- Matt Cox
Note: Predicted conference standings may not line up exactly with our Top 40 rankings; this is because Top 40 were ranked via consensus voting, while individual conference ranks are up to the specific writer.
***As of 9/12, Milik Yarbrough was suspended indefinitely from all team activities, but Dan Muller said he would be allowed to participate in the team’s first official practice on 9/25
Player of the Year: Clayton Custer, R Sr., Loyola Chicago
Coach of the Year: Barry Hinson, Southern Illinois
Newcomer of the Year: Aher Uguak, R So., Loyola Chicago
Freshman of the Year: AJ Green, Northern Iowa
1. Loyola Chicago
Key Returners: Clayton Custer, Marques Townes, Cam Krutwig, Lucas Williamson
Key Losses: Aundre Jackson, Donte Ingram, Ben Richardson
Key Newcomers: Aher Uguak (New Mexico transfer), Isaiah Bujdoso, Cooper Kaifes, Franklin Agunanne, Will Acock
Outlook: The Ramblers’ 2017-18 magic carpet ride needs no synopsis. Porter Moser’s squad first got our attention when they stunned a ranked Florida team in Gainesville early in the season, but proved to be far from a fluke when conference play revved up - for the record, I’m ignoring that four game skid over the Holiday Break when Clayton Custer was MIA. Once at full strength and firing on all cylinders, Loyola just ran circles around the Valley, winning 13 of their final 14 conference tilts and cruised to a regular season title uncontested. And after holding serve as the 1-seed at ‘Arch Madness’ in St. Louis, Loyola’s soaring confidence entering the NCAA tournament propelled them to wins over Miami, Tennessee, Nevada and Kansas State – three of those teams can be found ranked in our preseason top-10 rankings – before ultimately running out of gas against Michigan.
When the Ramblers took off last season, Moser had pretty much cut down the primary rotation to 7 guys. Clayton Custer (offensive engine) and Cam Krutwig (ferocious force in the paint) formed a potent inside-out punch, but what made the Ramblers so tough was their versatility at the 2, 3 and 4 positions on both ends of the floor. While Custer and Krutwig were the memorable names, Aundre Jackson, Donte Ingram and Ben Richardson were invaluable pieces to the puzzle and truly made this team tick.
With Jackson, Ingram and Richardson all gone, the spotlight now shifts to Marques Townes (the 3rd returning starter, along with Custer and Krutwig) and Lucas Williamson (1st or 2nd guy off-the-bench last season). Williamson seems like the natural full-time replacement to Richardson in the starting lineup as the primary off-guard next to Custer. In many ways, Williamson is a carbon copy of Richardson as a ‘3 and D’ guy on the wing, but will need to expand his all-around offensive game as a driver and distributor to fully fill Richardson’s shoes.
Townes, on the other hand, may have a rockier transition adjusting to life without his wing mates Jackson and Ingram, given how poetically this trio played together last year. In a continuous spectrum of “guard” to “forward”, Townes would fall right in-between Jackson and Ingram as a well-balanced, dual-threat driver and shooter. The former Fairleigh Dickinson transfer should see a significant bump in his production as he likely becomes the 3rd offensive option behind Custer and Krutwig (though, you could argue it’s closer to 2A and 2B with Krutwig and Townes, respectively).
Outside of Bruno Skokna, a likely 6th man candidate this year, the rest of the rotation will be filled by some unfamiliar faces. In a few interviews this offseason, Moser has hinted that a couple of the freshmen might get some meaningful burn this year, but New Mexico transfer Aher Uguak’s – cousin of NBA standout Luol Deng – is who Moser is placing his chips on to have the biggest impact. If this quote from Moser turns out to be even directionally correct, the Ramblers may have stumbled upon the secret sauce to replace the versatility of Ingram:
"Aher is ultra-athletic, long and skilled, and will be an inside-outside mismatch like Donte Ingram," Moser said. "He possesses a 6-foot, 11-inch wingspan and I love his versatility both offensively and defensively.”
