- Matt Cox
Missouri Valley Preview
- Wichita St.
- Illinois St.
- Northern Iowa
- Southern Illinois
- Indiana St.
- Loyola (IL)
- Missouri St.
All Conference Awards
POY: Brenton Scott, Jr., Indiana St.
Coach of the Year: Barry Hinson, Southern Illinois
Newcomer of the Year: Landry Shamet, R Fr., Wichita St.
Freshman of the Year: Jordan Barnes, Indiana St.
1. Wichita St.
Key Returners: Markis McDuffie, Conner Frankamp
Key Losses: Ron Baker, Fred VanVleet
Key Newcomers: CJ Keyser, Darlynn Willis (JUCO), Daishon Smith (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: 11-seed - Bubble
Before officially kicking off the Missouri Valley Conference preview, we here at 3MW would appreciate it if you would join us in a moment of silence to honor two of the all-time MVC greats: Fred van Vleet and Ron Baker…
While a full-length “co-obituary” (or “cobituary”) for both Baker and VanVleet would be appropriate at this juncture, let’s do Wichita State fans everywhere a solid by not reminiscing on the past and looking forward to the next chapter in Shocker basketball...
The good news is that head coach Gregg Marshall has successfully kept Wichita firmly in the offseason spotlight when he went all Bobby Knight on a pair of refs in a meaningless exhibition game during a summer trip to Canada a month ago. This came only two nights after the Shock were embarrassed in a 25-point blowout to perennial powerhouse Carleton University (yikes).
The lone bright spot from Wichita’s Canadian journey was the play of redshirt freshman Landry Shamet, who is slowly proving he can become the Shock’s go-to perimeter scoring option. A 4-star recruit who cracked the Rivals Top-100 rankings two years ago, Shamet had his freshman year campaign cut short after just 3 games, thanks to an untimely stress fracture in his left foot. Many inside the program expected him to be a key contributor right away last year, even in a crowded Shocker backcourt that featured two borderline All-Americans. Shamet scored in double figures in all 3 exhibition games in Canada, and reportedly displayed evidence of the same scoring versatility and steady ball-handling that multiple scouting reports had highlighted before he arrived in Wichita. His 6’4 frame, mature strength and long arms give him elite size for a mid-major shooting guard.
While Shamet’s trajectory appears to be on the up-and-up, many questions continue to hover over his backcourt mate, ex-Kansas transfer Conner Frankamp. As a freshman at KU, Frankamp rarely saw the floor playing behind a loaded backcourt, which made a transfer back to his hometown team all the more lucrative. Now two years removed from that decision, it's no secret that Frankamp has struggled to find his identity in a Shocker uniform. He has simply not been able to replicate the lights-out shooting stroke from his high-school glory days, where he apparently shot 49% from 3 over his career. Frankamp has also been noticeably poor on the defensive end at the D1 level, something that doesn’t mesh well with Marshall and a Shocker team that has ranked in the nation’s top-15 overall defenses each of the last 3 years. Now as a junior, Frankamp is entering a turning point in his collegiate basketball career, and finds himself with an enormous opportunity to finally live up to his pedigree, given he will no longer lurk in the shadows behind Baker and VanVleet.
Along with Shamet and Frankamp, incoming freshman CJ Keyser rounds out the key cogs of the Shocker backcourt. Keyser has been compared to ex-Shocker guard, Tekele Cotton, who prides himself on his defensive prowess, something Marshall should instantly fall in love with.
With Baker and VanVleet gone, a major transition for Marshall this season will be adjusting to a team that's true strength may actually lie in the front court. The Shockers return three capable veteran forwards (Zach Brown, Rashard Kelly and Shaquille Morris), who have each played significant minutes in big-time games over the last two seasons. The fourth forward, and clear X-factor for this squad, is rising sophomore 6'8 Markis McDuffie, who emerged as a legitimate weapon early last season. Compared to the other three veteran forwards, McDuffie is a much more skilled and dynamic scorer who is comfortable stepping out on the perimeter, where he can face up and shoot, or attack less athletic forwards off the bounce.
