While picking the Shockers to win the league in Fred van Vleet's and Ron Baker's final year felt almost trivial, the rest of the league had a ton of uncertainty entering the 2016 campaign. Let's take a look at how I did:
Best call(s): The Shockers early season non-conference woes started to worry many who slotted them automatically at the top of the MVC. However, the return of Freddy VanVleet and the eternal toughness of the Shock proved again to be dominant throughout conference play. Wichita finished 16-2 in the league and 15 of those victories came by double digits.
The Purple Aces of Evansville were a common pick to finish runner-up in the league, given they returned all 5 starters from a team that had all kinds of momentum to close out the 2015 season (CBI champs). I may have gotten a little too cute by slotting them to finish 4th driven mostly by my love for a few key returning players on Northern Iowa (Wes Washpun) and Loyola Chicago (Milton Doyle).
All-in-all, I didn’t really nail any one team in this league, and a few of my “against-the-grain” picks proved to be misguided. More on who these were below …
Worst call(s): Overall, this league demonstrated a lot more evidence of parity than I initially predicted. Before the year, I saw the MVC as having three distinct tiers, and was relatively confident the likes of Wichita, Evansville, Illinois State, Northern Iowa & Loyola would finish in some order in that top tier. After that, I envisioned Indiana St. and Drake as somewhat indistinguishable, clearly inferior to those top 5, but even more clearly superior to Bradley, Drake, Southern Illinois and Missouri St.
Southern Illinois, under the fiery Barry Hinson, finally began to put the defensive effort and offensive cohesiveness together Hinson has always advocated with his teams, as the Salukis rolled through the early part of MVC play. On January 24th, the Salukis found themselves at 18-3 overall and 7-1 in the league, just a game back of the MVC dynasty Shockers. Regression would soon set in, but an 11-7 conference record still qualifies as “exceeding expectations” for Mr. Hinson, who saw his most promising young talent and best rebounder (Jordan Caroline) transfer before the season began.
What I am most upset about is the 4-month long vacation the Chi-town Loyola Ramblers appeared to take this year. Returning almost everyone from a team that showed a ton of upside in 2015, Loyola started out 0-5 in MVC play, which concluded with a home loss to Bradley mid-January. While they showed flashes of their potential sparingly throughout the 2nd-half of league play (beating Northern Iowa twice), the Ramblers could never find any offensive consistency. For a team that has virtually zero size, and no elite athletes, the fact that actually relied on their defense to keep them in games makes little to no sense. Even more confusing was why specifically their offense saw such a significant regression. All 4 primary perimeter guards were returning this year (Doyle, Turk, Peterson & White) to play in the exact same 4-out, 1-in system from last year. If I had to assign blame, I’d first point my finger at the Rambler’s alpha-dog, and most talented playmaker, Milton Doyle. His long 6’5 frame and exceptional slashing ability make him the prototypical dual-threat scorer/creator in the Missouri Valley. However, he took a noticeable step back in facilitating this year, seeing both his assist rate drop and turnover rate climb, with no major jump in scoring or efficiency.
Finally, I absolutely hate myself for backing away from my initial hype of the Illinois St. Redbirds. Most of this hesitancy was rooted in the transfer of their interior anchor Reggie Lynch, but the roster still had plenty of remaining pieces to compete at the top of this league (hindsight clearly). Throw in veteran point guard Paris Lee, and a competent coach in Dan Muller, and you wind up with what would ultimately be the 2nd place MVC squad. I wanted to end with this section with some Redbird hype, as a preceding tease to my tourney champ prediction (hint, hint).
"Arch Madness" holds a special place in my heart, having attended 7 straight years until I was shipped off to college. Scottrade Center in downtown St. Louis remains perfect venue, given its centralized location to all schools, and appropriate capacity for the crowd Arch Madness draws.
Who I want to win: I would love to see Barry Hinson and the Salukis make a run in St. Louis, but they have a murderers row in-front of them to even get to the title game. Of all my years going to Arch Madness, no two fan bases have shown better than Creighton and the Salukis when both were at their peaks. I have vision in my head right now of Carbondale playing Wichita St. in the semifinals, where Anthony Beane rattles off 8 straight points to cut the Shocker lead to 5. Barry Hinson then turns to the Saluki faithful, and gives one of his patented crowd hype song-and-dance gestures, bringing the Maroon section to their feet in a roaring applause. Missouri State, oh why did you fire Barry Hinson?
Who I think will win: Per my above teaser, I'm rolling with the Redbirds to cut down the nets in St. Louis. I've seen Paris Lee take over this stage before against elite competition, specifically Fred VanVleet and the MVC royalty Wichita State Shockers. They get a friendly draw, in that they are guaranteed to avoid both Northern Iowa and Wichita until the championship game and neither their first or second round matchups (Indiana St. and Evansville) have good matchups for Akoon-Purcell on the wing. If he can play smart and pick his spots to attack, the Redbirds are going to give all the Shock can handle in the title game.
Chance to make a run: HOWEVER, Indiana St. may actually have the highest offensive ceiling in of any team in the Missouri Valley. While Devonte Brown is no doubt a proven scorer in his own right, no one in the conference has the scoring upside that Brenton Scott has. If you haven't seen him play, I'd refer you to the game film of their home matchup against Evansville, where he blitzed the Aces in the first ten minutes. Sycamores are a streaky 3-point shooting team across the board, but are capable of heating up at any moment. If they can squeak by MY Illinois State Redbirds, I think they have a real shot to knock off the Aces, in hopes of a date with Wichita in the finals.