Bottom Line: Moser clearly found something special in the way the ‘Blers lineup intertwined last year. This is precisely why he needs Uguak to step in right away and fill the void left behind by Ingram as a multi-positional, inside-out offensive threat who can hold his own defensively against bigger forwards. If Uguak can plug that hole - a 6’11 wingspan should help - a top-5 of Custer, Williamson, Townes, Uguak and Krutwig will actually look quite similar to what Loyola was working with down the stretch last year. That’s putting a big ‘ol burden on Williamson and Uguak, but their playing styles bear a striking resemblance to their predecessors (Williamson to Richardson; Uguak to Ingram). If they can mesh seamlessly into the perpetual drive, kick and cut motion offense that tore through the tournament last March, Loyola is destined for a 2nd straight trip to the Big Dance.
2. Illinois State
Key Returners: Milik Yarbrough, Keyshawn Evans, Phil Fayne
Key Losses: Madison Williams, Daouda Ndiaye
Key Newcomers: Zach Copeland, Josh Jefferson, Matt Chastain, Rey Idowu
Outlook: When the NCAA Selection Committee snubbed the Redbirds of an at-large berth two years ago, Dan Muller knew something had to change. Despite racking up 28 wins, which included a marquee victory over perennial league power Wichita State, Illinois State was on the outside looking in when the final bracket was announced on the CBS Selection Show.
Most pundits who agreed with the Selection Committee’s decision to omit the Redbirds cited a middling strength of schedule as the reason for exclusion. Muller responded by juicing up ISU’s non-conference slate – thanks to some savvy social media maneuvering – in preparation for yet another go at an at-large bid:
While that ‘call for action’ went for the most part unanswered, Muller did a fantastic job patching together a respectable non-conference schedule that should give the Redbirds plenty of cracks to prove to the Selection Committee they are worthy of at-large consideration. And with everyone of relevance back from last year, anticipation is sky-high in Bloomington-Normal…
Every Illinois State scouting report is littered with the name Milik Yarbrough – and for good reason. While his statistical production speaks for itself, the box score alone doesn’t paint a full picture of what a unique weapon he really is. You can count on one hand the number of 6’6 point forwards in college basketball who can slash and create as effectively as Yarbrough. Keyshawn Evans deserves a ton of credit for how willingly he adapted his game to mesh with Yarbrough. In a ‘Yarbrough-less’ world, Evans would be the clear-cut offensive table-setter – in this reality, Evans is cast as a supporting combo guard who can play effectively with and without the ball.
With two ball dominant playmakers in Evans and Yarbough, the need for complementary scoring and outside shooting becomes amplified – this is where William Tinsley and Zach Copeland come in. Tinsley has a similar DNA as some other long, athletic wings who have come before him at Illy State (DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, MiKyle McIntosh and DJ Clayton come to mind), but his offensive value needs to catch up this season. He’s a streaky shooter with deep range, but 31% shooting on a high-volume put a dent in ISU’s overall team efficiency last year. Copeland enters the program with a reputation as a plus long-range shooter himself – he’ll surely be a net upgrade offensively over defensive specialist Madison Williams at the 2-guard spot. Consistent floor spacing may also be aided by stretch forward Taylor Bruninga, who will likely see his minutes rise at both the 4 and the 5. Given how many 3s the Redbirds jacked up last season, Tinsley, Copeland and Bruninga must knock down shots at a high rate to raise the offensive ceiling this year.
What makes the Redbirds so tough to prepare for, especially for non-conference foes unfamiliar with Muller’s coaching tendencies, is their creativity on the defensive end. Muller will mix in a straight-up man-to-man with a zone look that’s hard to describe succinctly – if you had to slap a label on it, it would fall under the “2-3” category, but it’s far from the traditional, bland 2-3 zone many other teams around the country play. Per Synergy, ISU played zone on 40% of all possessions last year, so MVC opponents must be well-versed in how this defensive scheme works. Much like Scott Drew’s zone at Baylor, Muller floods the floor with above-average to elite length at the wing and forward spots, which makes routine passes a major headache for opposing guards.