In year 1 of the post VanVleet and Baker era, the Shockers returning depth up front, along with the high-major talents of Shamet and Frankamp, should help prevent a significant regression from last season's performance. In a relatively watered-down MVC field, the Shock should, yet again, find themselves in a familiar position as the preseason favorites to take the conference crown.
2. Illinois St.
Key Returners: Paris Lee, MiKyle McIntosh, Deontae Hawkins
Key Losses: DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell
Key Newcomers: Andre Washington, Madison Williams, Isaac Gassman, Phil Fayne (Nebraska College transfer), DJ Clayton (Palm Beach State transfer)
Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI
The mighty Redbirds of Normal, IL certainly got off to a sluggish start last year, opening up their non-conference slate with a blah 6-7 record (to their defense, 4 of these losses did come at the hands of eventual tournament teams). However, the Redbirds, proved to be a battle tested bunch once conference season rolled around, finishing with 12-6 conference record, which earned them a 2-way tie for 2nd in the MVC standings. An obvious explanation for the early season struggles was adjusting to life without their dominant paint patroller, Reggie Lynch, and leading scorer, Daishon Knight. This year, they'll face a similar dilemma, with leading scorer DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell graduating this offseason. However, I have full faith in head coach Dan Muller to keep this Redbird team in the mix at the top of the league standings.
Muller returns arguably his best ball handler and passer from a year ago in floor general Paris Lee. Despite being undersized, Lee is a calm and steady true point guard, who is excels at getting into the teeth of defense, but may be even more valuable on the defensive end, with his lightning quick feet and hands (see his top-100 nationally ranked steal rate). He spearheads a stout perimeter defensive unit, which is rounded out by Tony Willis and MiKyle McIntosh. Willis is probably the the top individual defender of this group, and typically draws the assignment of shutting down the opponent's best perimeter player. It's worth noting that Willis is currently recovering from a surgery to repair a hernia, so he may not be ready to go for the season opener November 11th against Murray State.
At 6'7, McIntosh is a prototypical wing, who was a completely different player on the offensive end last year, after a god-awful season as a freshman. It was shocking how much faith Muller had in him as a frosh, who continued to play him ~20 minutes a game, despite McIntosh posting subzero shooting splits of 57/38/21 from the foul-line, 2-point range and 3-point range respectively. It turns out Muller was spot-on with his stubborn love for "Mic" (3MW patented nickname), as he went from the team's worst to best 3-point shooter in just one offseason, and emerged as the Redbirds best offensive rebounder on per minute basis.
The major hole for Illinois St. team will be down low, as they have no proven interior presence returning. Nick Banyard, who played a major part in cleaning up the glass last year is no longer in the mix, which will place an even bigger burden on junior Deontae Hawkins. At 6'8, Hawkins is a versatile 4, who snagged 6 boards a game last season and led the the Redbirds in blocks on a per minute basis. Muller will rely on incoming freshman Andre Washington, JUCO transfer Phil Fayne and his 7'0 behemoth David Ndiaye to provide some interior support next to Hawkins, especially since no one else on this roster stands taller than 6'7.
This year's Redbird squad will in many ways resemble the teams from the past two seasons in Normal, IL, which have been built on a lockdown perimeter defense. This year should be no different with Lee, Willis and McIntosh all returning, who excel at converting turnovers into easy buckets at the other end.
3. Northern Iowa
Key Returners: Jeremy Morgan, Bennett Koch, Klint Carlson, Wyatt Lohaus
Key Losses: Wes Washpun, Matt Bohannon, Paul Jesperson
Key Newcomers: Jordan Ashton (Iowa St. transfer), Isaiah Brown, Juwan McCloud, Hunter Rhodes, Tanner Lohaus
Postseason Projection: NIT - CBI
Despite 3MW’s heart felt compassion for Wichita State, no one has less sympathy for Shocker fans than Northern Iowa fans. The roller coaster that took place over a 48 hour span in last year’s NCAA tournament may have surpassed the unpredictability of Ali Farokhmanesh’s (spell check please) infamous, but also inexplicable, shot against Kansas back in 2010. Luckily for Wes Washpun and the other UNI seniors last season, LeBron James was able to provide some much needed encouragement in their dire moment of need...
