We move next in our journey through the country to the Missouri Valley, one of the leagues that completed its conference tournament before the pandemic shut everything down. It was classic Arch Madness: upsets galore and tons of competitive games. Bradley will look for a third straight title in St. Louis this season, but can they pass two potentially elite teams in UNI and Loyola? Let’s dive in:
- Loyola-Chicago – The league’s preseason poll went with UNI here, but I’m taking the Ramblers by an ever-so-slight margin as the conference’s best team. Why? Because I believe this is a roster perfectly assembled to cause nightmares matching up on offense while playing a style of defense that is very difficult to prepare against. Both UNI and Loyola return virtually every significant piece from last year’s club, but LUC makes multiple impact additions in talented Oakland transfer PG Braden Norris and freshman guard Baylor Hebb in addition to the return of a healthy Cooper Kaifes. The common denominator from that trio: shooting. Norris shot a ridiculous 49% from 3 on two makes per game as a freshman in the Horizon League, and he’s also an incredibly smart decision-maker who should help this group’s A/TO ratio. Kaifes built his own reputation as a sniper, hitting 47% from his shots from deep in 2018-19 before missing last season due to a hip injury. Adding two elite-level shooters to a team that was already in the top 50 nationally in 3-point percentage will open up the paint even more for Cam Krutwig, one of the nation’s best big men who also does a great job passing out of the paint. Having four career 40+% 3-point shooters along with capable shooters like Lucas Williamson and Marquise Kennedy will present defenses with a tough choice: let Krutwig get one-on-ones or give up a wide-open three. I certainly wouldn’t want to have to make that choice. Meanwhile, the Rambler defense should be as stingy as ever, as they do an incredible job of staying in the gaps and forcing turnovers in the halfcourt thanks to their excellent intensity and focus on that end. Again, the margin here is tight, and it wouldn’t surprise me if Loyola and UNI tied atop the conference this season. But if you forced me to pick one, I’m rolling with LUC.
- Northern Iowa – Speaking of tough offenses to guard, UNI also runs incredibly crisp stuff on that end and has its fair share of shooters as well. The Panthers shot a blistering 38.6% from deep as a team last season, a mark that placed them in the top 10 nationally. The two main reasons for that sharpshooting display in AJ Green and Trae Berhow return: Berhow is an elite catch-and-shoot guy, and Green is the conference’s best tough shot maker thanks to his uncanny ability to create angles and pods of space to get his shot away. But this team’s secret weapon has been and still is Austin Phyfe. In most leagues, a guy with Phyfe’s terrific skillset as a passer, scorer, and shotblocker would be noticed constantly, but he’s overshadowed not just by his teammate in Green but also by Loyola’s Krutwig, whose skillset is in some ways a better version of Phyfe’s. Regardless of who gets the headlines, the Phyfe/Green duo in ball screens is a tough, tough cover, particularly with the amount of spacing UNI had last season. Getting similar spacing this year with the losses of Isaiah Brown and Spencer Haldeman will be critical: freshman Bowen Born is undersized but has a strong reputation as a shooter from his high school days and could be next in line as the lead ballhandler for the Panthers when Green graduates in two years. Replacing Brown’s defensive acumen is also a concern: his length and intensity made him one of the better perimeter defenders in the conference, and there isn’t a clear replacement for that on the UNI roster.
- Bradley – Brian Wardle’s group plowed through Arch Madness for a second straight season in 2019-20 before the pandemic shut down the NCAA Tournament. And while they did benefit from the bracket essentially blowing up on quarterfinal Friday with UNI and Loyola’s early exits, the Braves were a fringe top-100 team last year that became something of the forgotten man at the top of the Valley a season ago. I see a similar forgotten nature with this BU team, a group that despite graduating a few key contributors should once again be a legit factor in the Valley race from the opening tip. A trio of transfers join the fray at guard with hopes of offsetting the losses of 4-year contributors Darrell Brown and Nate Kennell: George Washington transfer Terry Nolan earned lots of positive reviews during his redshirt year and brings high-level athleticism at the shooting guard position, while UMass import Sean East showed impressive flashes while in Amherst and EMU transfer Kevin McAdoo provides sixth man-type energy and shot-making despite being undersized. That trio should help insulate Danya Kingsby and Valle Tahvanainen, who each played key roles for last season’s club in the backcourt. Meanwhile, it will be fascinating to see what Wardle does in the frontcourt: more smaller lineups with star big man Elijah Childs could be interesting, but the upside of junior 7-footer Ari Boya is tantalizing. He only played limited minutes, but advanced metrics LOVE his game and he posted sky-high block rates when in the game a season ago. If Boya has the type of breakout season that seems possible, the upside of this BU team jumps to another tier. Having a defensive stopper in the paint like that is especially impactful in a league like the Valley with two star big men in Krutwig and Phyfe.
