Tuesday, September 28, 2010

The Only Conference Preview You Need To Read: The MVC

Summer officially ends on September 22nd, but for me, the end of summer always coincided with the end of August. Or when I had to go to school. (That first day was always the worst, wasn't it?) Anyway, school is right around the corner, which means that college basketball season is around the corner, down the street, through two lights, and on the left. Since we've all had a fight with our GPS at one time or another, we at BIAH will take this week to roll out our way-too-early, all-encompassing conference previews.

To browse through the other conferences, click here.

Preseason Awards

Player of the Year: Toure' Murry, Wichita State, Jr.

The Shockers are going to be a very good team this season, especially considering the size they have in the front court in a league where bigs are at a premium. But WSU loses point guard Clevin Hannah, a kid that, for the last two seasons, has been so important to the Shockers. Murry isn't a point guard per se, but he is the most talented back court player on this roster. He showed flashes of serious potential last season, but was too inconsistent with his perimeter shooting (just 33% from deep) and couldn't put up big numbers on a nightly basis. Some of that blame should be credited to the defenses in the MVC, but Murry was up and down throughout the year. With Hannah gone, Murry's role will expand this season and he will be counted on for crunch time baskets and more consistent play. If that happens, Murry could end up being the best player on the league's best team.

Ed. Note: For those asking, leaving the Player of the Year off of the all-conference first-team was intentional. Maybe its because I grew up following the Big East (they always put six on the first team), but its the way I've always done it. Its not an oversight.

And a close second goes to: Kenny Lawson, Creighton, Sr.

You'll notice this is a common theme throughout this preview, but big men are at a premium in the Missouri Valley. Athletic 6'9" centers that can score in the paint, knock down a jumper, and block a shot are unheard of. That's why I am expecting big things out of Lawson as a senior. He's already a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches thanks to his size and strength on the block, but if he can expand on the perimeter game that he started to show flashes of late in the season, Lawson would be unstoppable at this level. The only reason I'm not picking hm a conference player of the year is that I think the addition of Gregory Echenique could cut into his touches.

Breakout Star: Jake Koch, Northern Iowa, So.

Picking a "breakout" star in this league is tough. Generally speaking, players never seem to break out in the Valley as much as they continue to develop throughout their careers. That said, there may be a perfect set of circumstances for Koch to have a big year. For starters, UNI loses quite a bit of talent this offseason, including the two guys starting in front of Jake -- Adam Koch (his big brother and last season's conference player of the year) and Jordan Egleseder. This will be Jake's third year in the program -- he redshirted as a freshman, meaning that he knows what to expect in league play and will understand Ben Jacobson's system. Most importantly, he seems to have the talent to be potentially become an all-conference player, evidenced by some impressive performances down the stretch of the season.

All-Conference First Team

  • G - Kwadzo Ahelegbe, Northern Iowa, Sr.
  • G - Sam Maniscalco, Bradley, Sr.
  • G - Colt Ryan, Evansville, So.
  • F - Kyle Weems, Missouri State, Jr.
  • C - Kenny Lawson, Creighton, Sr.
All-Conference Second Team
  • G - Adam Leonard, Missouri State, Sr.
  • G - Dwayne Lathan, Indiana State, Jr.
  • F - Taylor Brown, Bradley, Jr.
  • F - JT Durley, Wichita State, Sr.
  • F - Jake Koch, Northern Iowa, So.
Newcomer of the Year: Gregory Echenique, Creighton, So.

Echenique was supposed to join forces with Mike Rosario to turn Rutgers into a legitimate basketball program again, but the 6'9", 260 lb Venezuelan never was able to get on the same page as Fred Hill. So after suffering a detached retina that cost him last season -- a season in which he was averaging 12.6 ppg and 7.7 rpg -- Echenique is headed to Creighton where he will become eligible after the first semester. The combination of Echenique and Lawson will be tough for Valley opponents to handle.

