By Kevin Sweeney
There is no league that I am less confident in my rankings than the Missouri Valley. There’s a legit case for every team except SIU for a top-4 finish, and a legit case for everyone except Missouri State to wind up in a play-in game at Arch Madness. Similar parity existed a season ago, but that was in large part due to the league being down as a whole– the Valley had no top-130 teams in KenPom after nine straight years with an at-large caliber team. I expect improvement across the board in the MVC: maybe not enough to get an at-large bid, but enough to make it one of the most fun leagues in the country.
#1. Missouri State– In a league with question marks abound, it’s easy to feel confident in this Missouri State bunch. Dana Ford has done a superb job loaded up the roster with talent from all walks of the college basketball world, cobbling together a roster with high-major talent all over the place. The Bears should be able to feast in the frontcourt, as the additions of West Virginia transfer Lamont West and South Plains import Gaige Prim to a unit that already featured Tulio Da Silva should maul Valley foes. Critical will be the play of MTSU transfer Tyrik Dixon at point guard– in many ways, he steps into a role somewhat similar to the one he succeeded in under Kermit Davis. Dixon has to manage the game, take care of the ball, and keep all these talented guys playing together. If he does, the sky is the limit for this bunch.
#2. Bradley– After an 0-5 start to MVC play that left some Braves fans questioning Brian Wardle’s job security, Bradley really turned it on down the stretch and looked like a legit top-100 team for much off the rest of the season. The Braves played slightly faster, and the team’s two stars Darrell Brown and Elijah Childs really locked in. The result– a MVC Tournament title and quite the scare to Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament. Now, Wardle gets some reinforcements in LSU transfer Danya Kingsby, an undersized combo guard who can really get buckets. Throw in a big-time breakout candidate in Ja’Shon Henry, and there’s a ton to like with this roster.
#3. Loyola-Chicago– The banner that will go up in Gentile Arena may not indicate it, but last season had to be a disappointment for Porter Moser’s bunch. The Ramblers tumbled to 131st in KenPom and never quite had the same magic about them that they did in 2017-18. Most will discuss the losses of Marques Townes and Clayton Custer, but I’ll focus on the departure of invaluable assistant Bryan Mullins to the SIU job. Mullins was a strong recruiter, but also engineered a defense that was suffocating last season. We’ll see how Porter Moser manages that loss, but his roster is still in terrific shape. I love Cameron Krutwig, perhaps the Valley’s best player and the perfect anchor in the post. D2 import Tate Hall should help Lucas Williamson on the wing, but the big question comes at point guard. JUCO transfer Keith Clemons seems to have the inside track to start and seems like a competent option, but I’m itching to see how highly-regarded recruit Marquise Kennedy looks. With Clemons out with a knee injury for the first 4-6 weeks of the season, Kennedy should get his shot early.
#4. Northern Iowa— If not for a second-half collapse, the Panthers would have danced in 2018-19 in what had been penciled in as a transition year by most. Now, UNI has a chance to contend for that bid once again with all but one rotation player returning from last season’s club. The guy who’ll get the most attention is AJ Green, who lived up to his lofty recruiting billing in a fantastic freshman campaign. His main focus has to be taking better care of the ball, especially without the steady Wyatt Lohaus next to him as a release valve in the backcourt.
#5. Drake– An asterisk goes with this ranking as we await official word on stud forward Tremell Murphy’s status for the 2019-20 after an offseason arrest due to his participation in an accidental shooting. If Murphy is available to play, there’s a lot to like about this Drake unit in year two for Darian DeVries. Young guards DJ Wilkins and Noah Thomas should show development, plus they’ll add a scrappy point guard in Siena transfer Roman Penn and a sharpshooter in JUCO guard Jonah Jackson to the backcourt mix. Tremell Murphy and his brother Anthony can man forward spots, and some combo of Liam Robbins and FGCU transfer Brady Ernst should provide serviceable play at the 5. DeVries did an absolutely terrific job with this group in year one, and there’s no reason that momentum can’t continue as long as he has Murphy.
#6. Valparaiso– This may be a bit higher than most have the Crusaders in the preseason, but I think Valpo should be getting a bit more love despite an offseason exodus. The team’s most important player in Javon Freeman returned, and I’d be surprised if he isn’t a first-team all-league guy by the end of the season. Two impact transfers in Eron Gordon (Seton Hall) and Nick Robinson (Saint Joe’s) should boost this team on the offensive end and provide athleticism next to shooting forward Ryan Fazekas, and Daniel Sackey is well-positioned to be a breakout guy after a strong international trip this offseason. The Crusaders are thin up front, and Matt Lottich has some questions to answer of his own, but I really want to buy into this group.