- Southern Illinois – Finishing in the top five of the Valley in year one considering how little he inherited is an early sign for me that Bryan Mullins is the real deal as a head coach. I was bullish on the hire when SIU made it given how central Mullins was in making Loyola the program it has become, and Mullins has proved me right early. In many ways, you can see the fingerprints of LUC’s rebuild allow over SIU’s: savvy recruiting to find some undervalued four-year contributors and a defense that keeps you in any game. Mullins found two clear building blocks in year one in Marcus Domask and Lance Jones – Domask won the conference’s Rookie of the Year honors after averaging over 13 points and shooting 40% from deep, while Jones really flourished late in the year and brings a fearlessness to the backcourt that this group desperately needed. In the season’s last six games, Jones averaged 18 points per game and shot 55% from the field. Turnovers were without a doubt an issue for him in his rookie campaign, but that’s to be expected when dealing with a young guy thrown into the fire. A collection of newcomers round out the rotation: Anthony D’Avanzo joins from D2 Lewis, where he averaged 16 points, 8 rebounds, and shot 40% from three, while Jakolby Long (Southern Utah via Iowa State) and Ben Harvey should be plug-and-play guys on the wing and Indian Hills product JD Muila gives the Salukis some frontcourt depth. This is without a doubt a young team that may be a year away from serious contention, but I expect Mullins to have this group ready to play and be a tough out in March.
- Indiana State – With star guard Tyreke Key a senior and Greg Lansing in the last season of his contract, it feels like now-or-never time in Terre Haute. Lansing met that sense of urgency with a focus on adding veteran talent, in particular beefing up the backcourt to help manage the graduation of starting point guard Jordan Barnes. Neither TJ Howard (Towson) or Randy Miller (NC Central) are true point guards, but each have averaged double figures at the Division 1 level and are capable of hitting shots from beyond the arc. While the backcourt is old, the frontcourt is young: sophomores Jake LaRavia and Tre Williams will be the starters, and both showed significant flashes as freshmen playing big roles for the Sycamores. LaRavia is a particularly exciting piece: the 6-8 Indianapolis native was a late signee for Lansing in the 2019 class but started 25 games a freshman and flashed poise beyond his years. As he continues to polish his outside shot, LaRavia has the potential to be one of the best all-around 4’s in the Valley. Better interior defense will be critical: ISU really struggled to defend the paint last season, and while Williams showed promise as a rim protector, defending the paint starts with better intensity on the perimeter. There’s enough firepower here to beat anyone, but I think the defense will hold Lansing’s club back from moving up further in the Valley standings.
- Drake – Drake losing Liam Robbins to Minnesota this offseason is a reminder of just how cruel recruiting can be at the mid-major level. The Bulldogs recruited Robbins when he had no offers and worked with him as he changed his body and turned into a potential NBA player. Yet as soon as he is ready to assert himself as one of the Valley’s best players, he turns around and heads to the Big Ten. Robbins was such a difference-maker on both ends, a terrific rim protector whose offensive game continued to grow and presented all kinds of matchup issues. Without him, this will without a doubt be a team driven by its backcourt, a veteran group led by terrific point guard Roman Penn. For my money, Penn is the most underrated player in the conference, a good passer and decision-maker who knocked down 40% from deep last season. Veterans like DJ Wilkins and Garrett Sturtz also are steady rotation cogs. The return of a healthy Tremell Murphy could be a huge boost: Murphy dealt with injuries and off-court troubles last season, but is a matchup problem at the 4 who many expected to step into a starring role last season. Seton Hall transfer Darnell Brodie has big shoes to fill in the frontcourt, and while he likely won’t make the same defensive impact Robbins did he is a capable forward with good size.
- Missouri State – One of the nation’s most disappointing teams in 2019-20, Missouri State’s incredibly talented veteran roster could never put it together for sustained periods of time. With five of the team’s top seven scorers departing, this year’s Bears will take on a much different look, and we’ll see if reshuffling the cards can leave Dana Ford’s club with a better hand. Offense will run through senior center Gaige Prim, who looks more like a defensive end than basketball player but whose touch around the rim is as good as anyone’s in this league. Prim was the team’s most efficient scorer a season ago and does a great job on the glass, and he’s capable of being the best player on a good MVC team. Development of the pieces around him will be critical: sophomores Isiaih Mosley and Ja’Monta Black both showed major promise in their freshman campaigns, with Mosley in particular being a bright spot in an otherwise-disappointing season. A trio of top-75 JUCO imports will also be critical: Colby CC transfer Demarcus Sharp seems likely to assume the starting point guard role and put up incredibly impressive JUCO stats, while slashing wing Keaton Hervey should be a plug-and-play guy as well.
