By Kevin Sweeney
The entire power structure in the Missouri Valley changed this offseason with the departure of Wichita State for the greener pastures of the AAC. The MVC quickly responded with the addition of Valparaiso from the Horizon League. While Valpo alone can’t replace the dominance of WSU, they are a perennially strong mid-major program in the midwest that will be a strong fit for the MVC. That said, it will be interesting to see if The Valley looks to add additional teams this coming offseason, or if they will stand pat at 10.
- Missouri State- This is very much a make-or-break season for Paul Lusk’s future at Missouri State. The Bears are clearly the most talented team in the conference at a time when the league as a whole appears down with the loss of Wichita State. Alize Johnson is the best player in the conference, and Lusk has recruited enough talented around him to make them extremely dangerous.
- Loyola (Chicago)- Porter Moser has done an excellent job accumulating talent, with a strong veteran group highlighted by undersized forward Aundre Jackson, sharpshooter Clayton Custer, and wing Donte Ingram. Combine that group with a strong recruiting class that includes a pair of 3-star prospects and a pair of transfers who will factor into the rotation in grad transfer center Carson Shanks (North Dakota) and junior guard Marques Townes (FDU), and you have one of the most talented rosters in the MVC.
- Northern Iowa- Last season was a disappointing one for the Panthers, but I expect Ben Jacobson’s club to get back to their winning ways this season. While UNI does lose leading scorer Jeremy Morgan, they do return a strong core of experienced talent that will make them tough to beat in the MVC this season. Watch out for freshman wing Tywhon Pickford, a 6-4 kid who can play multiple positions and has a game-ready body.
- Illinois State- This is by far the hardest team for me to place. With 5 of the Redbirds’ top 6 scorers from last season no longer with the program, this would generally be a full rebuild. However, with some high-level talent joining the fray and the presence of an all-conference-level player in Phil Fayne, Dan Muller’s team will still be dangerous.
- Valparaiso- The newbies to the MVC, Valpo is faced with the steep challenge of replacing Alec Peters, who averaged 23 points and 10 rebounds a game last season. However, they still have talented guard Tevonn Walker, who will need to be more consistent this season. The success of this season is heavily dependent on the play of a pair of transfers in Bakari Evelyn (Nebraska) and Joe Burton (Oklahoma State). If they play well, the Crusaders could be a factor near the top of the conference.
- Bradley- This Braves team is very intriguing to me. Every major contributor from a season ago returns, but it’s hard to say at this point if this core can win at the MVC level. Improvement from a pair of extremely promising sophomores in Darrell Brown and Koch Bar will be critical if this Braves team is going to take the next step.
- Southern Illinois- SIU is a team who I’ve seen a pretty wide range of predictions on for this season, but I’m not overly high on them. They do bring in a pair of talented guards in St. Louis transfer Marcus Bartley and JUCO prospect Eric McGill to join contributors Sean Loyd and Leo Vincent in the backcourt. They also have a pair of solid frontcourt pieces in Sean O’Brien and Thik Bol. This is definitely a team that could rise in the MVC standings, but overall I’m just not sold on them as a contender.
- Indiana State- The Sycamores have one of the best players in the conference in Brenton Scott, but they lose 4 starters from last year’s club. After being 9th in the conference in rebounding margin a season ago, they’ll need a big jump there if they want to stay out of the bottom tier of the MVC.
- Drake- I really like the Niko Medved hire for the Bulldogs, but it will take time for him to rebuild this program. The backcourt has some really solid talent, with Reed Timmer an all-conference-level player and De’Antae McMurray a strong piece as well, but the roster just doesn’t have the depth to win much this season.
- Evansville- No team shot fewer 3-pointers a season ago than Evansville, which is coming off an 8th-place finish in the MVC. Don’t expect that to change with their best shooter in Jaylon Brown graduating. They’ll need an absolutely massive season from Ryan Taylor to stay out of the bottom of the conference.
Champions: Missouri State
This year is all or nothing for the Bears. They have a talented veteran group headlined by Johnson, the clear top player in the conference and a definite NBA prospect. Talented scorer Ronnie Rousseau rejoins the team after missing much of last season, and the Bears improve their depth with a pair of grad transfers in guard James Miller (Howard) and big man Tanveer Bhullar. Paul Lusk needs to lead this team to victories in a weakened MVC.
Dark Horse: Valparaiso
In their first season in the MVC, the Crusaders have some intriguing pieces to work with. Tevonn Walker is the star of the group, an extremely talented scorer who needs to be a consistent option this season (12 games with less than 10 points, 7 games with more than 15 a season ago). They also have skilled Spanish center Jaume Sorolla, who showed flashes of brilliance last season as a freshman and is one of my bigger breakout candidates in the conference. The incoming piece I really like is Joe Burton, a strong 6-6 wing who can play multiple positions. He was a solid role player at Oklahoma State, scoring almost 5 ppg in just over 12 minutes per contest while shooting almost 40% from downtown. He has star potential, and he could be an excellent MVC player. It’s impossible to replace a guy like Peters, but I think the Crusaders will make some noise in their first season in the conference.
First Team All-Conference:
- G: Brenton Scott (Indiana State)
- G: Tevonn Walker (Valparaiso)
- G/F: Donte Ingram (Loyola)
- F: Phil Fayne (Illinois State)
- F: Alize Johnson (Missouri State)
Player of the Year: Alize Johnson (Missouri State)- Make sure you sit down and watch a Missouri State game this season, because Alize Johnson is must-see TV. He’s 6-8 and strong, shoots the 3, and is an absolute terror on the glass. He also defends multiple positions and a growing off-the-bounce arsenal. He’ll likely average a double-double this season for a Bears team that is favored to win the MVC.
Breakout Player of the Year: Phil Fayne (Illinois State)- It’s odd to see a breakout candidate be on the first team all-conference preseason list, but that’s how high I am on Fayne. After a sophomore season in which he averaged over 9 points and 6 rebounds a night in less than 25 minutes per game, Fayne is poised to see his role increase drastically with all that Illinois State loses this season. I could see him averaging 15 points and 9 rebounds per game this season.
Newcomer of the Year: Milik Yarbrough (Illinois State)- Yarbrough, a versatile wing who began his career at St. Louis, is expected to play a big role right out of the gate for the Redbirds. A strong driver and proficient 3-point shooter, Yarbrough will be a great offensive weapon for Dan Muller and his mix of size and athleticism should make him a solid defender as well.