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OUTLOOK: Wichita State was the darling of the Missouri Valley Conference in 2012-13, as the Shockers garnered a No. 9 seed in the NCAA Tournament and advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1965. Although the shockers were eliminated by eventual national champion Louisville, they are every bit a team to be reckoned with once again in 2013-14.
The MVC has undergone a bit of a makeover this season, with Creighton moving to the Big East and former Horizon League member Loyola-Chicago taking its place. Prior to those moves, it had been nearly two decades since the Valley had any team leave or enter the conference.
At Drake, former Gonzaga assistant Ray Giacoletti replaces Mark Phelps and will try to resurrect a Bulldogs program that had fallen off in recent seasons.
But even with those changes, the real question entering a new season in the Valley is who will challenge Wichita State? And if no one can overtake the Shockers, will the conference be strong enough for a second team to emerge and earn an at-large bid into the NCAA Tournament field?
Indiana State, Northern Iowa, Bradley and Missouri State all figure to be in the mix. The Sycamores are loaded with returning talent, while the Panthers will need some younger players to step up. Still, as Southern Illinois proved in its season series with the Shockers last year, even the bottom-feeders have a chance to win on any given night. In 2012-13, there were only four league games decided by 20 points or more, the fewest of any conference in the country.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Wichita State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Wichita State, 2. Indiana State, 3. Northern Iowa, 4. Bradley, 5. Missouri State, 6. Evansville, 7. Southern Illinois, 8. Illinois State, 9. Drake, 10. Loyola-Chicago
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
WICHITA STATE: Wichita State gave Louisville all it could handle in the Final Four matchup, although Louisville escaped with a four-point win and then went on to capture the national championship. Unfortunately for the rest of the conference, that heartbreaking loss sent the Shockers into the offseason on a mission to return to the national stage. Senior leader Cleanthony Early (13.9 ppg, 5.4 rpg) enters his second year with the program and is joined by sophomore sharpshooter Ron Baker (8.7 ppg), junior Tekele Cotton (7.8 ppg), and a total of eight letterwinners in all. Early was named the MVC Preseason Player of the Year, while Baker came on strong down the stretch after missing the first half of last season with an injury. Despite losing Carl Hall (12.5 ppg) and Malcolm Armstead (10.5 ppg), Wichita State is poised to make a run at last year's school-record 30-win campaign. In fact, the Shockers were only the second team in the last 25 years to be a unanimous preseason favorite to win the MVC. The team also adds senior center Kadeem Coleby, who is now eligible after sitting out last season per NCAA transfer rules. He was a key contributor for Louisiana as a junior in 2011-12.
INDIANA STATE: If any team can give Wichita State a run for its money, it is Indiana State. The Sycamores appeared well on their way to a 20-win season before tumbling down the stretch with losses in five of their final six regular-season games. The 2013-14 squad returns plenty of talent, led by preseason All-MVC guard Jake Odum and fellow senior Manny Arop on the wing. Odum averaged 13.6 points and 4.6 assists last year as a junior, as he recorded the most assists of any returning player in the league. Arop was a steady contributor in the scoring column with an average of 12.0 ppg. Elsewhere, juco transfer Demetrius Moore (6-7, 230) should help ease the loss of forward R.J. Mahurin (10.1 ppg), who transferred to Indiana Wesleyan to play with his younger brother. Aside from Mahurin, the team returns every other player from last year's squad. That continuity will only help the Sycamores in their quest for a fifth straight postseason tournament under coach Greg Lansing.
NORTHERN IOWA: The Panthers must replace three double-digit scorers from last season, although they bring back two starters and several more letterwinners. UNI will have a decidedly new look this season without Anthony James (13.2 ppg), Marc Sonnen (10.5 ppg) or Jake Koch (10.4 ppg). However, the team does return the likes of Deon Mitchell (9.3 ppg) and preseason All-MVC forward Seth Tuttle (11.4 ppg). Tuttle is third among all active MVC players in both career scoring and career rebounding. He'll be among the core building blocks for head coach Ben Jacobson, who was given a new 10-year contract in March after guiding the Panthers to their fifth straight 20-win season and a trip to the CIT semifinals. UNI enters 2013-14 with hopes of making its first NCAA Tournament field since 2010. To do so, freshman Ted Friedman will need to replace some of the production lost at the center position from Koch. UNI will also need top bench scorer and 3-point threat Matt Bohannon to step into the starting lineup as a sophomore, as the Panthers have only one senior on the roster.
BRADLEY: Coming off an 18-17 season (7-11 MVC), the Braves will lean on senior leaders Walt Lemon, Jr. and Tyson Pickett. Lemon, a preseason first-team All- MVC guard, is the conference's active scoring leader. He is one of only two players in league history to tally at least 500 points, 100 rebounds, 100 assists, and 70 steals in a single season, joining Hersey Hawkins. Also an All-Defensive Team selection a year ago, Lemon Jr. (15.6 ppg, 75 steals) will need to carry the torch with Dyricus Simms-Edwards (12.3 ppg) and Will Egof (10 ppg) no longer around. Pickett (11.0 ppg), a transfer from Dodge City (Kan.) Community College, earned a spot on the 2012-13 MVC All-Newcomer Team in 2012-13. Still, if the Braves are to take a step forward in year No. 3 of the Geno Ford era, they'll need to find some production along the perimeter, an area that plagued the team last season.