What Happened?:
  • Northern Iowa kept making news: Just because the season ended and Ali Farokhmanesh graduated didn't mean that Northern Iowa was going to stop showing up in my reader. It started with head coach Ben Jacobson, who signed a ten-year contract extension with the school. Jacobson also saw a significant bump in his salary, as he will be getting paid in the $500,000 range for the bulk of the contract.

    The problem with that? Northern Iowa is broke. They already had to cut their baseball program, and even though their basketball team brought a bunch of new interest to the school with the impressive tournament run, they may be on the chopping block as well.

    Perhaps the most shocking turn of events during the off-season happened to Lucas O'Rear. O'Rear, who resembles a surly Irish bouncer more than he does an athlete, was also a member of the UNI baseball team that was cut prior to the 2010 season. Despite not playing baseball for the year, he still managed to get scooped up in the 13th round of this year's MLB draft.

    O'Rear isn't the only Panther with a potential professional career. The Sultan of Swish is headed to Switzerland.

  • Creighton had their own issues: UNI wasn't the only team to make headlines this offseason. Creighton did as well, although they weren't all for good reasons. Dana Altman finally pulled the trigger, leaving Creighton for the opening at Oregon. It didn't take long for Creighton to find a replacement, however. In one of the more unique moves you'll come across, Gregg McDermott decided to leave a Big XII job for an opening in the MVC. To be fair, many would argue that Creighton is at least as good, if not better, than the Iowa State job. They have a very big and passionate fan base, it is a school with basketball tradition, and they actually have a chance to compete for a spot in the NCAA Tournament.

    Gregg wasn't the only McDermott making a move. His son, Doug, who originally had signed with (you guessed it) UNI was released from his LOI by Ben Jacobson. The elder McDermott was Jacobson's predecessor at Northern Iowa, and the two remain close.

  • Altman steals a Sycamore: Kevin McKenna finally looked like he was building a program at Indiana State heading into his fourth season. But after coaching for nine years under Altman, McKenna couldn't pass up on the opportunity to join Altman's staff in Oregon. ISU replaced him with associate head coach Greg Lansing.

  • Talented players leaving school: P'Allen Stinnett had a ton of talent, but his attitude and off-the-court problems never allowed him to fulfill his potential. He was suspended for the end of last season by Dana Altman for a myriad of reasons, and McDermott would not allow him back on the team. Stinnett will play out his final season at Missouri Western, a D-II school.

    Southern Illinois had it worse. Kevin Dillard left for Dayton while Anthony Booker headed to Iowa State. Those two were supposed to be members of the 2008 recruiting class that put Chris Lowery's program over the top.

What's Next?:
  • Who becomes this season's darling?: Early last season, it was Missouri State. Then Wichita State got hot before Northern Iowa steamrolled to the Sweet 16. Can Creighton get back into the mix this season?

  • Balance: The Valley plays tough, competitive, defensive basketball, but one of the biggest problems with the league is actually its strength and its balance. The bottom of the league is not that far from the top of the league -- Southern Illinois had as much talent as anyone last season, while Evansville beat the top two teams in the league -- and every road game is a potential loss regardless of your opponent. While that competitiveness can prepare Valley teams for the rigors of the NCAA Tournament, it also takes a toll on them. Missouri State and Wichita State were good teams last season, but their inability to win close games and/or road games cost them dearly.

  • Multiple bids?: The way I see it, four, possibly five, teams in this league have a puncher's chance at making the dance. Like I said, there is some good basketball played in the Valley. If there is going to be two or three (or more) bids that come out of this league, however, the Valley is going to have to play very well and spring some upsets in the non-conference portion of their schedule. Like I said, league play is brutal -- they are one of the leagues that play a true, 18 game round robin schedule -- and you can count on the top teams beating each other up all year long.

  • A good way to start?: By winning the MVC-MWC Challenge Series next season. The two best games? BYU heads to Creighton while San Diego State hosts Wichita State.

