The Illinois Valley – Loyola, Illinois State, Bradley, Southern Illinois
The fight for the Missouri Valley Conference top spot will be a fiery contest this year. Each one of these teams can exceed the expectations set for them, whether they are underdogs or not.
Among the predicted best teams in the conference is Loyola-Chicago, who is coming off an NCAA Final Four appearance. The Ramblers were picked in the MVC Preseason Poll as the number one team in the conference and features returning MVC Player of the Year Clayton Custer, Freshman of the Year Cameron Krutwig and Coach of the Year Porter Moser. There are holes left after the departure of Donte Ingram and MVC Defensive Player of the Year Ben Richardson, but the experience of last year’s deep tournament run gives Loyola a confidence boost.
The Redbirds still boast senior Malik Yarborough if his suspension is lifted. He did not play in the Redbirds exhibition game but in 2017 he led the conference in assists (4.8), was in the top five in conference scoring (16.6) and helped the team to an 18-win season. This was a team plagued by injuries last season, but not before they beat the second-seeded Sothern Illinois in the second round of the MVC. They are a strong contender to take down the Ramblers.
The I-74 Rivalry would not be complete with just ISU in the top tier of the MVC. Bradley head coach Brian Wardle has improved the Braves record every year in his three-year tenure and will now showcase his matured roster.
Despite losing Donte Thomas, an essential key to the team’s 20 wins last season, the Braves still possess developing forward Elijah Childs and junior guard Darrell Brown. Brown was second to ISU’s Yarborough in assists last season and the Braves’ leading scorer for the past two seasons.
The constant enthusiasm that Southern Illinois head coach Barry Hinson has for the Valley may be enough to give the Salukis another run at the MVC final match, but his reliability as a coach is probably more persuading than that. Hinson accumulated 59-wins in the last three seasons at Southern and launched the team to second place last season. With a large amount of their team returning from last year, the Salukis will try getting over the tough second-round hump and reach their first MVC final since 2007.
The Middle Children – Northern Iowa, Indiana State, Valparaiso
These teams have established talent, but there are setbacks that keep them from competing among the conference’s best.
Northern Iowa’s head coach Ben Jacobson is entering his 13th season and has won 14 and 16 games in the past two seasons. Though the Panthers have hovered around .500, this is the lowest win total in a two-season span for Jacobson.
The Panthers scored the least amount of points per game last season in the conference (64.2 points per game) but played suffocating defense, limiting opponents to only a conference-best 62.2 points. This team’s freshmen class will be essential in providing new strengths in the offensive department.
Indiana State possesses a marksman in Jordan Barnes, the Valley and one of the nation’s more skilled 3-point shooters. Barns tallied 117 3-pointers at a 42 percent clip. His contributions propelled Indiana State’s offense to the second best in the Valley (72.5 points per game) but only resulted in 13 wins last season. Tyreke Hill will also be a big part of Indiana State’s scoring, after being selected on the MVC All-freshmen team.
After competing in the MVC for the first time, Valparaiso tallied 15 wins but had quite the mediocre season within the conference. The team had the fifth best offense and sixth best defense in the league. With six conference wins, the Crusaders had the least amount of conference success. There’s room for improvement and expansion.
New coaches – Drake, Missouri State, Evansville
Missouri State fired head coach Paul Lusk after he could not lead the Bears to a winning conference record. With a 7-11 conference record last season in the books and the departure of the conference rebound leader and current Indiana Pacer Alize Johnson, the Bears will take a new approach. Missouri State hired former ISU player Dana Ford. He’ll inherit returning forward Obediah Church, the Valley’s top shot blocker, but Johnson did it all for the Bears.
After head coach Niko Medved led Drake to 10 conference wins and orchestrated the top scoring team in the conference last season (73.7 points per game), he left his position to coach at Colorado State. It was the best conference record since 2008 for the Bulldogs. Now they will have to quickly adjust with former Creighton assistant coach Darian DeVries running the show.
In addition to losing an effective coach, the Bulldogs also lost All-MVC first team Reed Timmer, the second best scorer in the conference last year (19.2).
The Evansville Purple Aces are currently under an identity change. After firing head coach Marty Simmons, who coached there for 11 seasons, the Aces hired Walter McCarty, who was a member of the Boston Celtics staff under head coach Brad Stevens. What McCarty learned on the Celtics staff will be important as the Aces lost Ryan Taylor, the top scorer in the conference last year (21.3). The Aces are looking for their next number one option.