Without dwelling on that Texas A&M catastrophe for another second, this season’s outlook for the Panthers seems relatively bright for head coach Ben Jacobsen. Northern Iowa returns three critical forwards that should solidify the front court, headlined by the jack-of-all-trades, Jeremy Morgan. Without boring you with a long-winded case of the value Morgan provided on both ends of the floor last year, I got lazy and just posted his kenpom.com statline instead (click on below to enlarge):
For those of you naïve and foolish basketball fans who are inept at understanding advanced statistics (or far worse, simply don’t care), Morgan was basically UNI’s best 3-point and free-throw shooter, shot-blocker, stealer (Robber? Thief?... whatever, he gets a lot of steals), AND rebounder. His physical strength also makes him arguably the most versatile defender in the conference, as he's sometimes asked to guard post players when Jacobsen goes with a smaller lineup.
However, with Bennett Koch and Clint Karlson back in the mix this season, Morgan will likely see a lot more time as a true 3, which is where he's probably best suited on both ends of the floor. As a sophomore, and youngest member of the Northern Iowa Koch family tradition, Koch was the Panthers' best defensive rebounder on per minute basis last season, but wasn’t super efficient as an inside scoring threat (49% 2-pt FG%). He'll likely play alongside the beefy, left-handed Carlson, who emerged as a more efficient scoring threat last year, and knocked down some huge 3s in the tournament, particularly against A&M (sorry to bring it up again Panther fans). I think he has the chops to take a big step forward this season.
Similar to the Salukis of Southern Illinois, the Panthers will have to adjust to life offensively without a dynamic, playmaker running the show. Wesley Washpun made too many clutch shots to count over the last two seasons, and provided a jolt of athleticism that is now absent from the UNI backcourt. Outside of Washpun, Bohannon and Jesperson, all of whom are now gone, the Panther guards were sneaky bad last year. Exhibit A is Wyatt Lohaus, who after cashing in on 47% of his 3-point attempts as a freshman, mysteriously went ice cold from beyond the arc last season (28% 3PT%). To make matters worse, he has never been more than a spot-up shooter in UNI’s half-court offense, but will now likely have to handle the ball a ton more, unless a pair of freshmen, Juwan McCloud and Hunter Rhodes, can provide major minutes at the point guard spot right away.
It’s hard to feel confident picking three other teams to finish ahead of UNI in the MVC, especially when the Panthers have been so consistently good for the past 5 years under Jacobsen. However, a young and inexperienced backcourt is a lingering concern, given there is no proven point guard anywhere to be found on the current roster.
4. Southern Illinois
Key Returners: Sean O'Brien, Mike Rodriguez, Leo Vincent, Tyler Smithpeters
Key Losses: Anthony Beane, Bola Olaniyan (transfer to Alabama)
Key Newcomers: Thik Bol (JUCO), Jonathan Wiley (JUCO), Aaron Cook, Jeremy Roscoe, Brendon Gooch
Postseason Projection: Bubble - NIT
Southern Illinois and head coach Barry Hinson were hands-down the Valley's biggest surprise team last season. Outside of Anthony Beane, their preseason roster showed minimal signs of any real offensive talent on paper, and to make matters worse, the Salukis lost their rising freshman star, Jordan Caroline, to the transfer wire. However, Beane, along with five other juniors, shut all the experts up (including me), with a blistering hot 14-2 start to the year, en route to a 5th place overall finish in the conference. The great news for Saluki nation is that all five of those juniors are now a year wiser, and will enter the '16-'17 campaign with real expectations, something the SIU program has not had in almost a decade.
The mind-blowing case study from this now senior group is Tyler Smithpeters, whose improvement from two seasons ago to last year was simply unprecedented. After posting a garbage 83.7 O-Rating as a sophomore, which included a 30+% turnover rate and a 46% effective FG%, the double last named man (shouldn't it be “Smith-Peters”?) must’ve hired a surrogate last season. Smithpeters raised his O-Rating by over 20 points (106.1), which included a team best 41% clip from downtown, making him the Salukis' most efficient perimeter player last season.
