I'll speak as a fan for a moment before reverting to business. While working on this conference preview series, there was one that I had looked forward to since first profiling the America East at the beginning of the month; and the league I have awaited takes center stage today. If you are a pure college basketball fan like I am; one who enjoys players whose throwback mentalities inspire them to leave nothing on the court and knock-down, drag-out battles that are not decided until the final buzzer in a region where college hoops has been king for generations, then there is no better brand to watch than that of the Missouri Valley Conference. Yes, the Big East and ACC have the glamour and marquee names of the world; but for the simple thrill of playing the game and old-school excitement, nothing compares to the Valley. If you have yet to experience a Valley game, I implore you to watch ESPNU on Sunday afternoons during the season; and also to pay attention to the nonconference matchups featuring the ten teams that will be looked at here. Take my word for it, you will not be disappointed.
1) Wichita State - The reigning NIT champions nearly won the Valley regular season title a year ago, finishing second to Missouri State after being defeated by the Bears in the last game of the year and then falling to Indiana State in the semifinals of "Arch Madness," as the Valley tournament is popularly dubbed. Three starters from the squad that cut down the nets in Madison Square Garden are back for the Shockers this year, led by senior guards David Kyles and Toure' Murry. Murry's versatility as a combo guard, (he was third in rebounds for the Shockers last year) coupled with Kyles' long-range proficiency (40 percent from beyond the arc last season) will ease the pressure on seven-footer Garrett Stutz and senior forward Ben Smith, (last year's Valley Sixth Man of the year) who will step into the paint and attempt to replace leading scorer J.T. Durley and the impact he made despite only standing 6-7. The Shockers also pick up 6-8 junior college transfer Carl Hall, who should make an immediate impact on the boards. Behind every good team is an even better point guard, and Joe Ragland will be a pleasant surprise to college basketball fans this season. Despite becoming the starter late in the season last year, Ragland averaged just seven points per game; but his ballhandling was among the best in the Valley, with a 2.42:1 assist to turnover ratio. The match between the underrated senior guard and his equally underrated coach is a perfect one. Head coach Gregg Marshall has liked what Ragland has become, saying his point man's "evolution has been tremendous." Marshall, who is no stranger to praise from this writer, turned down several high-profile openings to remain at Wichita State; and after being rewarded with a contract extension that will take him into 2018, Marshall had this to say: "I sleep well, love where I am, and have a great level of support." A similar season will have Marshall, who is just 24 wins away from reaching 300 for his career, on the radar of BCS-conference programs once again.
2) Creighton - The Blue Jays wrote a new chapter into their underrated history last year when Greg McDermott returned to the Valley, where he made a name for himself with Northern Iowa, after a brief tenure at Iowa State. Ironically, former Creighton head man Dana Altman beat his old team when Oregon defeated the Blue Jays to win the CBI last season; but McDermott returns with four starters on a team that will be a lock to once again give the Valley multiple NCAA Tournament participants, including his son Doug, who enters his sophomore campaign as one of the favorites for Valley Player of the Year. The 6-7 small forward had a rookie season to remember a year ago: Just under fifteen points and seven rebounds per game while shooting 53 percent from the field and 41 from three-point range, and recognition as both Newcomer of the Year and Freshman of the Year in the Valley. Greg Echenique, who Big East fans will remember from his brief stay at Rutgers, patrols the paint again for Creighton; and he is back at the level he was at with the Scarlet Knights two years ago, averaging over ten points, five rebounds, and just under two blocks per game. Senior point guard Antoine Young, who averaged five assists per game last season, anchors the backcourt along with Canadian Jahenns Manigat and Gonzaga transfer Grant Gibbs, who is eligible for the Blue Jays this season. If sophomore forward Ethan Wragge can return at 100 percent after a foot injury limited him to only nine games, Creighton could hold the key to the top seed at Arch Madness.
3) Indiana State - The Sycamores came from the No. 3 seed to upset Wichita State and top seed Missouri State in consecutive days to win Arch Madness, only to be defeated by Syracuse in the NCAA Tournament. Known first and foremost as the school that produced Larry Bird and one half of what many consider to be one of the greatest games in college basketball history, when Bird's Sycamores faced off against Magic Johnson and Michigan State in the 1979 national championship game, Indiana State established themselves last year as a team of a role players that came together down the stretch and became one of the more complete teams in the nation, albeit with just one player averaging more than ten points per game. Greg Lansing, who won the Valley title in his first year as a head coach, gets leading scorer Dwayne Lathan back for an encore this season; and the senior Lathan will have three other starters to join him. Sophomore point guard Jake Odum impressed a lot of people by consistently improving as his freshman campaign went along, averaging over four assists and nearly two steals per game to go with a 48 percent field goal percentage. Joining these two in the backcourt will be senior Jordan Printy, who becomes a full-time starter this season after providing a spark off the bench with his conference-leading 48 percent clip from three-point range. Printy's transition into the starting five will enable leading rebounder Carl Richard to become more of a forward as the swingman enters his senior season, which will alleviate the pressure on center Myles Walker.
4) Northern Iowa - Those who follow Valley basketball know of one thing before every season begins: Never count the Panthers out. Their contest against Saint Mary's in November as part of the 24 hours on ESPN should definitely be among the best nonconference games this season, and also one in which both teams' futures will be easier to read. Ben Jacobson loses do-it-all first team all-Valley point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, but has a roster with just one senior that will be even better in the 2012-13 season while still contending this year. Johnny Moran, the lone fourth-year Panther, could be the new point guard with junior Anthony James playing off the ball. Last season, James averaged 12.4 points per game and shot 50 percent from the field (41 from beyond the arc) en route to being named the Valley's Most Improved Player last season. UNI's inside game is weakened somewhat with the departure of Lucas O'Rear, but Jake Koch returns for his junior year to help mitigate the loss. Koch has shown a little bit of everything during his career in Cedar Falls, carving out his own niche in Northern Iowa basketball history after the memorable career enjoyed by his older brother Adam. Although still a young team at heart, Northern Iowa's back class and never-say-die spirit will keep them more competitive than most expect this season.
