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Deep Valley: Preseason MVC women’s basketball rankings

Bradley and Illinois State at the 2018 edition of Hoops In The Heartland. Photo courtesy Missouri Valley Conference.

The Missouri Valley Conference is one of the most competitive conferences in the NCAA women’s basketball landscape. 2020-21 figures to be a very exciting year, and in such a deep conference there are several teams expecting to compete for the top spot. 

Who will stand out from the crowd? Let’s take a look. 

  1. Missouri State Bears

Missouri State received 33 of 40 first-place votes in the MVC’s preseason poll and enters the season as the favorite to finish atop the standings. 

Senior Brice Calip and junior Jasmine Franklin return with well-earned spots on the MVC’s preseason first team. Both players finished last season with double-digit scoring averages – Calip dropped in 12.6 points per game with Franklin chipping in 10.6 – and both are assets in other areas as well. 

Franklin led last season’s 26-4 team with 8.7 rebounds per game, while Calip’s 110 assists were also a team high. Other key returners include Emily Gartner, who was second on the team in rebounding with 5.6 per game, and the Bears’ top two 3-point shooters in Elle Ruffridge and Sydney Wilson. 

Missouri State will have to overcome the key loss of Alexa Willard, who started each of the 129 games she played in during her time in Springfield. Willard was a first-team all-conference selection twice, including during her senior campaign last year. 

An incredibly consistent player, Willard scored 20-plus points eight times last season. The Bears will miss Willard’s consistency, but she is one of only two seniors to graduate from last year’s squad, with the other being role player Shameka Ealy. 

Willard being the only departure bodes very well for Missouri State. The team finished last year, ranked eighth in the RPI and earned power-five wins over Oklahoma and a then-ranked University of Minnesota team. 

Last season also served to establish a winning start to the tenure of head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, who will begin her second season on the bench in Springfield in a few weeks. 

With such a talented returning core returning to fill only one key loss, the Bears are well-positioned for continued success within the MVC. They’ll have some stiff competition as the season progresses, but it is difficult to slot them anywhere but first in the preseason rankings. 

  1. Bradley Braves

Bradley placed second in the MVC’s preseason poll and received seven of 40 first-place votes. Junior Lasha Petree was chosen as the conference’s preseason player of the year, while senior Gabi Haack was also named to the preseason first-team. 

Last season was arguably the best in the history of Bradley’s program. The Braves finished the season 22-7 and 13-5 in MVC play. While Bradley lost three players from last season due to graduation – Chelsea Brackmann, Ryan Wilkins and Amber Bozeman – they return nine seasoned veterans. 

The loss of Brackmann creates a big gap for Bradley to fill, as she was one of the best low post players in the conference last season and a key part of Bradley’s program. Bradley will rely on transfer Uche Ufochukwu and returners Emily Marsh and Veronika Roberts to create action in the paint. 

Lasha Petree is the preseason player of the year for good reason. Named to the MVC’s first-team last year as a sophomore, Petree led the Braves in scoring with 16.5 points per game. Her scoring output is nicely complemented by her defensive abilities; she tallied 50 blocks and was also named to the Valley’s all-defensive team. 

Haack, one of three seniors on this year’s team, is a steady scorer who has averaged just over 14 points per game over the last two seasons. She also collected 6.1 rebounds last season, a mark good for second on the team.

Fellow senior Nyjah White figures provide steady scoring and rebounding outputs, while junior Tatum Koenig brings great poise in her role as point guard. Sophomore Mahri Petree will also be a key returner to watch, as she regularly turned in solid performances off the bench as a freshman last season. 

As head coach Andrea Gorski enters her fifth season at the helm of the Bradley program, she has consistently built teams that improve year after year. Would first place in the Valley surprise anybody?

  1. Northern Iowa

The return of senior Karli Rucker is big for the Panthers, who are coming off an 18-11 campaign that included wins against Iowa and Iowa State and a 10-8 mark in conference play. 