Another unforeseen surprise from this group was interior general, Bola Olaniyan. Olaniyan ranked 2nd in the conference in BOTH offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, to go along with the league’s 5th best FG%. In a nutshell, Olaniyan quickly restored the lost rebounding and interior scoring production that Caroline provided the year prior, but the Salukis were blinded sided when he decided to transfer to Alabama this offseason, which guts them of a dominant low-post rebounder and rim-protector. This means major minutes are on-deck for a few young bigs, as well as incoming JUCO transfer Thik Bol. However, Hinson's best crunch time lineup will probably feature Sean O'Brien as a small-ball 5, with Smithpeters as the 4th guard.
The only real concern with this year's Salukis team is how their offense will respond without Anthony Beane, who was their primary scorer and playmaker last year. Beane was pivotal as a late shot-clock scoring option and was SIU’s 2nd best perimeter shooter at 37% from behind the arc. Tiny Mike Rodriguez (5’10 153 lbs.) will now be the ball-dominant guard in Hinson’s half-court offense, but will need to assert himself as a more dynamic offensive option.
Hinson’s non-stop, Energizer bunny intensity is directly reflected in all of his team's identities, which emphasize in-your-face defensive pressure and an unwavering commitment on the defensive glass. With all the critical pieces returning that have lived and breathed Hinson’s culture for 2+ years now, the Salukis may be in-store for their best season since 2008, when they advanced to the Round of 32 of the Big Dance.
Key Returners: Jaylon Brown, Mislav Brzoja
Key Losses: DJ Balentine, Egidijus Mockevicius, Adam Wing
Key Newcomers: Silas Adheke, Dru Smith, Jaiveon Eaves, Dalen Traore (JUCO transfer), John Hall
Postseason Projection: CBI
The Purple Aces had legitimate NCAA tournament aspirations last season, with the league’s most dominant big man (Egidijus Mockevicius) and top scorer (DJ Balentine) both returning for their senior campaigns. After an impressive 17-3 start, including a 6-1 record in conference play, all seemed to be going as planned for the Aces, who were beginning to position themselves for an at-large tournament birth. However, a 8-6 finish to the season, en route to a 25-9 overall record, abruptly ended any tournament hopes, as the Aces failed to tally any resume building wins the rest of the way (finished 0-5 against Wichita St. and Northern Iowa).
Looking ahead to this season, head coach Marty Simmons will need lesser known names to replace the enormous scoring and rebounding production that Balentine and Mockevicius brought to the table. Simmons will continue to run his patented motion offense, which features constant off-ball screening and exceptional perimeter spacing. Balentine, in particular, was a master craftsmen at using screens to get himself open, either by curling if his defender trailed him, or fading if his defender cheated over-the-top. Senior Jaylon Brown now enters his 4th year in Simmons' system, and should step in nicely to the lead scoring role in the half-court offense. Brown was actually more efficient than Balentine scoring inside the arc last season, which is meaningful, given a huge chunk of scoring opportunities in the offense come in the mid-range area. The Aces will also need a significant leap from returning senior Blake Simmons if they hope to compete in the upper-tier of the MVC once again. Simmons was the quintessential role player as a starter last year, but wasn’t overly efficient as an outside shooter or ball-handler.
It’s still up-in-the-air as to who will step up and fill the historically dominant defensive rebounding production posted by Mockevicius last year. 6’8 senior Davis Howard and 7’1 junior Sergei Vucetic should see their minutes skyrocket this season, given there isn't another proven returning big left on this roster. Incoming freshman 6'8 Silas Adheke is a 3-star recruit out of Chattanooga who has a real shot to start right away, which would allow Simmons to play Howard more at the 4 and slide Simmons (the player) and Brzoja down to the 2 and the 3. Regardless of how the interior rotations shake out, the Aces will need a "rebounding-by-committee" approach on the defensive glass if they have any chance of maintaining their 14th ranked defensive rebounding rate from last year (99% of that credit goes to “Big Mock”).
