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OUTLOOK: Can anyone knock Wichita State off its high and mighty perch? While there are plenty of intriguing storylines in the Missouri Valley Conference this season, that is the ultimate question heading into the 2014-15 campaign.
Coming off an unexpected trip to the Final Four the previous season, the 2013-14 Shockers became the first team in NCAA history to win their first 35 games as they climbed as high as No. 2 in the national polls. In fact, it marked their fifth straight season with at least 25 victories, although the team's lone loss came as the No. 1 seed to a stacked Kentucky squad (78-76) in the third round of the NCAA Tournament. The Wildcats would eventually advance to the national title game against UConn.
The MVC landscape is not all that different heading into this season, with near unanimous league favorite Wichita State (45-of-46 votes) earning a No. 11 national ranking off the bat. The Shockers boast three players that were picked to the preseason all-conference first team, a first-ever accomplishment in the league's preseason poll.
Evansville and Northern Iowa also figure to be in the mix, as both squads return all five starters. As a whole, the league brings back 36 starters from last year, the most since 2006-07. That experience promises to produce some highly competitive basketball in the coming months.
CONFERENCE CHAMPION: Wichita State
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Wichita State, 2. Northern Iowa, 3. Evansville, 4. Missouri State, 5. Indiana State, 6. Illinois State, 7. Southern Illinois, 8. Bradley, 9. Drake, 10. Loyola-Chicago
TEAM BY TEAM ANALYSIS:
WICHITA STATE: Armed with the 2014 national coach of the year in Gregg Marshall and three preseason all-conference selections, including All-American and Preseason MVC Player of the Year Fred VanVleet, the sky certainly seems to be the limit for the Shockers this season. And that is quite a statement considering the team's accomplishments over the last two years. Last season, VanVleet (11.6 ppg, 5.4 apg) joined Doug McDermott as the only two players ever to win the league's player of the year award as a sophomore. Few, if any, backcourts in the country can match up with that of the Shockers', a group that also features all-around threat Ron Baker (13.1 ppg, 3.1 apg, 68 threes) and reigning Defensive Player of the Year Tekele Cotton (10.3 ppg, 50 steals). The only obvious hole the team must address -- and it's not a small one -- is replacing the production lost from leading scorer and rebounder Cleanthony Early (16.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg), who not only could score down low but also step out and hit the three. But with coach Marshall calling the shots, it's a good bet the Shockers will find a solution.
NORTHERN IOWA: The Panthers are a popular preseason pick to challenge Wichita State for league supremacy (and an automatic NCAA Tournament bid). After all, they bring back all five starters including senior forward Seth Tuttle, the MVC's active leader in scoring and rebounding. Tuttle earned first-team All- MVC honors last season after leading the Panthers in scoring (15.4 ppg), rebounding (8.0 rpg) and blocks (1.1 bpg). In terms of overall talent, coach Ben Jacobson's squad could rival the 2010 UNI squad that hoisted the league title and advanced all the way to the Sweet Sixteen. Deon Mitchell (12.1 ppg), Nate Buss (10.6 ppg, 5.0 rpg, .506 3pt), Matt Bohannon (9.9 ppg, 77 threes) and Wes Washpun (8.3 ppg) are all seasoned as the team returns 91 percent of both its scoring and rebounding. The Panthers thrive around the perimeter, where they averaged 8.5 3-pointers per game. But if they want to make some real noise come March, they'll need to find a way to win more than three games on the road.
EVANSVILLE: One of two MVC teams to bring back all five starters, the Purple Aces are led by the guard-center tandem of fellow juniors D.J. Balentine and Egidijus Mockevicius as they look to improve upon a 14-19 finish. Balentine led the league in scoring last year as a sophomore and ranked seventh nationally with 22.8 ppg. The 6-10 Mockevicius blocked 65 shots and finished his sophomore campaign as the leading rebounder (8.3 rpg) and most efficient shooter (.627) in the league. Team chemistry was already evident in 2013-14, considering Evansville led the MVC with 14.7 assists per game under now eighth-year head coach Marty Simmons. With the same starting five intact, look for the ball movement to continue as the Purple Aces have a real penchant for finding the open man and getting good looks.
MISSOURI STATE: The arrow is pointing up for a Bears squad that won 20 games and brings back four starters, including 2013 MVC Freshman of the Year Marcus Marshall. He was on his way to another promising campaign last season with 14.3 ppg through 12 contests before a knee injury cut his season short. Now a junior and fully rehabbed, Marshall will be counted on for his defensive presence and clutch free-throw shooting. He is one of four starters returning, although top scorer and rebounder Jarmar Gulley (14.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg) is the lone exception. Sharpshooter Austin Ruder is another weapon in the fold, however, as his 72 3-pointers (.400) last season were the third-most by a freshman in league history. Missouri State also welcomes six newcomers to complement a total of seven returnees.
