It’s not rocket science, but it’s pretty darn close.
Predicting the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball standings prior to the start of non-conference play has proved to be difficult every season The Scout has done so.
Last year, newcomers headlined the conference. This season, it’s the returners that will sell the tickets (or, more accurately, ESPN+ subscriptions). UNI’s AJ Green is arguably NBA-level talent, Loyola-Chicago’s Cameron Krutwig is featured on the Kareem Abdul-Jabbar watchlist and Bradley’s Elijah Childs leads the back-to-back defending tournament champion. Breakout candidates are scattered throughout the conference to keep it interesting.
Don’t hedge your bets on these rankings, but here’s a look at what each Valley team brings to the table after a wild 2019-20 regular season and Arch Madness Tournament.
It would be hard to bet against a team that returns a starting five entirely made up of seniors after finishing second in the conference last season. Because of experience, Loyola-Chicago has the highest floor of any team in the Valley this season.
Rising four-year starting center Cameron Krutwig (15.1 points per game last season) has the potential to average near a double-double, but opposing defenses can’t afford to focus strictly on the big man. Senior guards Tate Hall (12.7 PPG), Keith Clemons (10.4 PPG) and Lucas Williamson (9 PPG) all provide enough scoring power to spread the opposition thin.
Add in the reigning sixth man of the year Marquise Keenedy and redshirt-sophomore Cooper Kaifes, who missed last season due to injury, and head coach Porter Moser has a rock solid backcourt.
But last season, it wasn’t the offense that propelled the Ramblers to a 21-win season, it was their defense. Williamson, Kennedy, forward Aher Uguak and others held opposing offenses to 62.7 points per game last season. With another year of experience under their collective belt, that unit only figures to get better.
After a loss to Valparaiso on Friday at Arch Madness in March, the Ramblers will have no shortage of motivation entering this season.
The back-to-back conference tournament champions lost three starters after graduation but will pursue a three-peat with perhaps the deepest team of the Brian Wardle era.
Pre-season first team all-Valley selection Elijah Childs figures to be the senior leader on and off the floor for the Braves. Despite Childs missing 12 games with a hand injury, the forward was second on the team in scoring (14.8 PPG) and first in rebounding (8.7 RPG).
Redshirt-freshman Rienk Mast will be a versatile addition after missing last year with a torn ACL. He and junior 7-foot-1-inch shot-blocker Ari Boya will likely split time at center. Add junior Ja’Shon Henry (9.5 PPG, 6 RPG) to the mix and Wardle has the most options he’s ever had in the frontcourt.
Returning starter senior guard Danya Kingsby will be joined in the backcourt by a plethora of reinforcements from the transfer portal: redshirt-juniors Terry Nolan and Kevin McAdoo and sophomore Sean East. Sophomore sharpshooter Ville Tahvanainen could also find the starting lineup after being named to the MVC All-Bench team.
There is little doubt that the Braves have the pieces to compete for their first regular season title since 1996. How well those pieces–specifically the newcomers–fit together will determine where Bradley finishes in the standings.
3rd: Northern Iowa
No Valley teams actually read The Scout’s annual basketball preview, but after we predicted them to finish in fourth, they evidently found some motivation and captured the regular season title, thanks to super-sophomore AJ Green and company.
This season, head coach Ben Jacobson’s squad is the preseason favorite according to the coaches’ poll. After pulling out of the NBA Draft, Green was named MVC preseason player of the year and a preseason first-team member along with junior forward Austin Phyfe.
The trio of Green (19.7 PPG), Phyfe (11.2 PPG) and senior guard Trey Berhow (12.5 PPG) represent over half of last year’s league-leading offensive production. Those three alone are enough to make the Panthers a sure-fire bet to challenge for back-to-back titles.
The remaining question: Who will step up to fill the shoes of graduated starters Isaiah Brown and Spencer Haldeman? If senior guard Tywhon Pickford (3.6 PPG), sophomore Antwan Kimmons (2.8 PPG) or a newcomer can boost their scoring near the nine points per game mark, UNI will be hard to beat. Freshman Bowen Born, one of the most accomplished high school basketball players in Iowa history, will likely be that impact player.
However, if the load is all on the shoulders of Green, Phyfe and Berhow, it may be difficult for the team to knock off an experienced Loyola or extremely deep Bradley.
4th: Indiana State
After tying Bradley for fourth place last season, the Sycamores return four of five starters to what should be a competitive squad.
Leading scorer and preseason first team selection Tyreke Key (15.6 PPG) will be the only returning senior starter for an otherwise young group of returners. Junior Cooper Neese (7.3 PPG) makes a nice combo with Key in the backcourt. Sophomores Jake LaRavia (9.4 PPG) and Tre Williams (7.2 PPG) provide consistency in the frontcourt after strong freshman campaigns.
The X-Factor for head coach Greg Lansing could be two graduate transfer guards: Randy Miller Jr. (NC Central) and Tobias Howard Jr. (Towson). Miller averaged double figures at NCC but missed most of last year due to injury.
The Sycamores beat every team in the conference at least once last season. If Key has another big year and LaRavia and Williams progress, there’s no reason they can’t do it again.