With the 1-2 punch of Balentine and Mockevicius now gone, it's all hands on deck this year for the Aces. However, the three-headed monster of Brown, Simmons and Brzoja give big Marty Simmons a formidable backcourt that should ensure the Aces remain in the upper-half of the league.
6. Indiana St.
Key Returners: Brenton Scott, Matt Van Scyoc
Key Losses: Devonte Brown, Khristian Smith
Key Newcomers: Jordan Barnes, Donovan Franklin (JUCO), Demonte Ojinnaka (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: None
As I was de-briefing the Sycamores' last 3 season pages on Kenpom.com, I stumbled on a name I had inexcusably forgotten about - Jake Odum . Odum is one of my all-time favorite MVC players, and most people forget he was a 4-year starter at point guard, something that's hard to find at the D1 level. A flashy Jason Williams-esque dribbler and passer (the white Jason Williams), Odum was an absolute delight to watch play basketball.
The last two seasons have been the first time in 4-years head coach Greg Lansing had to run an offense without another coach on the floor... And not coincidentally, the Sycamore offense has been in a steady decline ever since. Indiana St. regressed to the 215th most efficient offense two years ago, and then kept falling all the way down to 287th last season. While Devonte Brown was absolutely a talented scorer, he simply wasn't capable of shouldering the huge burden of scoring and facilitating for this team.
Now, that same burden will likely fall on Brenton Scott, who has proven he's capable of getting kerosene hot on just about any given night. Over his first two seasons, he's knocked down 45% and 38% from beyond the arc, many of which are highly contested shots. Similar to Marcus Marshall (now at Nevada), Scott is a dual-threat scoring option, who converts a high percentage of difficult 3s, but can blow by you with an explosive first step. And even though he won't have Brown playing alongside him to take away some of the defensive attention this year, he does get a true pass-first point guard (3-star freshman Jordan Barnes) to get him the ball. Barnes is lightning-quick off-the-dribble, and should allow Scott to work more off screens, instead of having to create his own looks.
Indiana St. also returns a solid perimeter defender and incumbent starter, Everett Clemons, who despite standing just 6'1, led this team in rebounding at 6 boards a game last year (!). The last perimeter piece that could make a huge impact is incoming JUCO transfer Donovan Franklin, who actually played AAU ball with Barnes back in St. Louis. I love the idea of playing a small ball lineup with Scott, Barnes, Clemons and Franklin, with either the redshirt senior Matt van Scyoc or Brandon Murphy at the 5. Murphy is a load to handle inside at 6'7, 275 lbs., and absolutely ate on the offensive boards last season.
While Lansing has had troubles figuring out the offense over the last two seasons, their overall defense was respectable last year (ranked just outside the top-75), mostly due to their ability to control the defensive boards. I have some minor concerns about Barnes and Franklin defensively in their first D1 season, but if they can counter any lapse on that end with a boost in semi-efficient scoring on the other end, the Syacmores could flirt with a top-5 finish in the league.
7. Loyola (IL)
Key Returners: Milton Doyle
Key Losses: Montel James, Devon Turk, Earl Peterson
Key Newcomers: Cameron Satterwhite, Matt Chastain, Aundre Jackson (JUCO), Treyvon Andres (JUCO), Vlatko Granic (JUCO), Clayton Custer (Iowa St. transfer)
Postseason Projection: None
Over the past 3 years, the Ramblin' Ramblers of Chicago have proven to be a nice addition to the MVC, after jetting from the Horizon after the 2013 season. Rewind back to the middle of the '14'-15 season, when Loyola was slowly starting to build some historic program momentum - at least for their standards - entering a home contest against the league power Wichita St. with a 12-4 record and a formidable squad led by Milton Doyle. 3MW's own Ky McKeon and myself accounted for two of the 4,000+ fans at the cracker jack box of Gentile Arena that day, which was arguably the most meaningful regular season game in the program’s past 20 years (I wasn't alive the last time Loyola made the tournament). They teased everyone of us by somehow managing to compete with the Shockers for 20-25 minutes, then somewhat predictably, ran out of gas in the 2nd half as Wichita pulled away to a 14-point victory...