Rucker will key the Panthers’ attack in 2021. She is a preseason all-MVC selection and led the way as a junior with an average of just under 14 points per game. Rucker was one of three players to start every game in 2019-20, along with returning seniors Bre Gunnels and Nicole Kroeger. 

Gunnels returns as last season’s team leader in rebounding with 6.4 boards per game. The Panthers will also return their five leading scorers from last season, a group including Rucker, Gunnels and Kroeger along with Kam Finley and Megan Maahs. 

Key losses for the Panthers include Rose Simon-Ressler, who finished second on last year’s squad with 40 assists, and Kristina Cavey, who finished fourth on the team in rebounding. 

While these losses will hurt the Panthers, the group they return should be more than capable of stepping up to the plate. Factor in a freshman class of six players – including three players 6 feet or taller – and it looks to be a good season ahead for UNI. 

Head coach Tanya Warren’s squad should have a good grip on at least third place in the Valley. 

  1. Illinois State

The Redbirds can be excited about their chances entering the 2020-21 campaign, with seniors Paige Saylor and Juliunn Redmond returning to build on a 19-10 campaign a year prior. 

Saylor was on last season’s MVC all-defensive team and tallied 2.5 steals per game in 29 games. Redmond, a transfer from Tallahassee Community College who earned last season’s MVC newcomer and sixth man honors, poured in just over 11 points per game while starting just 12 games. 

Saylor and Redmond return alongside Mary Crompton, who averaged 9 points per game last season as a redshirt freshman, and Lexy Koudelka, who averaged 4.6 points per game while coming off the bench in all of the team’s 29 games. 

Going against the Redbirds is that they lost more than the three teams above them and the two teams below them. Simply put, it will be hard for Illinois State to adjust to life after losing leading scorers and rebounders Lexi Wallen and Tete Maggett and third-leading rebounder Megan Talbot. 

Yet, there is optimism in the returning Redbirds filling these roles well. Redmond finished third on the team with 6.1 rebounds per game last season. Illinois State also brings in two freshmen – Kate Bullman and Jasmine McGinnis-Taylor – who averaged over 15 points per game during their senior seasons of high school. 

Kristen Gillespie’s squad will over perform the fifth-place ranking they received in the Valley poll and finish the season in fourth. 

  1. Southern Illinois

Big things are ahead in Carbondale as the Salukis bring back nine players from a 2019-20 team that created waves within the MVC despite an 8-10 conference finish.

Last year’s Dogs, who finished 16-13 overall, scored big wins against Missouri State and Bradley. Inconsistency hampered the rest of conference play, but the Salukis proved they can play with the best in the conference on a good night. 

If they can shore up some loose ends created by the departures of Nicole Martin, Kristen Nelson and Brittney Patrick, this is an SIU team that has potential. The two starters from last season that return, Makenzie Silvey and Abby Brockmeyer, have the potential to lead a team that returns seven additional players. 

Silvey, twice recognized on the Valley’s first-team, will lead the SIU scoring attack after finishing last season seventh in conference scoring. Her ability to contribute around 15 on a nightly basis will be complemented nicely by Brockmeyer’s scoring and rebounding outputs. 

Other key returners include Gabby Walker and Payton McAllister, who both averaged 4-plus points off the bench last season. 

Cindy Stein’s team will need to find a measure of consistency this season, and it isn’t a stretch to say they can vault above sixth place if they do. 

  1. Drake

Drake is designated sixth solely because of the losses of Becca Hitner and Sara Rhine. The Bulldogs would surprise nobody by vaulting into the conference’s top half by the time the season has concluded. 

Hitner and Rhine provide a big hole for the Bulldogs to replace in the scoring column, having both tallied over 2,000 career points and earned spots in the Valley’s top-10 in all-time scoring. Last season’s fifth-leading scorer, Brenni Rose, also departs due to graduation.

Kierra Collier and Maddie Monahan return for the Bulldogs; the duo finished third and fourth on last year’s team in scoring, respectively. They’ll help anchor a new-look starting five for Drake as the only two starters to return. 