- Valparaiso – Matt Lottich and Darian DeVries should consider starting an emotional support group for coaches hit by the early departure, with Lottich losing stud guard Javon Freeman-Liberty to DePaul this spring. The departure closes the book on a weird two seasons at Valpo for Freeman, who entered the transfer portal after a strong freshman season before electing to return for another year at Valpo. Then, Freeman had the explosive season most expected, led the Crusaders to the MVC title game, said he wasn’t considering leaving after the game, then hit the portal a few weeks later. Without him, it’s time for Donovan Clay to shine: Clay averaged 9.4 points per game as a freshman and brings high-level athleticism combined with shooting upside to the wing or 4 spot. Also providing wing support is JUCO import (and all-name team member) Goodnews Kpegeol, a gifted athlete wired to score who spent last season at Southwest Mississippi CC. A major jump from the likes of Clay, Ben Krikke, and Daniel Sackey will be necessary for the Crusaders to climb the ladder and stop VU from treading water any longer in the middle/bottom of the Valley.
- Illinois State – Things have gone downhill in a hurry for Dan Muller in Normal, with back-to-back 200+ finishes in KenPom hard to imagine when the Redbirds were rolling in 2016-17. The scary thing: there aren’t clear indications as to why things will turn around anytime soon. The program’s defense has fallen off a cliff since Luke Yaklich left the staff in 2017, and recruiting has also fallen off in recent years. So how can Muller right the ship? It starts with some talented young guards: DJ Horne showed major promise as a freshman, as did fellow freshman Antonio Reeves. JUCO import Josiah Strong should also make an impact after making a blistering 46% from deep last season at Iowa Western. Up front, I like UMass transfer Sy Chatman as an underrated pickup (waiver-dependent), but Keith Fisher isn’t overly efficient and JUCO import Alex Kotov is very unproven. If not for the mess that Evansville finds itself in, ISU could easily wind up in last place.
- Evansville – I truly do feel for Evansville fans, who got to experience one of the most incredible upsets of the season with a win at Kentucky, then saw its entire program crumble before its eyes over the following months thanks to off-court turmoil for Walter McCarty that led to his eventual resignation. The departure of McCarty at least indirectly led to Deandre Williams’ decision to transfer, which certainly sealed the fate that Evansville would be picked last by everyone in the preseason. So what DOES Todd Lickliter have? Not a ton. Nebraska transfer Samari Curtis (midyear) was a prolific scorer in high school who should provide some solid scoring pop on the wing. Look for JUCO PG Emmette Page to take the reigns of the offense – he averaged 21.9 points and 5 assists at Northeast CC. But it’s going to be a long, long road to relevance for Lickliter’s club, and just winning a couple of games in the Valley this season would be a step in the right direction.
All-Conference First Team:
- AJ Green (Northern Iowa)
- Tyreke Key (Indiana State)
- Elijah Childs (Bradley)
- Cameron Krutwig (Loyola)
- Austin Phyfe (Northern Iowa)
Player of the Year: Cameron Krutwig (Loyola) – The choice between Krutwig and Green is immensely challenging and may well wind up going to whoever leads his team to the MVC title. Since I pegged the Ramblers to win the league, I’ll correspondingly take Krutwig as league POY. He’s one of my favorite players to watch in the country, and his continued growth into one of the best playmaking bigs in the country has been so much fun to watch over the past three years. Can he cap it off with a player of the year award and a second career trip to the NCAA Tournament?
Breakout Player: Ari Boya (Bradley) – As I mentioned in my Bradley section, Boya has the potential to swing the Valley race if he makes the jump that seems possible in his junior campaign. Boya is such an impactful defender thanks to his ability to block shots, but he also shot 70% from the field in MVC action last season. Boya had the highest offensive rating and defensive rating on the team last season per Sports Reference, and also topped the team in box plus/minus. If he continues to grow into his body and fine-tune his game, watch out.
Newcomer of the Year: Demarcus Sharp (Missouri State) – Guys like Braden Norris at Loyola, Terry Nolan at Bradley, and Bowen Born all will be impactful newcomers, but Sharp could put up massive numbers for a Missouri State team that desperately needed to add a shot-maker like him to its mix. He’s a smooth athletic with a tight handle who is very comfortable attacking in ball screens, and those traits should serve him very well when paired with a guy like Gaige Prim. Expect a huge year from the Colby CC product.