Philadelphia, PA – OUTLOOK: Seven Missouri Valley Conference teams reached the postseason in 2011-12, tying the league mark set in 2009. Wichita State and Creighton went to the NCAA Tournament and both were ranked in the top-20 at the end of the season, the first time the MVC has seen that happen since 1974-75. Can they do it again? The Shockers must replace a lot of talent from last year's squad, while Creighton will once again turn to Doug McDermott, the conference's first All-America first-team selection since Hersey Hawkins (Bradley) in 1988.
In all, eight of the 10 teams in the conference return at least three starters. Wichita State and Indiana State are the exceptions. Illinois State, coming off its fourth NIT trip in the past five years, has the look of a strong contender. Former player Dan Muller takes over for Tim Jankovich as the head coach there. UNI could also finish near the top of the conference standings after earning its first-ever NIT bid and winning a first-round game.
Drake, Evansville and Indiana State are also coming off postseason appearances and all figure to be in the mix once again. Missouri State, Bradley and Southern Illinois are facing rebuilding jobs. The new coach at SIU is Barry Hinson, who will try to resurrect the Salukis following an 8-23 season. Hinson returns to the MVC after coaching at Missouri State from 1999-2008.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Creighton
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Creighton, 2. Illinois State, 3. Northern Iowa, 4. Wichita State, 5. Evansville, 6. Drake, 7. Indiana State, 8. Missouri State, 9. Bradley, 10. Southern Illinois
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
CREIGHTON: The Bluejays found their way back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2007 and finished the 2011-12 campaign ranked No. 19 in the country. In fact, they advanced all the way to the third round of The Big Dance and appear primed for another postseason run this season. The team returns four of five starters and 10 letterwinners in all. All eyes will once again be on the McDermott's; third-year coach Greg and his son, consensus All- American Doug. Is there any room for the latter McDermott to improve in his junior season after averaging 22.9 points and 8.2 rebounds? After all, he shot a ridiculous 60.1 percent from the floor and 48.6 percent from 3-point range. Nobody in the country took more shots than McDermott, who set the school's scoring record as a sophomore. With Antoine Young no longer around to run the point, Grant Gibbs or sophomore Austin Chatman will need to step forward and facilitate the offense. Sharpshooting freshman Isaiah Zierden could add another potent element to the backcourt if he proves a quick study.
ILLINOIS STATE: Dan Muller, who played for the Redbirds in the mid-90s and previously served as an assistant at Vanderbilt, inherits a team with MVC title hopes. The players will no doubt be hungry to capture that hardware after last year's painful overtime loss to Creighton in the MVC Tournament title tilt, which cost the Redbirds a spot in the NCAA Tournament. However, there are plenty of reasons for optimism entering the 2012-13 campaign, as four of five starters return. However, Nic Moore, who started at point guard last year as a freshman, decided to follow former coach Jankovich to SMU. Muller scrambled to sign Canadian Kaza Keane to try and fill that void. Outside of Moore, the Redbirds return every key contributor from last season. Heading up the roster is second-team All-MVC pick Jackie Carmichael (13.9 ppg, 9.7 rpg), the team's leading scorer and rebounder. Carmichael recorded 15 double-doubles last season but struggled a bit with turnovers, an area he must improve. Jon Ekey, who averaged 9.0 points and nearly five rebounds while shooting 40.7 percent from the perimeter last year as a freshman, will also have a big role.
NORTHERN IOWA: The Panthers welcome back 12 of 13 players from last year's 20-win team, and they could be ready to take a big step forward in 2012-13. Four of five starters return, including MVC Freshman of the Year Seth Tuttle, MVC All-Freshman team selection Deon Mitchell, and MVC Honorable Mention selection Anthony James. Only one senior needs to be replaced, as UNI's roster features a nice mix of veterans and underclassmen. James, who hit a buzzer- beating 3-pointer against nationally-ranked Creighton last winter, led the team in scoring with 12.5 ppg. However, he was also the only double-digit scorer for the Panthers, who boasted the MVC's top scoring defense (61.9 ppg allowed). Tuttle was next in line with 9.6 points and a team-best 5.6 rebounds per tilt, while Mitchell averaged 7.0 ppg. Coach Ben Jacobson is counting on those two youngsters to really step up and give the offense a boost. A tough early-season schedule will either be a blessing or a curse.
WICHITA STATE: After winning the MVC regular-season title last spring and reaching the Big Dance for the first time since 2006, the Shockers were hit hard by graduation. Another 27-win season and a No. 5 seed in the NCAA Tournament is unlikely, although the roster still boasts enough talent to make some waves in the MVC standings. Seniors Carl Hall and Demetric Williams will provide a much-needed steadying presence. Hall, last season's MVC Newcomer of the Year, averaged 8.5 points and 5.0 rebounds, while Williams (5.5 ppg) logged 24 minutes per game. However, Hall, who was a new face last year after transferring from junior college, now finds himself in a leadership role. The team welcomes a solid recruiting class featuring seven newcomers, including prized prospect Fred Van Vleet to run the point. Vleet, a first-team all-state high school player in Illinois, will ditch the training wheels from the outset as the Shockers try to replace five seniors who combined to average 57.2 ppg.