MISSOURI STATE: The Bears are without their leading scorer from last season, but they have plenty of experience, and talent, on hand to contend in the MVC in 2013-14. Anthony Downing (13.7 ppg) is gone, but reigning MVC Freshman of the Year Marcus Marshall (11.5 ppg) is poised for big things with the offense now revolving around him after setting the school's freshman scoring record (368 points). Marshall, the first MSU player to earn that award since 2004, will have plenty of help, as well. Seniors Keith Pickens and Jarmar Gulley are back for another year. Pickens will bring some much needed defensive energy and rebounding ability (4.7 rpg) if he can manage his chronic knee pain. Gulley is more of an offensive threat (10.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg) and was a starter two seasons ago before his 2012-13 campaign was wiped out by injury. All told, third-year coach Paul Lusk boasts nine letterwinners and five players with starting experience. The Bears also welcome community college transfer Ron Mvouika, a 6-6 guard who averaged 19.3 points and 8.2 rebounds last season.
EVANSVILLE: The Purple Aces racked up 21 victories in 2012-13, their most since 1999. However, they face the unenviable task of replacing four starters, including Colt Ryan (20.1 ppg), the league's leading scorer last season. Sophomores D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius are primed for bigger roles. Balentine averaged 8.1 ppg, while Mockevicius (5.8 ppg) was a presence on the defensive end as evidenced by his 64 blocks. Mockevicius had more blocks in conference play than anybody else in the MVC last season, earning him a spot on the league's all-rookie team. Juniors Jaylon Moore and Ryan Sawvell also saw significant floor time last season, although it is worth noting there is not a single senior on the roster. Of the incoming freshman, Duane "Boo" Gibson warrants the most attention. A first-team All-Ohio guard last year as a senior, Gibson led his team to a state championship and was named the D-4 state championship MVP.
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS: The Salukis hope to pick up right where they left off in 2012-13 as they won six of their final eight regular-season games. They also managed to beat league champ Wichita State (and fought to an 82-76 loss in the other meeting). With returning starters Desmar Jackson and Anthony Beane, Jr. joining four other letterwinners, things are looking up for Southern Illinois as the team enters year No. 2 under head coach Barry Hinson. Jackson, a preseason All-MVC guard who stands at 6-5, averaged a team-best 15.1 ppg last year after transferring from Wyoming to earn All-Newcomer honors in 2012-13. Beane was selected to the conference's All-Freshman team after averaging 9.1 ppg, second-best in the league among freshmen. It won't be easy replacing Josh Swan (career-ending injury), Jeff Early, Kendal Brown-Surles or Dantiel Daniels, but the Salukis do have some intriguing newcomers. Bronson Verhines, a senior juco transfer, should provide some help at power forward along with freshman Sean O'Brien. In all likelihood, Southern Illinois is at least another year away from making some real noise in the conference pecking order.
ILLINOIS STATE: It is anybody's guess how the Redbirds will look after turning over virtually their entire roster from a year ago. All five starters are gone, but among the most significant departures are Tyler Brown (18.1 ppg) and Jackie Carmichael (17.4), as that duo provided the lion's share of the offensive production. There really is not much to assess in terms of returning players, although sophomores Nick Zeisloft and Kaza Keane both averaged better than 15 minutes per game. But make no mistake; head coach Dan Muller has his work cut out for him as he enters his second year at the helm. Muller, who helped guide his team back from an 0-6 start in league play last year, will turn to a handful of junior college transfers to fill out his starting lineup. One of those transfers, Daishon Knight, was suspended indefinitely in September after being arrested for aggravated battery. Knight was expected to lock down the starting point guard spot. Still, that leaves fellow juco transfers Michael Middlebrooks, Zach Lofton and Bobby Hunter to hold down the fort, along with incoming freshman forward MiKyle McIntosh (6-7, 230).
DRAKE: Mark Phelps is out and Ray Giacolleti is in as the Bulldogs head coach. Giacoletti had spent the last six years as Mark Few's assistant at Gonzaga, a program the Bulldogs certainly would not mind emulating. Drake finished above seventh place in the MVC just once in five seasons under Phelps, and a change in direction became necessary. Giacoletti's roster includes a blend of both experience and new faces, with three key members back in the fold from last year's ninth-place team that finished 15-17 overall and went 7-11 in the MVC. Starters Seth VanDeest and Richard Carter are at the forefront. VanDeest is the team's top returning scorer (9.5 ppg) and rebounder (4.8 rpg), while Carter averaged 9.2 ppg. However, the team will no doubt miss the likes of Ben Simons (14.1 ppg), Chris Hines (9.7 ppg) and Jordan Clarke (9.3 ppg). Newcomers Trevor Berkeley and Blake Danielak are expected to contribute right away, and keep an eye on talented but seldom-used sophomore Daddy Ugbede.
LOYOLA-CHICAGO: The Ramblers are this year's MVC newcomer, and they are still in search of their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1985. While it may be a stretch to predict that drought will come to an end in their first season in a new league, the Ramblers are not to be taken lightly. Last year, the team rebounded from a 7-23 season to finish 15-16 under second-year coach Porter Moser, who coached in the MVC for Illinois State from 2003-2007. They were able to reach that win total despite one of the youngest rosters in the nation. Moser is familiar with the challenges of being successful in this conference, and he'll need to draw on those experiences to replace the likes of Ben Averkamp (14.8 ppg), Jordan Hicks (9.0 pg) and Cully Payne (7.9 ppg). Among the notable holdovers are Christian Thomas (12.1 ppg), Devon Turk (8.7 ppg), and defensive specialist Joe Crisman (4.9 ppg). New to the squad is sophomore center Cody Johnson, who transferred from Western Nebraska CC after averaging 13 points and eight rebounds as a freshman.