5) Evansville - The Purple Aces have an ace of their own in the hole, one who could be the next breakout star in the Valley. Junior Colt Ryan, a second team all-conference player last season, led the team with a 15.7 points per game average; and this year, Ryan will not have to be the only source of offense for Evansville to win games. Guards Kenny Harris and Denver Holmes enter their senior seasons looking for something more to prove after losing to Boise State in the CBI. Ned Cox could be the third guard for coach Marty Simmons after coming alive down the stretch last season. At 6-6, Harris could move up front much like the 6-5 Ryan, which gives Evansville a unique look during a strong nonconference schedule that includes home games against two-time defending national runner-up Butler and Tom Crean's rising Indiana team, along with a road trip to Chapel Hill to take on Roy Williams and national championship contender North Carolina.
6) Missouri State - The Bears are a completely different team from the unit that won the Valley regular season crown last year. Four starters have graduated and head coach Cuonzo Martin replaced disgraced Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl at the helm in Knoxville, leaving former Purdue assistant Paul Lusk to start over in Springfield with reigning Valley Player of the Year Kyle Weems as his primary building block. The 6-6 senior Weems will have two twin towers with him as Missouri State unveils its new inside presence in the form of 6-11 Caleb Patterson and 6-10 Isaiah Rhine, both of whom are seniors looking to move into the starting lineup after serving as reserves last year. Corey Copeland will more than likely be one of the starting guards this year; as Missouri State's previous backcourt of Nafis Ricks, Adam Leonard and Jermaine Mallett has departed, and former DePaul transfer Michael Bizoukas will play this season to run the point in the absence of Ricks. Nathan Scheer, a key contributor off the bench last year, is a sharpshooter who could be a valuable sixth man if he isn't a full-time starter. Keith Pickens also returns from an injury for the Bears, who also welcome 6-7 Christian Kirk, a forward who could challenge for the Valley Freshman of the Year award, into the fold.
7) Drake - The Bulldogs are a much better team than the one Big East fans saw in the Great Alaska Shootout, when Drake was obliterated by St. John's in an 82-39 runaway on Thanksgiving night. Guard Rayvonte Rice; who made the motor run for Drake in a rookie season that landed him a spot on the Valley's All-Freshman team, rejected a number of offers from higher-profile programs to transfer, and will remain in Des Moines as one of four returning starters. The Bulldogs will have more options besides Rice in the backcourt, and their inside game is actually one of the best in the Valley. Seth VanDeest, Drake's 6-11 junior center, joins forces with sharpshooting small forward Ben Simons and bruising power forward Jordan Clarke to form an evolving trio infused with a blend of youth and experience that some BCS programs would kill for. Senior guard Kurt Alexander should be the successor to Ryan Wedel at the point for a team that will make great strides toward returning to the form that landed them a No. 5 seed in the 2008 NCAA Tournament.
8) Illinois State - The Redbirds bring back four returning starters from a team that finished ninth in the Valley last year and is on the rise under coach Tim Jankovich. Leading scorer Austin Hill is no longer around, but 6-9 forward Jackie Carmichael will get the opportunity to become more of a dominant big man now that he is the go-to guy inside with top rebounder Tony Lewis gone as well. French sharpshooter John Wilkins may stand 6-9, but he will be one of many options in a Redbird backcourt that also contains 5-11 junior point guard Anthony Cousin. Jon Ekey, who averaged over 1.5 blocks per game from the small forward position last year, is also back for his sophomore season on a team that will show a marked improvement from their 12-19 campaign of a season ago.
9) Bradley - The Braves get a new coach after Jim Les was fired and resurfaced at UC Davis, as Geno Ford comes to Illinois after leading Kent State to a regular season championship in the Mid-American Conference. Andrew Warren and Dodie Dunson have graduated after leading Bradley's offense last season, but junior guard Dyricus Simms-Edwards comes back with more of an emphasis on his productivity now that Sam Maniscalco has transferred to the University of Illinois. Walt Lemon and Jake Eastman will most likely join Simms-Edwards as the starting guards while 6-9 big man Jordan Prosser anchors the post for the Braves. A question mark going into the start of the season will be senior forward Taylor Brown. After averaging 13.5 points per game two years ago as a sophomore, Brown was diagnosed with a heart condition prior to last season and did not play one game. However, Brown was medically cleared last week to resume basketball-related activities; and once he gets close to 100 percent, he becomes a game-changing X-factor that will be a nightmare matchup for opposing teams in the Valley.
10) Southern Illinois - What a difference a decade makes. The Salukis had consistently been the class of the Valley even after Chris Lowery replaced Bruce Weber and Matt Painter at the helm in Carbondale, and now Lowery enters the 2011-12 season at his alma mater on the hot seat. Carlton Fay has graduated and Gene Teague transferred to Seton Hall, so all that remains up front for SIU is 6-7 small forward Mamadou Seck. Fortunately for the Salukis, Seck should be a double-double per night player this season after averaging nearly eleven points and eight rebounds per contest during his junior campaign a year ago. Kendal Brown-Surles will be back as one of the starting guards in his junior season, as he started 19 games last year while shooting 40 percent from three-point range. If Justin Bocot can improve his ball control, he could be a viable point guard as the Salukis will attempt to close the gap on the teams in front of them while simultaneously giving Lowery greater job security.