EVANSVILLE: The Purple Aces have been a regular postseason participant the past few seasons, although early exits have been a common theme. If they hope to change that and advance deep into the postseason this spring, senior Colt Ryan will have something to say about it. The first-team All-MVC guard finished last season as the No. 11 scorer in the nation with 20.2 ppg. Ryan scored 30 points or more on four occasions a year ago, and if anybody can challenge McDermott for MVC Player of the Year honors, it's him. Of course, Ryan will need some help from his supporting cast, and Evansville is fortunate to return 11 letterwinners. Seniors Troy Taylor, Lewis Jones and Ned Cox (9.2 ppg) will be counted on for leadership, and production. Sophomore forward Ryan Sawvell, who averaged 6.2 points and 4.0 rebounds as a freshman last year, will also need to step up his game. If he does, the Purple Aces could surprise some folks in the MVC this season.
DRAKE: Rayvonte Rice, who averaged 16.5 points and 5.7 rebounds last season, decided to transfer to Illinois in April. His departure leaves a major void for an offensively-limited team that finished 9-9 in league play in 2011-12. Still, four other starters return for coach Mark Phelps, who has won more games in his first four seasons than any coach in school history. On the floor, it all starts with senior forward Ben Simons, a Second-Team All-MVC selection. Simons enters the season as the MVC's third-leading scorer (16.0 ppg) and shot 42.5 percent from beyond the arc a year ago. But with Rice no longer around, he'll need to shoulder even more of the scoring load despite defenses keying heavily on him. Jordan Clarke, who started a team-high 32 games last season, returns to roam the paint after averaging 6.0 points and a team-best 7.0 rebounds. Freshman Kori Babineaux, a 6-4 shooting guard and a dynamic high school scorer, could see significant minutes early on. Babineaux is one of seven newcomers on the roster.
INDIANA STATE: After finishing 8-10 in the conference in 2011-12, the Sycamores must replace four starters. Despite the high rate of turnover, the team could still find itself in contention with a healthy Jake Odum, who is coming off a second-team All-MVC campaign. The junior do-it-all guard averaged 10.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 4.9 assists last year as a sophomore despite battling plantar fasciitis throughout the season. Odum's biggest area of improvement is in the turnover department, as he averaged 3.0 per game last year. Even if Odum does a much better job taking care of the basketball, coach Greg Lansing knows he'll need to find some production elsewhere, considering the Sycamores weren't exactly the most potent offensive squad in 2011-12. One player who could emerge is forward Jake Kitchell, who impressed in limited minutes as a freshman. Wanting to beef up ISU's post presence, coach Lansing added freshmen forwards T.J. Bell and Rhett Smith to add some needed depth. If the youngsters on the roster prove up to the challenge, the Sycamores could climb above .500 in league play.
MISSOURI STATE: Coach Paul Lusk's first season at Missouri State yielded a .500 record, and the Bears look to have their work cut out for them to improve upon last year's win total. Top scorers Kyle Weems and Caleb Patterson were lost to graduation, while Jarmar Gulley is expected to miss his senior season after tearing an ACL during a summer league game. That's three of the team's four double-digit scorers from 2011-12 who are no longer available. The lone returning starter from that squad is guard Anthony Downing, the Bears' top returning scorer (11.5 ppg) and lone active senior on the roster. However, with underclassmen surrounding him, Downing will also be counted on to fill an all-important leadership role. Nathan Scheer and Keith Pickens were both spot starters a year ago, although neither averaged better than five points. Freshman Gavin Thurman, a 6-6 forward, will likely be a regular in the frontcourt rotation. Thurman, who starred on a 6A state title squad in Wichita, impressed during the team's exhibition trip to Costa Rica.
BRADLEY: The Braves hope that after last year's 7-25 season, they have nowhere to go but up. The good news is all but one starter returns, and that familiarity alone could lead to a few more wins. Second-year head coach Geno Ford also now has a season under his belt, which means he has seen tendencies and experienced the atmosphere at arenas throughout the MVC. Now, it's up to Ford to make the necessary adjustments in year two. He'll certainly need to, as the rotation is largely unchanged. At the end of the day, he and the Braves will still lean on senior Dyricus Simms-Edwards and junior Walt Lemon, Jr. for leadership. Simms-Edwards, the team's active career scoring leader, took a boatload of shots last season but made only 35 percent of his attempts from the floor. That led to a trend that saw Simms-Edwards often follow up big games with one or two quiet scoring nights. Lemon, Jr. is the top returning scorer from last year, while sixth-year senior Will Egolf is trying to come back from a second torn ACL.
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS: New head coach Barry Hinson previously helped turn Missouri State's program around, and now he is tasked with doing the same for the Salukis, who are coming off an 8-23 season. SIU's trip to the Sweet 16 in 2007 seems like a distant memory, as four of the last five seasons have seen the team finish at .500 or below in conference play. The good news for Hinson is that four starters return, although none of those four averaged double figures last season. Forward Dantiel Daniels, who led the MVC in blocks per game (1.6) last year as a freshman, is the headliner. Daniels averaged a respectable 8.3 points and 4.9 rebounds, and while his offensive numbers could stand to improve, Hinson really needs Daniels to deliver at the defensive end, where the Salukis were exposed in 2011-12. With top scorer and rebounder Mamadou Seck lost to graduation, SIU will also need more production from veterans Jeff Early (8.6 ppg), Kendal Brown-Surles (8.0 ppg) and T.J. Lindsay (7.1 ppg).