#7. Evansville– Walter McCarty has plenty of help on the way after what was always going to be a trying year one. The two big additions: Kansas transfer Sam Cunliffe and RS freshman DeAndre Williams, a former well-regarded recruit who McCarty has raved about for his athletic talents up front. Both are still very much unknown quantities at the D1 level– Williams has never played a game, and Cunliffe hasn’t shown much in his career outside of a 10-game mirage in 2017 for Arizona State. Still, the upside in pairing these guys with KJ Riley is incredibly exciting, and gives McCarty the personnel to play his faster-paced, pace-and-space-centric system that should look quite a bit different than most Valley teams’ grind-it-out approach.
#8. Illinois State– I don’t feel good at all about where I have the Redbirds here, but with all this parity, someone has to fall. In a league where three games separated third and ninth last season, putting Dan Muller’s bunch isn’t saying they can’t have a major bounceback year. It was clear that the problems with this team last year went beyond basketball talent– Muller remarked to me after the team’s loss to Loyola that he spent a lot of time coaching effort, and that’s never a good sign. While talented, the loss of Milik Yarbrough may in the end look like addition by subtraction: at times, the talented wing was more trouble than he was worth. Wichita State transfer Ricky Torres will be hugely important taking over at point guard, and a trio of transfers fresh off sitting last season (Jaycee Hillsman, Dedric Boyd, and Keith Fisher) should provide a big boost. The x-factor is Abdou Ndiaye, a former highly-touted recruit with major upside who was forced to redshirt a season ago.
#9. Indiana State– Another team that probably doesn’t look like your typical 9th-place squad, the Sycamores have one big thing going for them: guard play. The duo of Jordan Barnes and Tyreke Key might be the best in the league, and throwing in guys like Cooper Neese and UMES transfer Cam Bacote just furthers this unit’s strength. The problem– despite all that guard talent, the Sycamores were actually one of the Valley’s worst offenses in 2018-19 in addition to the inevitable defensive issues that come up when playing as small as Greg Lansing’s club did. The frontcourt is thin, and likely starting center Bronson Kessinger doesn’t provide much in terms of resistance at the rim. With Lansing’s contract up after the 2020-21 season, this could be a pivotal season– and 9th place likely won’t cut it.
#10. Southern Illinois– We lose one of the great characters in the coaching business with the departure of Barry Hinson at SIU, but Saluki fans have to be pumped about one of their own in Bryan Mullins taking over in Carbondale. A noted recruiter and strong defensive mind, I have little doubt Mullins will get things going soon enough, but this was always going to be a transition year. Mullins exhausted pretty much every avenue to find talent– a pair of grad transfers in Ronnie Suggs (Missouri) and Barret Benson (Northwestern) should plug into roles, while Karrington Davis (Nebraska) got a waiver to play right away which should help as well.
ALl-Conference First TEam:
- Tyreke Key (Indiana State)
- AJ Green (Northern Iowa)
- Javon Freeman (Valpo)
- Tulio Da Silva (Missouri State)
- Cameron Krutwig (Loyola-Chicago)
Player of the Year: Cameron Krutwig (Loyola-Chicago)
Marques Townes thoroughly deserved POY honors a season ago, but Krutwig had a legit case as well. A great finisher around the rim whose top asset might be his passing, Krutwig should step into a more heavily-featured role than he already was in with the departures of Townes and Clayton Custer. Reports have Krutwig having slimmed down– critical for him to defend in space and stay on the floor for more extended stretches.
Breakout Player: Ja’Shon Henry (Bradley)
I absolutely love Henry’s versatility as a combo forward. He’s physical, aggressive, good around the rim, and defend multiple positions. If he has improved his ability to space the floor, he’ll be a critical piece– his size allows the Braves to play smaller with Elijah Childs at the 5 and Henry at the 4, or going bigger by deploying Henry as a physical wing.
Newcomer of the Year: Lamont West (Missouri State):
It’s rare that mid-majors can get grad transfers who play significant roles on high-major teams, let alone double-digit scorers. West had plenty of high-major suitors but elected to play for Dana Ford in Springfield. He needs to do a better job of getting downhill and using his size and athleticism rather than settling for jumpers, but guys with his talent don’t wind up in the MVC often.