By Kevin Sweeney
Discussions of the Missouri Valley’s long-term place as one of the nation’s best mid-major conferences were quieted in March when Loyola went on its historic run to the Final Four. While LUC’s run certainly helped from both an exposure and fiscal standpoint, those questions still have to be answered. The conference’s hallmark program in Northern Iowa has been down the last couple of years, and Loyola hadn’t experienced much success since joining the Valley until last year’s run. It will be fascinating to watch how the league continues to change over the next several years, but this year’s edition features some outstanding teams at the top.
I was lucky enough to cover the Ramblers multiple times before they became a national story thanks to their Cinderella run through March. While I certainly couldn’t have predicted they’d do what they did, you could tell from the get-go that this was a special team. Their chemistry was terrific, they embraced modern concepts, and had excellent veterans who kept the team together in rough moments. Key cogs Donte Ingram, Aundre Jackson, and Ben Richardson are all gone, but Porter Moser’s club has plenty to be considered Valley favorites once again. Clayton Custer will draw all the headlines (and rightly so), but Marques Townes was hugely valuable last season as a versatile 2-way wing, and the Ramblers were a different team when they could play through the post and Cameron Krutwig. Moser adds a high-level transfer in Aher Uguak (New Mexico) who brings explosive athleticism in a combo forward role, while Lucas Williamson showed some incredibly bright moments last season. I’m not quite buying some of the top 25 hype for this team, but they should be really good again.
#2. Illinois State
47.4 points. 16.7 rebounds. 9.3 assists.
When you are getting that type of production from 3 players, you have a chance to be special. That’s exactly what Illinois State got from its trio of Milik Yarbrough, Keyshawn Evans, and Phil Fayne. It’s a core built perfectly, with Yarbrough liking to handle the ball and distribute from the wing, Evans more of a scoring point guard, and Fayne willing to do the dirty work and be a terrifying dive man in the pick and roll. However, the depth to this unit took a pair of hits late this summer when promising guard Elijah Clarance turned pro following an explosive showing at the FIBA U20 Euros and high-upside big man Abdou Ndiaye was forced to take an academic redshirt. Without those two, ISU has to be seen clearly behind Loyola, but still has a chance to be incredibly dangerous.
#3. Southern Illinois
Despite finishing in the top 4 of the Valley in 3 of the last 4 seasons, questions have lingered about Barry Hinson’s long-term job security in Carbondale. This statement from the end of last season makes it feel like close to a “tourney or bust” year for Hinson.
Luckily for Hinson, he has an incredibly veteran unit coming off a 20-win season, with 5 starting-caliber seniors and an excellent junior in Aaron Cook. Getting back elite shot-blocker Thik Bol from injury is huge, giving Hinson the flexibility to go big with Bol next to Kavion Pippen and make scoring in the paint against the Salukis a possibility. That unit would be rough from a spacing perspective, but without a ton of high-level scoring talent on the roster, it might be the right call to go all in on D.
It’s been a textbook rebuild from Brian Wardle in Peoria, taking a team from 5 wins to 13 up to 20 last season. The loss of Donte Thomas hurts here, but otherwise the Braves have an outstanding group of veterans and one of the league’s most exciting young players in combo forward Elijah Childs. Wardle’s team plays outstanding defense thanks to some high-level athletes on the wing, and the continued offensive development of Darrell Brown, Childs, and Nate Kennell should allow for some improvement on that end for the Braves. Unfortunately, well-regarded freshman big man Ari Boya’s, who some thought would start over incumbent Koch Bar, season is in doubt with an ankle injury. That tempers my optimism a little bit, but this team still projects to win 20+ games and play in the postseason.
#5. Northern Iowa
Offensive inefficiency has led to a pair of down years for UNI, ranking 9th in the Valley in conference field goal percentage in each of the past 2 seasons. In each of those seasons, point guard play has been questionable, which is why the arrival of fringe top-100 recruit AJ Green arrives at the ideal time. It sounds like Green will get the keys from day one as he attempts to revitalize the Panther offense, with a pair of physical wing/forwards in Tywhon Pickford and Trae Berhow providing plenty of slashing and sharpshooting Wyatt Lohaus spacing the floor. The frontcourt is a bit of a question mark (unless Ben Jacobson elects to deploy Pickford as a small-ball 5), but Austin Phyfe and JUCO product Shandon Goldman both look capable of filling a role up front.
Last season was an odd one for Valpo. The Crusaders raced out to an 8-0 start (albeit against a weak schedule) as they prepped for their first year in the MVC, then won just 3 of their next 15 before finding some consistency down the stretch. The jump in competition can be given some credit for Valpo’s demise, as can the loss of Joe Burton to suspension and eventual transfer 10 games into the season. However, with some good newcomers coming in this season in Providence transfer Ryan Fazekas and well-regarded Javon Freeman-Liberty should provide a nice boost to a core featuring shifty point guard Bakari Evelyn and athletic wing Markus Golder.
