Wednesday, September 25, 2013

32 In 32: Missouri Valley

Now owner of a Final Four appearance to solidify his already exceptional resume, Gregg Marshall returns most of last year's team for potential encore at Wichita State. (Photo courtesy of CBS Sports)

Our "32 In 32" series returns tonight with the league that, if you are at all familiar with the content on our site since its 2009 inception, has received mounds of coverage despite our New York headquarters making it somewhat difficult to cover it on a regular basis.

That's right, the Missouri Valley Conference gets its moment in the sun, at long last.

For the college basketball purists like us, there is no brand or style of play that is as compelling or entertaining as that of the Valley. With an aggressive, take-no-prisoners game on both ends of the floor in front of over 10,000 fans night in and night out, the ten members of the Valley create an atmosphere that instantly places it among the best conferences in the nation, despite its mid-major status. There is a slight change in the rank and file, however, with Loyola (Illinois) joining the family from the Horizon League in the wake of two-time reigning Valley champion Creighton moving to the Big East. With the loss of the Bluejays, the field of ten will attempt to write their own place in the record books on the way to the NCAA Tournament. Before that, however, we'll give you our own projections of how the Valley will turn out going into "Arch Madness" in St. Louis:

1) Wichita State - Heeding head coach Gregg Marshall's advice to "play angry," the Shockers advanced to their first Final Four since 1965 as a No. 9 seed, the first appearance by a Valley member in the national semifinals since Larry Bird and Indiana State went on their magical run in 1979. Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead have graduated, as have Demetric Williams and Ehimen Orukpe, but Wichita State returns forward Cleanthony Early for his senior season after the junior college transfer led the Shockers in scoring last season, his first at the Division I level. Marshall has worked the junior college room better than anyone in the nation in recent years, and he has done it again this season with the arrivals of 6-7 junior forward Darius Carter. In addition, senior swingman Nick Wiggins, another junior college recruit, returns to the team looking to see an increased role. The Shocker backcourt is firmly entrenched, with NCAA Tournament hero Fred Van Vleet running the point as Armstead's replacement, while incumbents Tekele Cotton and Ron Baker join him in one of the nation's strongest guard stables.

2) Indiana State - Three years ago, Greg Lansing celebrated his first season at the helm of the Sycamores with a Valley championship behind swingman Carl Richard and a versatile freshman guard named Jake Odum. Odum returns this year for his fourth and final season in Terre Haute, and brings Canadian swingman Manny Arop, Indiana State's second-leading scorer last year, back with him for what will be the Sycamores' strongest chance of cutting down the nets in St. Louis for the first time since 2011. Junior forward Justin Gant becomes the primary option for Lansing up front, while senior guard Dawon Cummings; Indiana State's fourth returning starter, will help bring a "four quick" look to an athletic unit that could play Arop at the power forward position during stretches. Sharpshooter Lucas Eitel headlines a strong supporting cast that includes sophomore guards Khristian Smith and Devonte Brown, with 6-10 junior Jake Kitchell providing more depth to the team that is the biggest threat to a Wichita State championship.

3) Northern Iowa - Ben Jacobson reloads once again in Cedar Falls this season, and brings the core of last season's Panthers roster back for what should be another postseason-rich campaign despite losing Anthony James to graduation. Northern Iowa's biggest strength is their inside/outside scoring duo of juniors Seth Tuttle and Deon Mitchell. Tuttle, arguably the most offensively efficient player in the Valley during each of his first two seasons, shot 56 percent from the field as a sophomore; while Mitchell, UNI's 6-1 point guard, averaged nearly four assists per game in what became a breakout season that the Texan should certainly eclipse. After shooting 39 percent from three-point range as a freshman last year, Matt Bohannon should be the primary option to replace the 96 triples made by the since-departed Marc Sonnen, while Nate Buss and Chip Rank should see increased playing time following the graduation of Jake Koch. While Koch may be gone, his surname lives on in the Panther program once more, as 6-9 freshman forward Bennett; the youngest brother of Adam and Jake, writes the latest chapter of his family's legacy at UNI under Jacobson and former coach Greg McDermott.

