticism on the wing and Mileek McMillan and Marten Linssen will provide depth at the 4 and 5 spots. McMillan is a guy I can see earning substantial minutes later in the year.
Bottom Line: This could be a rare down year for the Valpo Crusaders. A new league plus a major adjustment to life without Alec Peters could mean a bit of adversity in 2017-18. Lottich appears to be the right fit for the coaching gig, replacing a rich history of Drews; it’ll be interesting to watch how he molds this program in his image starting with this season.
Key Returners: Ryan Taylor, Blake Simmons, Duane Gibson, Dru Smith
Key Losses: Jaylon Brown, David Howard, Christian Benzon
Key Newcomers: Marty Hill, Dainius Chatkevicius, KJ Riley
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: Marty Simmons has done an adequate job at the helm of Evansville, a place where basketball expectations have never really been high, and a program that hasn’t made the Big Dance since 1999. In his 10-year stint, Simmons has taken the Purple Aces to the postseason five times (3 CIT, 2 CBI) and has eclipsed the 20-win mark three times. This season promises to be a challenging one with the Aces losing three crucial lineup pieces including Jaylon Brown, a 2nd Team All-MVC performer. Injuries dismantled what could have been a successful 2016-17 campaign; Simmons’s focus will be on getting his guys healthy to start the season and figuring out what to do about the squad’s dearth of frontcourt talent.
Evansville has displayed a very distinct style of play under Simmons. The Aces run a motion offense that focuses on throwing a barrage of screens at their opponents in an effort to open up shooters in the mid-range area or get the ball to the rim (almost like a mover/blocker type offense). No team in the country attempted more two-point jumpers than Evansville last season, which makes their 183rd adjusted offensive efficiency rating come as no surprise. Simmons’s teams consistently rank in the bottom five or ten in the country in three-point attempts (last year they ranked dead last) and the top 30 or so in free throw attempts (last year they ranked 2nd), which evidences their stark style of play. It’s tough to win consistently with this style of play, especially with a lack of a competent big man corps that can bail out possessions with offensive rebounding. Passing and ball movement is essential in this style of offense, which the Aces have, but scoring deficits can be difficult to overcome without the three-ball.
Simmons has a pretty good core of guards returning in point guard Duane “Boo” Gibson, high-scoring wing Ryan Taylor, and rising sophomore Dru Smith. Gibson is a unique player, one that handles the ball on offense but often matches up with 2-guards or bigger wings on defense. At 6’3”, Gibson is the team’s returning leader in rebounding and shot-blocking. He doesn’t shoot a lick from deep (literally was 0/1 last season), but he’s a capable rim attacker and excellent passer. Taylor is the team’s returning leading scorer and only guy on the roster that attempted over 100 threes last season. The 6’6” junior is money from everywhere on the floor (.468/.381/.869) – he shot 44.3% on mid-range jumpers, which is actually pretty impressive. Defensively, Taylor is a bit of a liability. Smith will fill a hybrid role on offense for the Aces with his dual ability to handle and distribute the rock and knock down outside shots. The sophomore will be relied upon to pick up some of the shooting slack left behind by Brown.
The Ace frontcourt is a total mystery. Marty’s son, Blake Simmons, returns to reprise his role as a 3/4 tweener, while Dalen Traore and Solomon Hainna, two guys coming off injuries, represent the only other returning frontcourt pieces. Simmons is a nice glue guy in the lineup, a player that can do a bit of everything on the floor without taking too much attention. He adds another shooter and competent passer to the lineup on offense, but will really need to bulk up his rebounding prowess to survive playing a small-ball four in certain lineups. Traore likely starts at the center spot; he’s the Aces’ best rebounder by a significant margin but offers nothing on offense. The jury is still out on Hainna; he could be a breakout candidate with his size and athleticism, but has yet to show consistent contribution.
Three newcomers promise to aid the returning rotation. Marty Hill, a former JUCO standout, has the tools to become a solid contributor in the Valley; he has excellent athleticism and can get to the bucket with ease, allowing him to fit naturally within Simmons’s scheme. Similarly, K.J. Riley (another JUCO guy) adds another athletic wing presence to the lineup; Simmons will hope the sophomore can sure up a defense that ranked 9th in the MVC last season. 6’9” Lithuanian Dainius Chatkevicius will provide depth up front; he has the strength and physicality to make an impact on a relatively soft Evansville lineup.
Bottom Line: Evansville may struggle to score consistently this season. Without Brown making plays from the perimeter, Taylor may find it far more difficult to find shots in rhythm. The good news is that Simmons’s style of play is a well-oiled system, one that often lifts up the whole despite the contributions of the individuals. His scheme can be difficult to defend due to the constant motion and screening. The Aces will likely improve somewhat on the defensive end with the influx of wing athleticism, but they’re liable to get eaten on the inside. A second straight bottom-three Valley finish appears to be in the cards.