The differentiating characteristic of the zone is how active and extended the back two guys are. When the first pass is made to wing, one of these two will come up hard to the ball while one of the top two point players slides down to shade the high-post.
This unorthodox player movement is what’s so confounding for many teams who see it for the first time. Phil Fayne, a premier athlete and lockdown defender, is a rare breed with his ability to cover significant ground and protect the rim as the defensive centerpiece. He’s also a budding star on the offensive end, armed with a vast array of interior post moves.
However, once you get past Fayne on the frontcourt depth chart, the options at Muller’s disposal fade quickly. The departure of 7-footer Daouda Ndiaye guts the Redbirds of some much needed shot-blocking and glass cleaning, two areas where ISU regressed last season. The loss of McIntosh, Deontae Hawkins and Tony Wills prior to last season removed three foundational pieces from that stout 2016-17 ISU defense which ranked 19th nationally.
While there are valid parallels between that team and this year’s group – most notably the year-to-year roster continuity (minimal offseason turnover) and extensive perimeter length – the 2018-19 roster appears to be lacking the staunch defensive identity that made that 2016-17 team so special. Muller will have to find a remedy to fix some the defensive rebounding woes, which may have had something to do with the lack of physicality and girth up front - Fayne was essentially a ‘one-man-band’ in the middle last year.
Bottom Line: Loyola has gotten its fair share of offseason ink – and deservedly so – after their magical run to the Final 4 last March. But when you compare the Redbirds and Ramblers projected lineups for 2018-19 side-by-side, there’s a negligible amount of separation.
Putting the aforementioned defensive nitpicks aside, it really all comes down to Yarbrough. He’s the undisputed fulcrum of the Redbirds’ offense, but “efficient” has never been an adjective used to describe Yarbrough’s game – his ‘bi-polar’ decision-making and broken jump-shot don’t help in this regard.
Yarbrough’s talent and versatility are off-the-charts, especially when compared to MVC-caliber competition. The question is can he wipe away the reputational scars that have led many to question is leadership ability and effort level consistency – if he can, Illinois State should stay neck-and-neck with the Ramblers all year long in the MVC regular season title race.
3. Southern Illinois
Key Returners: Kavion Pippen, Armon Fletcher, Sean Lloyd Jr., Aaron Cook, Marcus Bartley, Thik Bol
Key Losses: Tyler Smithpeters
Key Newcomers: Darius Beane, Amadou Fall, Sam Shafer, David Swedura, Sekou Dembele
Outlook: Let me start with this: I am a proud card-carrying member of the Barry Hinson fan club. Dating back to my younger years as an annual attendee of Arch Madness in St. Louis – of course, always sitting with my parents in the Missouri State alumni section – I was drawn to Hinson’s unwavering level of intensity. This demeanor shines through in the effort his players give on every possession, particularly on the defensive side of the ball.
Since coming to Carbondale in 2012, Hinson’s teams have been typically undersized, even by MVC standards. He’s counteracted the lack of an imposing inside presence by constructing shell-like defenses that emphasize shutting down any and all dribble penetration. And with Hinson often leaning on quicker, more perimeter-oriented lineups, the Salukis have been consistently effective at generating steals that feed easy transition scoring opportunities going the other way.
Well, guess what – that paradigm may be undergoing a makeover as we turn the page to 2019. Hinson will be equipped with two interior shot-blocking savants in 6’10 Kavion Pippen (nephew of NBA-legend and defensive stalwart Scottie Pippen) and long, bouncy 6’8 Thik Bol, who missed the entire 2017-18 campaign. Bol has had to undergo multiple surgeries to repair a torn meniscus in his knee, but all evidence indicates he’ll be ready to go for the season opener. If Hinson can get both of these guys in the lineup together for a large chunk of the season, it will do wonders for an interior defense that was ravished inside last year.