Power Rankings
  1. Wichita State: The Shockers look like they will be the early favorite to win the Missouri Valley. They only lose one senior and bring back a roster loaded with talent, size, and experience. In the Missouri Valley, it tends to be the front court that determines who wins the league, and Wichita State has one of, if not the best. Senior JT Durley is probably the Shockers most dangerous scorer in the front court, and if seven-footer Garrett Stutz can regain the form he had late in the season, he'll be force inside as a junior. Aaron Ellis and Gabe Blair are athletic live-bodies that will provide defense and rebounding, while redshirt freshman Jerome Hamilton and seven-foot sophomore Ehimen Orukpe could also see minutes. The biggest question for the Shockers is going to be how they replace point guard Clevin Hannah, their best scorer and the leader of this club the past two seasons. Sophomore Demetric Williams got better as the season progressed, and JuCo transfer Joe Ragland should also be able to fight for minutes at the point. The guy that Gregg Marshall will be looking for more consistency out of will be two-guard Toure' Murry. A tough defender, Murry is a bit streaky on the offensive end, although he is capable of going for 20. Senior Graham Hatch is a glue guy through and through that can also knock down a three, while junior David Kyles will see a bigger role this year as well. The Shockers will, once again, be a tough defensive team with a lot of size on the inside. The Valley is always tough and full of close, competitive, physical basketball games. If Wichita State can figure out how to win some of those on the road, this looks like a team that could win the league.

  2. Creighton: It will be awkward seeing the Bluejays play for someone other than Dana Altman, but Gregg McDermott could have walked into a much worse situation than this. Creighton will add Rutgers transfer Gregory Echinique after the first semester, and once he is on the floor with Kenny Lawson, Creighton's leading scorer and rebounder last season, the Bluejays will have the best front court in the conference. Playing behind those two will be senior Wayne Runnels, who never quite lived up to his 16 point, 9 rebound performance against Dayton in his first game in a Creighton jersey, and 6'11" freshman Will Artino. Junior Antoine Young, who showed a bit of a scoring punch for Creighton down the stretch, will likely be running the point again this season. How good the Bluejays end up being is going to be determined by who shows up on the wings this year. Ethan Wragge, a 6'7" sharpshooting small forward, looks like he will be an excellent weapon to help the Bluejays spread the floor. Kaleb Korver lost his confidence this season, shooting under 32% from three (unheard of for a Korver), as did Darryl Ashford, a JuCo transfer that never regained his rhythm after missing a January game against Drake. Sophomore Josh Jones looked impressive moving into the starting lineup late in the season, and the late addition of Doug McDermott should also help with depth. There is a lot of talent on this roster, and there may not be a team that can compete with Creighton inside. The Bluejays should be in the thick of the race in the MVC in February.

  3. Northern Iowa: The Panthers had a magical season in 2009-2010, making the Sweet 16 with two memorable wins, including one over Kansas, and two memorable shots by Ali Farokhmanesh. But they also lose quite a bit from that team. Jordan Egleseder and Adam Koch, the MVC player of the year, formed the best front line in the conference, while Farokhmanesh spread the floor with his shooting ability. The good news is that the Panthers run a system where the emphasis is team success, starting with their defense. Jake Koch showed flashes late in the season of being able to fill his brother's shoes. Lucas O'Rear has won back-to-back sixth man awards for his scrappy, defensive-minded play. Jonny Moran, who struggled to find a rhythm shooting the ball last year, and Marc Sonnen should be able to fill the void left by Farokhmanesh, while Kerwin Dunham is a 6'6" senior guard that defends well and doesn't make mistakes. But the key to this team is going to be Kwadzo Ahelegbe. Ahelegbe is a strong, possession point guard that can score when he needs to. He will need to this season, as he will be the only player on this roster that has proven the ability to create his own shot. There are still some pieces on this team, and while UNI has never been a team that needed to score a lot to win, points will really be at a premium this season.