Valpo could also get a nice boost thanks to the NCAA’s re-embrace of the hardship waiver, with a pair of outstanding transfers in Nick Robinson (St Joe’s) and Eron Gordon (Seton Hall) both coming much closer to their original homes. There’s little information about their potential for waivers to play right away, but if both (or even just 1) were eligible, it would catapult the Crusaders into contender status.
Darian DeVries becomes Drake’s fourth coach since the beginning of the 2016-17 season, a nearly unprecedented level of turnover in college basketball. Unlike his predecessor Niko Medved, DeVries doesn’t inherit much of anything, with Nick McGlynn the only returner to average more than 4 points per game last season. However, DeVries brings in a trio of high-impact transfers in steady point guard Nick Norton (UAB), shooter Brady Ellingson (Iowa), and athletic combo forward Tremell Murphy (JUCO) who profile as immediate starters. Murphy had high-major offers, but chose to come to Drake when DeVries also offered his brother and added his JUCO coach to his coaching staff. That core is enough to be interesting in the Valley, but they’ll have to find some bench depth with so many inexperienced faces.
#8. Missouri State
Perhaps he wasn’t the flashiest hire, but Dana Ford and his staff have done an excellent job accumulating talent for both the short and long term since arriving in Springfield. With just 3 returning players along with redshirt Darian Scott and Xavier transfer Jared Ridder, Ford and his staff grabbed players from every avenue: international with the Wojcik brothers, sit-out transfers in Josh Hall, Tulio Da Silva, and Tyrik Dixon, a grad transfer in Texas Tech’s Josh Webster, and a pair of high-end JUCO products in Keandre Cook and Kabir Mohammed. How those pieces all fit together is unclear: sources have raved about the long-term potential of the Wojcik’s but fear they’ll be thrown into the fire this year, while hype about Ridder has been consistent since he matriculated last year. Regardless of what happens this year, I love the direction this program is going.
#9. Indiana State
Jordan Barnes exploded onto the scene in his sophomore campaign in Terre Haute, but questions abound beyond him and Tyreke Key for this ISU roster. A pair of mid-year transfers in Cooper Neese (Butler) and Christian Williams (Iowa) both possess considerable upside and could form a dangerous 4-out offense for Greg Lansing’s club. Integrating those talents are the key for the Sycamores’ hopes of climbing the Missouri Valley standings.
The Aces got their man in Celtics assistant Walter McCarty, but in the process lost a pair of studs in Ryan Taylor (Northwestern) and Dru Smith (Missouri). With those losses, it was always going to be a rebuilding campaign in year one for McCarty, and McCarty loaded up on high-end talent for the long term that won’t be eligible this year. The headliner of a 3-man sit-out class is former elite recruit Sam Cunliffe, a transfer from Kansas who was excellent at Arizona State as a freshman, but freshman DeAndre Williams (sitting because of academics) possesses considerable upside and CCU Artur Labinowicz is a proven rotation player at the D1 level.
As for this year, things look pretty rough. D3 grad transfer Shea Feehan lit it up against D1 competition in the past, but it’s hard to expect too much from a guy experiencing such a jump in competition level. This will likely be a forgettable season in Evansville.
All-Conference First Team:
- Clayton Custer– Loyola (13.2 ppg, 2.2 rpg, 4.1 apg, .528/.451/.770)
- Jordan Barnes– Indiana St. (17.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.6 apg, .415/.422/.853)
- Armon Fletcher– SIU (14.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.7 apg, .486/.348/.731)
- Milik Yarbrough– Illinois St. (16.6 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 4.8 apg, .453/.290/.804)
- Cameron Krutwig– Loyola (10.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 1.7 apg, .598/.000/.735)
Player of the Year: Clayton Custer (Loyola)
Custer (other than Sister Jean) was the face of the Loyola Final Four run, the tough lead guard who made big play after big play for the Ramblers in March. He’s an elite shooter, makes great decisions, and takes what the defense gives him.
Breakout Player: Elijah Childs (Bradley)
Childs is a star in the making in the Valley. He’s athletic, can defend multiple positions, and showed off considerable offensive promise in his rookie campaign in Peoria. If he develops his 3-point shot, he’ll be an all-league player.
Newcomer of the Year: AJ Green (Northern Iowa)
The popular choice here will probably be New Mexico transfer Aher Uguak at Loyola, but there’s no newcomer more important than Green. The highly-touted freshman PG has a chance to single-handedly fix a UNI offense that has really struggled for the better part of the last two seasons. If he can do that, the Panthers become a serious sleeper in the Valley.