Fast forward 18 months later and the Ramblers have crept back into irrelevancy since that dark, cold day in Chicago. Despite the nucleus from that 2014-2015 team returning last year, Loyola fumbled their way to an 0-5 start in conference action, including an abysmal loss at home to Bradley. They would finally get over the hump with an impressive win at Northern Iowa, but it was this kind of inconsistency that must've drove head coach Porter Moser nuts as the year went on.
Now in his final season, the rangy 6'5 Doyle returns as one of the more under appreciated talents in the MVC. He's a sneaky good ball handler and creative penetrator, which allow him to get into the teeth of defense almost at will. Despite possessing a dynamic offensive skill set, Milton’s efficiency simply hasn’t been there the past two seasons. He hasn't converted a high enough percentage of his shots from anywhere on the floor, and the heavy burden he carries for the Rambler offense has caused him to become a bit turnover prone. Heading into his 4th year as Loyola’s alpha, I’m wagering on a much more efficient year from Doyle, both as a scorer and distributor. However, a ton of this will depend on if his teammates can actually knock down the open shots Doyle so routinely creates for them.
Two of his backcourt mates to keep an eye on are junior Ben Richardson and 3-star freshman Cameron Satterwhite. Richardson was far and away the Ramblers most consistent 3-point shooter last season (44% on 81 3pt attempts), but doesn't provide a whole lot else offensively. He'll get plenty of opportunities to space the floor this year with his minutes likely to spike, so he'll need to stay hot from the outside. Satterwhite is a stone-cold lock to start next to Richardson and Doyle, especially with Earl Peterson and Devon Turk both graduating. Satterwhite projects as a similar player to Doyle and has also been scouted as a disruptive perimeter defender. Incoming Iowa St. transfer Clayton Cluster may also get in the mix, who was actually Richardson's high school teammate back in Kansas City.
Moser will once again have to manage an undersized frontline, which has had issues holding their own on the glass in recent years. The notable name here is junior Donte Ingram, who started every game last year for the Ramblers, and is far and away the best returning big on the roster. Moser is hoping two incoming JUCO transfers, Treyvon Andres** and Vlatko Granic, along with freshman Aundre Jackson, can contribute right away and provide some additional interior depth and rebounding production.
A breakout senior campaign for Doyle could certainly be in the cards for the Ramblers, but if the past 2-3 years are signs of what's to come, he'll likely find himself without much offensive help. He'll need the young Satterwhite to have a coming out party of his own, but it's certainly a lot to ask from a freshman to be both productive and efficient as a 19-year old.
** UPDATE **
Treyvon Andres is reportedly no longer enrolled at Loyola. There has been no further explanation as to why or where he will attend school next year.
8. Missouri St.
Key Returners: Chris Kendrix, Dequon Miller, Austin Ruder
Key Losses: Camyn Boone
Key Newcomers: Greg Williams, Alize Johnson (JUCO), Jarrid Rhodes (JUCO), Ronnie Rousseau III (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: None
It's now year 6 of the Paul Lusk era at Missouri St., and Bears fans won't hesitate to tell you just how forgettable they've been. It wasn't so long ago that household names, such as Steve Alford and Cuonzo Martin, used Missouri St. (formerly known as Southwest Missouri St.) as a career springboard to bigger coaching opportunities (and seemingly bigger paychecks). For the exception of a 20-13 showing in 2014, the Bears have been a sub-500 team ever since Lusk replaced Martin at the helm way back in 2011. And now, even with a somewhat decent roster returning this season, Lusk's seat is already beginning to heat up, and it will surely catch fire if the Bears don't get off to a good start this year. This is probably your leader in the clubhouse for MVC coaches most likely to get fired first...