  4. Missouri State: The Bears got out to a great start last season, winning their first ten games, but the turnover on their roster did them in as they couldn't win close games and struggled away from home. That said, this team returns basically everyone from last season, which should make them an early favorite to finish near the top of the league. The guy to watch on this team will be 6'6" junior Kyle Weems, a talented forward that proved to be dangerous on the perimeter. Sharp shooter Adam Leonard also returns for the Bears, as does Jermaine Mallett, a feisty, 6'3" senior that will contribute on both ends of the floor. JuCo transfer Nafis Ricks really came on strong down the stretch, starting at the point by the end of the season. With sophomore Keith Pickens back, and four freshmen back court players joining the team, the Bears perimeter attack will be one of the best in the league. The question will be up front, where Cuonzo Martin only has four players taller than 6'4", including Weems. Caleb Patterson, a 6'11" transfer from Colorado, has had moments but struggled with consistency. The same can be said for Will Creekmore, a 6'8" transfer from Boston University. Isaiah Rhine also returns up front. Missouri State will be good, but how good will depend on the big men. Right now, this is a team that will rely too much on perimeter shooting.

  5. Bradley: Bradley was maddeningly inconsistent last season. They started out the year well, including a win over Illinois, but proceeded to lose seven of their next ten games and finish the year just 9-9 in the Missouri Valley. The Braves do, however, return a good amount of talent and experience, especially on the perimeter where they will be starting three seniors. Sam Maniscalco has developed into an all-conference caliber point guard, Andrew Warren returned from an injury to become Bradley's leading scorer, and Dodie Dunson, who broke his arm after just two games last season, is also back. Junior forward Taylor Brown is back. Brown, who averaged 13.3 ppg and 6.9 rpg, has a ton of talent, but he cannot stay out of the doghouse, getting suspended for four games over the course of last season. Sophomores Jake Eastman and Dyricus Simms-Edwards, along with freshman Walter Lemon, will provide perimeter depth for the Braves. The question mark for the Braves is going to be on the inside. Will Egolf is really the only semblance of a proven post presence on the roster, but outside of a nine game stretch last season that saw the 6'9" Alaskan score in double figures seven times, Egolf has had a thoroughly mediocre career. Beyond Egolf, it will be a battle for playing time. Junior Anthony Thompson, sophomore Minos Knezevic, and freshmen Jordan Prosser and Andrew Davis will likely battle for minutes. This is the year for the Braves if they are going to make a run at the Valley title.

  6. Indiana State: The Sycamores had their best season in recent memory in 2009-2010 as they finished .500 in the league and advanced to a post season tournament, neither of which they had accomplished since 2001. The bad news, however, is that Indiana State will be losing point guard Harry Marshall, their emotional leader and the conference's leading scorer in MVC play last season. Indiana State also loses Rashad Reed, another back court scorer, but with the athletic Dwayne Lathan, a 6'3" junior transfer from Louisiana Tech, returning along with a healthy Jake Kelly (he only played 12 games last season), who should be able to pick up the slack left by Reed and Marshall. Aaron Carter, Jordan Printy, and redshirt freshman Jake Odum should also compete for playing time in the back court. The Sycamores should have a solid back court, but the question mark will be up front. Junior Carl Richard in undersized, but is tough and led the Sycamores in rebounding last season. Isiah Martin and Koang Doluony are both back as well, but it may end up being three newcomers that win most of the minutes up front. Jake Kitchell was a fairly highly regarded recruit coming out of high school, and should be able to contribute immediately. Redshirt freshmen RJ Mahurin and JuCo transfer Myles Carter will both also be counted on to provide quality minutes inside.

  7. Illinois State: The Redbirds seemingly lose a couple of key seniors every season, finding a way to fight through it and remain competitive. It may be tougher than ever this year, as Osiris Eldridge, Dinma Odiakosa, and Lloyd Phillips all graduate. There are plenty of reasons to be hopeful, however. Jackie McMichael has the look of a potential MVC all-conference player. A 6'9", 240 lb athletic sophomore, McMichael needs some polish but he had a couple of big games. Seniors Tony Lewis, a 6'7" forward, and Austin Hill, a tough, defensive-minded 6'1" guard, should be counted on for expanded roles as well. A big season should also be expected from Justin Clark, a 6'4" sophomore scorer that never found his rhythm last season. The biggest question mark for this team may be at the point. With Phillips gone, it looks like two sophomore JuCo transfers, Kenyon Smith and Anthony Cousin, are going to be battling it out for the starting spot. The rest of the Redbirds rotation will be newcomers. Jordan Threloff, a freshman, and John Wilkins, a sophomore JuCo transfer, are bigs that had some high-major interest. Redshirt freshmen John Ekey and Zeke Upshaw could find their way into the rotation as well. A guy to watch may be Fordham transfer Trey Blue, who averaged 8.2 ppg with the Rams before transferring due to the death of a friend.