5th: Southern Illinois
After being picked to finish in last place in last season’s preseason poll, Bryan Mullins’ “Cardiac Dogs” finished 10-8 in MVC play, good for fifth place. Despite the loss of four key contributors, SIU has the capacity to do it again.
After an early season injury to Aaron Cook, it was the Marcus Domask show in Carbondale. The forward won conference freshman and newcomer of the year, averaging 13.6 points, 5.2 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game. He and classmate Lance Jones (9.3 PPG, 2.4 APG) will need to avert sophomore slumps and take a leap to lead this team as the only returning starters.
Those newcomers gave the squad a boost last year, and the Salukis will need a few others to do the same this season. Ben Harvey, an Eastern Illinois transfer forward, brings D1 experience and familiarity with the program to the table after redshirting in Carbondale last season. Anthony D’Avanzo comes in as a graduate transfer from Lewis with four seasons of Division-II experience at forward. J.D. Muila boosts the frontcourt further, entering as the 24th-best junior college recruit in the country.
The bottom line is this team has to gel fast to have another successful season. However, Mullins made some magic last season, and with some key pieces coming back this year, who’s to say he can’t do it again? Brace for more chest pain.
In each of his two seasons in Des Moines, head coach Darian DeVries’ Bulldogs have perfected the art of surprise. In 2018-19, Drake finished as co-regular season champs despite being selected ninth in the preseason poll. After an eighth-place finish last season, the Bulldogs won two games at Arch Madness, including a win over 1-seed UNI.
What will this year bring? After the transfer of 7-foot leading scorer Liam Robbins and the graduation of starting guard Anthony Murphy, it’s hard to say.
The team does return solid backcourt depth, starting with redshirt-junior Roman Penn. The 6-foot guard is the team’s highest returning scorer with 12 points per game and was a big part of Drake’s run in St. Louis. Right behind him is DJ Wilkins, who averaged 8.9 points per game and started all 34 contests last season.
Coming off of knee surgery, forward Tremell Murphy is back for another season and was named to the preseason all-conference third team. After that, things get a bit hazy.
Finding a replacement for Robbins is the biggest challenge that DeVries and company face. If the Bulldogs can find solid production at center, they could challenge for a top-five spot. If not, it will be difficult for these canines to keep up with the top dogs in the conference.
7th: Missouri State
After being the near-consensus favorite to win the Valley entering last season, something didn’t click for the Bears. Despite a handful of returning and transfer talent, Dana Ford’s squad finished tied for sixth place with a 9-9 conference record.
Much of the talent that caused Missouri State to be picked at the top has either graduated or transferred, so it will be a largely fresh start after a tough 2019-2020 campaign.
Gage Prim leads a small crop of returners. The 6-foot-8-inch forward was a bright spot last season, averaging 13.7 points and 4.9 rebounds per game. Sophomores Isiaih Mosley (8.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG) and Ja’Monta Black (3.2 PPG) will see the floor a lot and have the potential to develop into a great forward-guard duo like they were at Rockridge High School in Columbia, Missouri.
Beyond those three, the Bears have their fair share of question marks. However, maybe the Bears will play better as fresh-faced underdogs as opposed to highly-touted front runners.
Apologies for stating the obvious, but it’s going to be hard to replace a player like Javon Freeman-Liberty.
After averaging 19 points, 6 rebounds and 3.2 assists per game while leading the Crusaders on a historic run to the Arch Madness title game, the do-it-all guard darted for DePaul.
So, who of head coach Matt Lottich’s 11 returners will step up to be the go-to guy?
Sophomore swingman Donovan Clay appears to be a prime candidate. After averaging 9.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game, the Alton native earned a spot on the MVC-All Freshman team and was the only Valpo player honored with a preseason all-conference selection.
Senior forward Mileek McMillian (8.8 PPG), sophomore forward Ben Krikke (6.7 PPG), junior guard Daniel Sackey (6.3 PPG) and senior guard Eron Gordon (5.2) all will be key pieces as well.
Because of its experience, Valpo will grind out some wins to stay out of the conference’s basement. Maybe they’ll even come close to last year’s sixth-place finish. But it won’t be quite as majestic as Freeman-Liberty leading the people.
Picking the Aces to stay out of last place is a bold proposition these days – they’ve finished in last back-to-back years, including a winless MVC tour last season. But after a roller coaster of a season in 2019-2020, things will hopefully be a little more steady for Evansville in its first full season under head coach Todd Lickliter.
Three returning senior starters will need to play well in order for the Aces to avoid another winless Valley tour: Sam Cunliffe (11.2 PPG), Evan Kuhlman (5.8 PPG) and Noah Frederking (5.8 PPG).
At the very least, it can’t be worse than last year… right?
10th: Illinois State
Things were looking tough for the Redbirds, but things got worse when senior Keith Fisher announced that he was opting out of the season. Now, head coach Dan Muller doesn’t have a single senior on the roster and no returners who averaged more than 8.7 points per game last season.
Guards DJ Horne (8.7 PPG), Antonio Reeves (7.2 PPG) and Dedric Boyd (6.1 PPG) will all provide some scoring, but the lack of experience in the frontcourt is enough to even make Bradley fans concerned for their rivals down I-74.
Will they win a conference game? Yes. Will that be enough to beat Evansville? That remains to be seen.