Lusk is fortunate to finally get 3-point marksmen Austin Ruder back in the rotation, who missed all but 5 games last year because of a hip injury. As a freshman and sophomore, Ruder and Marcus Marshall formed what was arguably the most potent shooting backcourt in the Valley. With Marshall now playing out west, the senior Ruder will need to quickly form chemistry with two other talented guards; senior Dequon Miller and freshman Greg "Boogie" Williams. Miller led the Bears with 13 points a game last year, and rarely came off the floor, given he was one of the few playmakers at Lusk's disposal. However, Miller appeared to force the action a bit too often, evidenced by a dismal 36% from the floor, including 39% from inside the arc. The major question is how Lusk will balance the ball handling responsibilities between Miller and Williams.
A borderline 4-star recruit, "Boogie" is arguably Lusk's most prized recruit since he came to Springfield. The 6'6 Williams, who ultimately chose Missouri St. over the likes of USC, Texas A&M and Virginia Tech, is an uber-talented combo guard, who could quickly emerge as the Bears' go-to playmaker. He is a gifted passer and ball handler, which will give Lusk the flexibility to play him a ton of minutes at the point. However, there have been some concerns about a lingering infection from a hernia suffered early this offseason, which makes his return for the season debut questionable (although he insists he'll be fine). His recovery is critical for this Bears team - a fully healthy "Boogie" means more floor spacing for Miller and Ruder, who can then each slide over to their natural positions as off-guards.
Per most of Lusk's teams in recent years, the Bears will be both short and thin up-front. 6'5 junior Chris Kendrix is really more of a 3, but plays a ton of small-ball 4 due to the lack of depth in the frontcourt. Kendrix had a strong sophomore season, leading his squad in both 3-point % (35%) and free-throw % (81%), and was the Bears' 2nd best rebounder on a per-minute basis. With Camyn Boone graduating, the only true post player who charted significant minutes last year is Obediah Church. Church had a breakout freshman season, posting a top-100 nationally ranked block rate, to go along with 6 boards a game.
While bad fortune and untimely injuries have certainly played their part in the Bears' recent woes, time is running out in Springfield, MO for Lusk to break through with a 20-win season, or at least a competitive showing in the Valley. While I have them penciled in at 8th in the final MVC standings, there is a ton of upside with both Williams and Ruder now in the mix, each of whom are capable of catapulting Missouri St. into the middle tier of the conference.
Key Returners: All 5 starters
Key Losses: None
Key Newcomers: Alex Foster (Texas Tech transfer), Koch Bar
Postseason Projection: None
I'm still partially scratching my head as to why Brian Wardle left a decent situation and solid returning core at Green Bay last year to start all over from scratch at Bradley. Perhaps he has a little "Larry Brown" in him, where he takes significantly more pride in going from "bad to good" than from "good to great". All speculation aside, in his first year at Bradley, Wardle successfully replicated the same defensive minded teams he routinely constructed at Green Bay. However, he probably underestimated just how offensively challenged a whole new team would be, especially with two handfuls of freshmen playing significant minutes. Only one, that's right one, division 1 team was more inefficient on the offensive end than the Bradley braves last season (yup, you guessed it: the Rattlers of Florida A&M!).
If my colleague Jim Root's freshman to sophomore year leap theory holds even some weight (and I believe it does), this year's Braves team has a chance to be one of the most improved in the country. They return every significant player from last year's roster that was the epitome of balanced, albeit it was sort of a "bad balanced". Bradley had no one average more than 10 points a game last season, but featured 8 guys who tallied at least 3 points a contest. If you had to pick out one player on this roster who qualifies as the "go-to -guy" and/or "floor leader", I'd gravitate toward Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye, who interestingly enough hails from Great Britain. While Lautier-Ogunleye led the Braves in both points and assists as a freshman, he also racked up a hefty amount of turnovers as well (almost 4 a game), which was just one example of the growing pains the Braves dealt with in Wardle's first season. Not one Bradley player posted an offensive rating above 95, mostly because of how inept they were holding on to the basketball. In fact, there was not a single other team in division 1 basketball that turned the ball over more times on a per possession basis than Bradley last season....
And while we here at 3MW don't usually condone getting a laugh at the expense of an 18-year old kid, I would encourage you to take a gander at previous 3-star recruit Joel Okafor's kenpom.com statline, which I've so conveniently provided for you below...