  8. Drake: The Bulldogs were inexperienced last season, with 11 new players on the roster, and it showed, as they lost eight games by four points or less, including three league games in the final two seconds. And while this season will be the first where head coach Mark Phelps won't feel like he is coaching an entirely new team, the Bulldogs do lose three of their top five players, including starters Adam Templeton and Josh Young, Drake's career leader in points. Its not all bad news, however. 6'11" center Seth VanDeest had some big games as a freshman and should be ready, and capable, of becoming the focal point of the Drake attack. Ben Simons, a 6'8" sophomore, will join VanDeest along the front line, with Vermont transfer Jordan Clarke and sophomores Aaron Hawley and Reece Uhlenhopp providing depth. The back court will be more of a question mark, as the Bulldogs lost Young and Craig Stanley. Freshman Karl Madison and junior Frank Wiseler will likely be competing for the starting point guard spot, while Ryan Wedel seems a safe bet to be Drake's shooting guard again this season. After that, there are a lot of question marks, as the back court will once again be newcomers. Rayvonte Rice and David Smith and both freshmen that should see minutes, as should JuCo transfer Kurt Alexander and freshman Jeremy Jeffers. Drake is fairly unproven, but there are enough pieces here that a .500 finish in the league isn't out of the question.

  9. Southern Illinois: Things are not looking good in Carbondale these days. Gone are Kevin Dillard, who transferred to Dayton, and Anthony Booker, who transferred to Iowa State. Nick Evans left the team midway through the season, transferring to Southern Indiana. Tony Freeman graduated, leaving Chris Lowery without four of his top seven players. There are some players on this team. Sophomore Gene Teague really came on down the stretch, developing into a solid option in the post. Carlton Fay, who is a more perimeter oriented 6'8" forward, should complement him nicely. Justin Bocot has developed into a solid weapon on the wing, while John Freeman really played well down the stretch of the season, even getting a couple of starts in the back court. Kendal Brown-Surles was a solid replacement for Dillard late in the season. Lowery also brings in five newcomers, four of which went the JuCo route while Davante Drinkard is a 6'8" freshman from Georgia. Last year, the issue never seemed to be talent for the Salukis, it was attitude and chemistry. That may be improved with Dillard, Booker, and Evans gone, but there is certainly no longer enough talent on this roster to compete for a league title.

  10. Evansville: Evansville had a tough 2009-2010 season. Finding a positive is tough when you finish the year at 9-21 with a 14 games losing streak sandwiched in. The good news, however, is that the Aces finished the year with a 3-4 stretch, which included wins over Northern Iowa and Wichita State, the two best teams in the league. They also return two of their top three scorers. The MVC freshman of the year Colt Ryan, a 6'5" shooting guard that has a bright future, became the go-to player early on in the season. Denver Holmes, a junior guard, also showed flashes of becoming a weapon for the Aces. Kavon Lacey, Ned Cox, and Troy Taylor are all back as well, giving Evansville a solid back court. James Haarsma and Bryan Bouchie, arguably the team's two best big men, have both left the program, which is very bad news for a club that already was thin up front. Clint Hopf should be back after injuring his knee last season. Hopf had reached double figures in scoring in five of the six games before getting hurt. Pieter von Tongeron will likely be counted on for a bigger role, and the addition of Matt Peeler should help provide some depth. Don't be surprised if Jordan Jahr and Kenny Harris have to play out of position on the front line as well. There are some players on this team, but not enough size or talent to expect much of an improvement from last season.

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