INDIANA STATE: The Sycamores lose some firepower from a squad that won 23 games last season and finished second in the MVC with a 12-6 league record. Gone are starters Jake Odum (13.1 ppg, 4.6 apg, 4.2 rpg), Manny Arop (109 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Dawon Cummings (9.9 ppg). In fact, Odum was first-team all- conference each of the last two years and stands at No. 5 on the school's all- time scoring list. But the team does return the league's Sixth Man of the Year in Khristian Smith (10.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) along with senior forwards Justin Gant (10.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and Jake Kitchell (3.1 ppg, 3.0 rpg). Still, fifth-year coach Greg Lansing will need to rely on production from some of the underclassmen if he hopes to make it 5-for-5 in postseason appearances during his tenure.
ILLINOIS STATE: The Redbirds managed to go 18-16 and make the postseason a year ago despite quite a bit of roster turnover. That was good for 4th place in the MVC (9-9). Now, they'll return four starters from that group under third-year coach Dan Muller. Second-leading scorer Zach Lofton (11.3 ppg) has moved on, although considering he shot just 33.9 percent from the floor and launched the second-most shots on the team, his departure opens up other opportunities. Senior guards Daishon Knight (13.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and Bobby Hunter (10.5 ppg) will do most of the heavy lifting in addition to filling leadership roles. Down low, keep an eye on Reggie Lynch, who played only 20 minutes per game last year as a freshman but shot a healthy 58.2 percent from the floor and averaged 8.3 points, 4.8 rebounds and 2.8 blocks. A part-time starter in 2013-14, Lynch's 96 blocks were a MVC freshman record.
SOUTHERN ILLINOIS: The Salukis' roster features six freshmen and no scholarship seniors, but that certainly does not mean they lack experience. Four starters are back, led by junior all-conference guard Anthony Beane, who shot 39.4 percent from downtown (52-of-132) and averaged 14.7 ppg in 2013-14. And then there is top reserve and sparkplug Jalen Pendleton, who returns after averaging a healthy 9.1 points in just over 20 minutes per game. The main question facing the Salukis is how will they go about replacing the player who led them in virtually every major statistical category in Desmar Jackson (18.6 ppg? They increased their conference wins total by three from the previous season but needed an 8-4 finish to end up with only 14 wins. For a team that scored exactly as many points as it gave up (66.9), it is anybody's guess whether there is enough firepower to take a big leap forward in 2014-15.
BRADLEY: Fourth-year coach Geno Ford has guided the Braves to 30 wins over the past two years, although there is certainly room for improvement from last season's 12-20 record. His biggest challenge for this season is trying to replace leading scorer Walt Lemon, Jr. (18.0 ppg) and top post presence Tyshon Pickett (12.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg). Freshman forward Josh Cunningham should see time early as the nation's No. 88 overall recruit, according to Rivals. Among the returnees, Omari Grier (10.4 ppg) is poised to take a step forward if he can improve upon his 3-point shooting (.322). Auston Barnes (8.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg) is also in line for a more featured role in half-court sets after starting 31- of-32 games as a junior.
DRAKE: Coach Ray Giacoletti's first year at Drake saw the Bulldogs increase their win total by four from the previous season. With a total of eight players back in the fold, they hope to take another step forward. Fifth-year seniors Gary Ricks Jr. and Karl Madison both return from injury-shortened seasons to provide some much needed leadership for five incoming freshmen. Ricks was averaging 12.3 ppg through eight games and had hit 18-of-40 from beyond the arc (.450) before suffering a season-ending foot injury. Madison, a redshirt senior point guard, will try to put not one but three injury-riddled seasons behind him. Former Boston College transfer Jordan Daniels (10.2 ppg, .466 3pt) also returns to help make up for the departures of top scorer Richard Carter (16.6 ppg) and sharpshooter Aaron Hawley (10.3 ppg).
LOYOLA-CHICAGO: The Ramblers' fortunes took a major hit when it was announced in mid-October that reigning Freshman and Newcomer of the Year Milton Doyle would be sidelined indefinitely with a torn labrum in his shooting (right) shoulder. As a freshman last season, Doyle became the first player in program history to lead the Ramblers in scoring (14.9 ppg), assists (3.6 apg), steals (38) and blocked shots (23) in the same season. He also averaged 4.2 rebounds and finished four points shy of the school's freshman scoring record. But the cupboard is not entirely bare for Loyola as the team enters its second year as a member of The Valley with hopes of improving upon last season's 10-22 record. Christian Thomas (13.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg), Jeff White (9.8 ppg) and Joe Crisman (5.4 ppg, 3.2 rpg) all return to the starting lineup.