It's hard to decide which is more abominable: an offensive rating of 52 or a turnover rate of 40%. The troubling part for Wardle is that out of all the freshman he threw out last season, Okafor was the odds on favorite to be the most productive, given he had the highest pedigree coming out of high-school.
Despite the dumpster fire that was Bradley's offense last season, the Braves actually posted a respectable 115th nationally ranked overall defense. A big reason for this was Wardle's commitment to suring up the defensive boards, something his teams at Green Bay were always effective at. Defensive rebounding and rim-protection should only improve this year with incoming 3-star freshman Koch Bar likely to get big minutes right away. The defense has a real-shot to crack the top-1oo nationally in Wardle's second year, but how much the offense will realistically improve is anyone's guess at this point.
Key Returners: Reed Timmer, Graham Woodward, Jacob Enevold Jensen
Key Losses: Kale Abrahamson
Key Newcomers: De’Antae McMurray (JUCO), TJ Thomas (JUCO)
Postseason Projection: None
The good news for Drake fans is that, for the exception of Kale Abrahamson, the Bulldogs return their entire nucleus from last year’s team! Unfortunately, that same team went 2-16 in the conference play last season, and failed to win a single road game all year long. Even Bradley, who was one of the 20 worst teams in the entire country last year (per kenpom.com’s overall rankings) managed to squeak out 3 conference wins. The bottom line is that the cliché and optimistic narrative of returning 4-5 starters may not hold much weight for this Drake team.
The Bulldogs were especially bad on the defensive end last season, ranking 321st in the country in overall adjusted defensive efficiency. Their lack of athleticism, both on the interior and on the perimeter, inhibited the Bulldogs from forcing any turnovers and also resulted in piss poor rim protection. 7’0 senior Jacob Enevold Jensen was invisible for much of the year, which is partially why he began to lose minutes to another 7-foot freshman Dominik Olejniczak, who recently decided to take his talents to Ole Miss. Olejniczak was significantly better on a per minute basis, posting a respectable 4.1% block rate and 19% defensive rebounding rate. However, neither of those stats hold a candle to his ridiculous 72% field goal percentage (80/111), which he also supplemented with a nice 70% clip from the charity stripe. The bottom-line is that Olejniczak was far and away the most productive of the 5-6 forwards head coach Ray Giacoletti rotated in and out last season and he's no longer in the picture. A ton of pressure will continue to lie on the shoulders of Jensen, along with 6’10 Casey Schaltter who, like Olejniczak, was much more productive than his veteran teammate Jensen on a per minute basis.
The perimeter is spearheaded by a pair of rising juniors, Graham Woodard and Reed Timmer, each of whom shot the ball exceptionally well from deep last season. Timmer is a skilled and crafty lefty who’s actually more comfortable scoring in the midrange area, despite posting an efficient 39% clip from beyond the arc last season. He does not shy away one bit from contact, as evidenced by his 176 FT attempts last season, where he converted 80% on those trips to the line. While Timmer plays more off-the-ball, Woodard typically assumes the point guard spot, where he was moderately efficient last season. Woodard’s shooting splits point to a glaringly obvious conclusion: stop trying to attack the rim. Woodard shot an abysmal 41% on shots at the rim last season, and failed to draw fouls consistently (shot only 68 FTs last season). The 3rd and final piece on the perimeter is the Bulldogs' defensive stopper Ore Arogundade. Despite standing only 6’3, Arogundade led Drake last year in rebounding on a per minute basis, something that is generally not a good sign for a team that consistently played 6 players standing 6’8 or taller.
In searching for a way to defend a positive outlook for the Bulldogs this year, the only rational take I could stumble upon was that the basketball gods were not kind to Drake last year. Opponent’s were consistently red-hot from 3 last season, even though Drake was relatively effective at running shooters off the 3-point line. Even a significant regression in this department will not make up for the other glaring on this roster, especially in the frontcourt. Don't be surprised if the Bulldogs once again find themselves in the “doghouse” of the MVC standings.