Key Returners: Reed Timmer, De’Antae McMurray, Graham Woodward, Ore Arogundade
Key Losses: Billy Wampler, TJ Thomas
Key Newcomers: Jalen Gibbs, Noah Thomas, Antonio Pilipovic
Postseason Projection: None
Outlook: It’s been ten years since Keno Davis (the current Central Michigan head coach) took the Drake Bulldogs to the Big Dance. Drake earned a 5-seed in the Tourney, where it promptly fell to the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers in the first round. Since then, Drake has turned in only two winning seasons and has not finished over .500 in the Valley. Jeff Rutter took over as the interim coach last season after Ray Giacolleti resigned. His Drake squad finished dead last in the MVC and won only seven total games (with victories over non-D1 Simpson and Mississippi Valley State). With Rutter now a part of the Miami (OH) staff, Drake turns to Niko Medved, the former Furman front man, for guidance.
Drake played an up-tempo style of basketball last season, focusing on pushing the ball up the floor in transition and bombing as many threes as possible. The Bulldogs were very much a perimeter-oriented team, ranking 305th in shot attempts at the rim per Hoop-Math. Medved’s Furman teams played at a significantly more measured pace, choosing to slow the tempo down and work the ball on offense versus trying to beat their competition on the run. Those Furman teams also shot a lot of three balls, something that should continue to be a trend on the 2017-18 Drake squad. The Dogs will still be a perimeter focused team with little to no inside threats to speak of on the roster.
On defense, Medved employed a little matchup zone when he was at Furman, something he should do at Drake considering the lack of competent defenders. The Paladins actually had a strong defense last season, which cannot be said about Drake, a team that ranked 302nd in defensive efficiency per KenPom. But the Paladins had a strong rim protector in Kris Acox to bail out their guards and anchor the paint, something Drake appears to lack unless junior forward Nick McGlynn can take a major step forward this season. Overall, Medved should be able to improve Drake’s defense from a year ago, but I wouldn’t expect to see the Dogs’ atop the Valley in the defensive rankings.
As stated above, Drake’s offense will rely on its guard play to score the basketball. Medved instilled a 4-out system at Furman, which should continue to this Drake squad. Reed Timmer, De’Antae McMurray, Graham Woodward, and Ore Arogundade will all see significant run in the backcourt. Each and every one of these guards is a straight up gunner, willing to take just about any shot on the floor. Timmer is the best scorer on the roster and also the most efficient, posting a .446/.362/.836 shooting slash last season. While Timmer likes to shoot the long ball, he proved to be a legitimate threat in transition attacking the cup – he was the best Bulldog at getting to the line last season. McMurray handles most of the point guard duties; he likes to attack in isolation, an area he actually found a decent amount of success in last year, and beat his man with shimmies and step-backs. Woodward is a capable second ball handler but prefers to play off the ball where he can set his feet to bomb away from deep. Arogundade is the biggest guard of the four; he runs well in transition but is mainly a spot-up shooter on offense. On the defensive end, Arogundade is probably the team’s best defender, but literally all of these guards were toasted regularly last season.
Drake’s inside game is a real issue. Medved will need at least one body to step up and be a competent post threat. In Medved’s system, the inside forward sets up camp at the free throw line where he sets UCLA screens, cross screens, and ball screens. Guards cut off this forward to get open on the perimeter to set up an attack against an off-balance defender. McGlynn has the most potential to become a competent big man threat; he posted strong rebounding and rim protection numbers last season and attempted a decent amount of his shots at the rim. His ability to knock down jumpers from about 15-18 feet will be big in Medved’s system. Casey Schlatter should also see a lot of time in the middle and could even play alongside McGlynn as a stretch four. Kory Kuenstling, a 6’11” junior is the most paint-bound of the forwards on the roster and should see significant time as well thanks to the general lack of bodies above 6’5”.
Of the fairly large incoming class of newbies, three players in particular stand out: Antonio Pilipovic, Noah Thomas, and Jalen Gibbs. Pilipovic is a German import and is a deadly shooter from the wing position. He has the size at 6’7” to play the four on defense, but don’t expect him to get anywhere near the bucket on offense. Thomas and Gibbs are both guards that should add depth to the already deep Drake backcourt. Thomas is a skinny point guard that may need a few years to develop. Gibbs appears ready to play at the D1 level right now with his explosiveness and scoring ability.
Bottom Line: Drake should be better than last season under the tutelage of new coach Niko Medved, but the Bulldogs will still likely find themselves near the basement of the MVC standings at the end of the season. Once Medved brings in more capable frontcourt pieces, then we may see Drake fighting for an auto-bid once again.