4) Missouri State - Much like Indiana State, who, ironically cost the Bears the 2011 Valley championship, the Bears have their strongest chance to make a run for a league crown since Cuonzo Martin's final season three years ago, when he guided a team led by Adam Leonard and Jermaine Mallett into the NIT before replacing Bruce Pearl at Tennessee. Now in his third season at the helm in Springfield, Paul Lusk gets his biggest addition in the return of swingman Jarmar Gulley, who missed all of last season with a torn ACL. With Anthony Downing having graduated, the Missouri State backcourt is squarely in the hands of reigning Valley Freshman of the Year Marcus Marshall, who is on the precipice of a breakout sophomore campaign alongside fellow second-year guard Dorrian Williams and senior wing Keith Pickens. Up front, junior Christian Kirk and sophomore Gavin Thurman anchor the Bears' efforts inside the paint alongside graduate transfer Emmanuel Addo, who arrives from Northern Colorado. Sixth man Nathan Scheer returns once again for his senior year, where he will continue to spearhead Missouri State's supporting cast.

5) Bradley - Dyricus Simms-Edwards has graduated, but Geno Ford still has a postseason contender as he begins his third season at the reins of the Braves. Simms-Edwards is gone, but Walt Lemon Jr. returns as the hub of the wheel for Bradley as he enters his senior season on the heels of a campaign in which the Chicago native averaged over fifteen points and nearly four assists per game. If he improves his rebounding just a little more, senior forward Tyshon Pickett could average a double-double per contest alongside 6-8 senior Jordan Prosser. The Brave bench has undergone a makeover of sorts since last season, with eight new arrivals into Peoria; including freshman forward Jordan Swopshire, the younger brother of former Louisville and Northwestern big man Jared, who will join a supporting cast that includes 7-1 sophomore Nate Wells.

6) Loyola - Embarking on their maiden voyage in the Valley after defecting from the Horizon League, Porter Moser and the Ramblers may not be as strong as the Creighton team they are replacing, but they are not going to lay down for anyone in their new league. Junior swingman Christian Thomas, a St. Louis native who led Loyola in scoring last year, reprises his role as the center of attention on the offensive end, with sophomore sharpshooter Devon Turk anchoring the backcourt after shooting a sensational 43 percent from three-point range as a freshman. Junior Joe Crisman is the likely successor to Cully Payne at the point guard position, with Jeff White serving as a deceptively strong third guard. Expect sophomores Nick Osborne and Matt O'Leary to see heavy doses of action up front alongside Tanner Williams, who has made a full recovery from knee surgery that limited him to just three games last year, as the Ramblers attempt to replace the scoring and rebounding prowess of Ben Averkamp in the paint.

7) Evansville - Marty Simmons has somewhat of a challenge with this year's incarnation of the Purple Aces, as Colt Ryan has graduated after etching his name into the annals of Evansville basketball as the program's all-time leading scorer. Second-leading scorer Ned Cox has departed as well, leaving the offense in the hands of sophomore DJ Balentine, who shot 36 percent from three-point range as a freshman a year ago. Lithuanian center Egidijus Mockevicius is the lone returning starter for the Aces, but will get some much-needed help from juniors Ryan Sawvell and Jaylon Moore up front while Adam Wing is the only other experienced backcourt incumbent besides Balentine.

8) Southern Illinois - Entering his second season in Carbondale, head coach Barry Hinson will lean on senior swingman Desmar Jackson to help improve the Salukis' 14-17 record, as the Wyoming transfer builds off an average of over fifteen points and five rebounds per game. Sophomore guard Anthony Beane is the top returning guard for Southern Illinois, with fellow second-year player Jalen Pendleton serving as his backcourt running mate. Five junior college transfers will make immediate impacts for the Salukis, including brothers Bronson and Dawson Verhines.

9) Illinois State - Dan Muller will attempt to navigate his second season in charge of the Redbirds without the services of his two-pronged scoring attack paced by Jackie Carmichael and Tyler Brown, both of whom have graduated since we last saw Illinois State. In fact, each of the Redbirds' top six scorers have departed, leaving sophomore guards Kaza Keane and Nick Zeisloft to run the offense, with Keane having averaged over three assists per game as the understudy to Johnny Hill during the Canadian's rookie season. Five freshmen will see considerable playing time on this young roster, which will face a yearlong rebuilding process.

10) Drake - A new era begins in Des Moines, as Ray Giacoletti returns to the head coaching fraternity after a run as Mark Few's top assistant at Gonzaga. The former head man at Eastern Washington and Utah, Giacoletti loses three starters in his first season coaching the Bulldogs, with the lone incumbent up front being 6-11 senior Seth VanDeest, who averaged over nine points and almost five rebounds per game last year. Point guard Richard Carter, who posted over nine points and three assists per game as a junior, anchors a backcourt that will get an increased share of senior Gary Ricks, who only averaged fourteen minutes per game last year.

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