Drake does get some help from returning rebounder Allie Woolridge, who tallied just under four rebounds per game off the bench last season, and incoming freshman Courtney Becker, who averaged just about 14 points per game over her last two seasons at Aquinas High School. 

The Bulldogs lost a lot of bark from last year’s team, but have plenty of ability to step back up to the next level in 2021. 

  1. Valparaiso 

Valparaiso rolls into the 2020-21 season fresh off the first winning season for the program in over a decade. It had been since the 2008-09 season that the Crusaders had finished above .500 before a 17-12 mark last season. 

Last season’s winning mark came on the heels of an 8-24 campaign in 2018-19, the sixth-best improvement from year-to-year in the NCAA.

It will be a tall order for Northwest Indiana’s Valley team to mount a better season this year, but continued relevance is very possible. The team will return three starters including Shay Frederick, who was good for an average of 10 points and 4.3 assists per game last season. 

Frederick’s point average trailed that of Grace Hales and Addison Stoller, who are now departed after scoring 12.2 and 11.4 points per game respectively. However, starters Carie Weinman and Caitlin Morrison return to provide solid supplementary scoring to Frederick’s attack. 

A five-player freshman class should also develop nicely in time for the Crusaders, who have serious momentum entering head coach Mary Evans’ third season. However, they still don’t have the firepower to compete among the conference’s upper echelon. 

Expect a few key wins throughout the season and a team that can do some damage in 2021-22. 

  1. Indiana State

Indiana State is an interesting team to talk about. Akin to a television program that had to replace its whole cast, the Sycamores started from scratch last season with a roster of 14 newcomers, the most in the NCAA. 

As a result, it was an abysmal season in Terre Haute and the Sycamores finished with a mark of 5-25. 

This year, the trees return 12 of those 14 players including an all-freshman team member in Del’Janae Williams.

A key plus for Indiana State is its ability to grow as a team from year to year. The Sycamores will be able to play a cohesive brand of basketball given the team is essentially the same as last year. Only Pearl Dean and Lauryn Snipes exit from last season’s campaign. 

Another key returner to watch will be Jamyra McChristine, who led the way in scoring and rebounding for the Sycamores last season. 

Indiana State has to prove itself and will continue to grow a young program. Strides will be made in the third year of head coach Vicki Hall’s tenure. 

  1. Loyola-Chicago

Like Valpo, Loyola-Chicago made strides in fostering a winning culture with its first winning season since 2012-13 a year ago. The Ramblers finished the season with a mark of 15-14 and went 6-12 in conference play. 

An important point for the Ramblers entering the new season is they will only lose one senior from last season’s team due to graduation. But the loss of Tiara Wallace will be a tough one to recover from. Wallace started 97 of her 118 career games in Chicago and led the team in scoring and assists in Valley play last season. 

But there is optimism in the returning crew for the Ramblers. Ellie Rice started all 29 games and was a good scoring and rebounding cog last season with 6.9 points and five rebounds per game. Scorers Allison Day and Janae Gonzales are looking to continue to find the net in their junior seasons.

Loyola-Chicago is picked ninth as a testament of strides taken by the rest of the league’s lower half. Kate Achter’s squad will have tough competition from the rest of the conference on a nightly basis and thus will have to continue to prove itself. 

  1. Evansville

Last season, Evansville was the only Division-I school to fail to win a conference game in both men’s and women’s basketball. While the Purple Aces return a core that may improve upon last season’s abysmal 3-26 campaign, they’ll need to surprise some folks to emerge from the conference’s basement. 

Evansville does return all five starters from last season’s team, including reigning freshman of the year Abby Feit. This is a major positive, allowing the squad to further gel as a unit. The MVC is one of women’s basketball’s most competitive conferences, and the ability to play as a team is an important quality for a rebuilding program to have. 

The Purple Aces are still a young squad, with only three seniors currently on the roster. That said, Jada Poland and Lola Reed need to play big roles this season for the Aces in both scoring and rebounding. 

It doesn’t figure to be an especially fun year in Evansville, but if Abby Feit and company can continue to improve, the program may be in store for better days ahead in the years to come.

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