With Pippen and Bol protecting the paint, the Salukis may sport one of the best defensive units in the MVC with an already formidable defensive core established on the perimeter. Sean Lloyd received all-defensive team honors last year, Aaron Cook ranked 3rd in the league in steals and SIU’s returning leading scorer, Armon Fletcher, is an under-appreciated defender in his own right. Marcus Bartley, a fixture in the starting lineup last season, is the fourth and final member of the 4-guard lineup Hinson trotted out so frequently last season. With how much this group of guards loves to penetrate, the loss of sharpshooting Tyler Smithpeters may hinder the real estate available for driving lanes, but all four of the returners are decent enough 3-point shooters to keep their respective defenders tightly connected.
Bottom Line: Hinson has an interesting dilemma facing him this offseason – one that most coaches would welcome (‘1st world problems’ as some would call them). Does he stick with the small-ball, 4-guard lineup with Cook, Lloyd, Fletcher and Bartley surrounding either Pippen or Bol inside? Or does that the fact that the Salukis surrendered a league worst 55% field goal percentage inside the arc last year cause him to experiment with playing Bol and Pippen together. The latter would almost certainly extinguish the rim protection deficiencies, but it also might hinder the offensive firepower on the other end. Neither Bol or Pippen can confidently shoot beyond 12-15 feet, which may cause a jog jam in the lane.
Hinson is in an envious position with all five of his starters back in action for 2019, which doesn’t even account for the reinsertion of Bol or valuable bench pieces Rudy Stradnieks and Eric McGill. The Salukis are a near lock to finish in the upper-half of the conference standings, and could give the Ramblers and Redbirds a run for their money at the top of the MVC totem pole.
4. Northern Iowa
Key Returners: Tywhon Pickford, Isaiah Brown, Wyatt Lohaus, Spencer Haldeman, Austin Phyfe
Key Losses: Bennett Koch, Klint Carlson, Juwan McCloud, Tanner Lohaus
Key Newcomers: AJ Green, Trae Berhow (Pepperdine transfer), Shandon ‘Biggie’ Goldman
Outlook: As one of the longstanding pillars of the Missouri Valley Conference, Northern Iowa’s skid over the past two seasons is a microcosm of the league’s overall decline in recent years. While Loyola’s rise to glory last March may have temporarily silenced the MVC naysayers, the league desperately needs UNI to return to prominence to remain competitive with some of the other top mid-major conferences across the country.
A hot start out of the gate perhaps placed irrational expectations on the Panthers’ ceiling last season after knocking off SMU, NC State, UNLV and UT Arlington in the non-conference portion of the schedule. Despite being battled tested in preparation for a grueling MVC slate, UNI returned from Christmas break flat and dug themselves a nightmarish 0-5 hole in the league standings. Ben Jacobsen did manage to somewhat weather the storm and the Panthers battled back to 7-11 overall, but still fell far short of the inflated expectations caused by the high profile wins earlier in the year.
Inexperience was an obvious contributor to the unpredictable ‘ebbs and flows’ last season, but the youth movement now seems primed to push UNI back to its familiar spot atop the MVC standings. Jacobsen welcomes his highest ranked recruit ever to Cedar Falls as AJ Green – a fringe top-100 prospect – is set to run the offense from Day 1. Thanks to some diligent reporting this summer by the Des Moines register, we need not speculate how Jacobsen may integrate his shiny new toy into the offense – an offense that has been downright ugly over the past two years:
“He’s coming in here to help us have the best year that we can have, and to see if we can’t get back into contention for a championship and get back to the NCAA Tournament and win games in the NCAA Tournament. So from our standpoint as I look at our team, we want him to have the ball in his hands. He’s going to play the point, and there will be times when he’s off the ball as well because he shoots it well enough. You can move him around and put him in different spots.”
The departures of Juwan McCloud and Tanner Lohaus clears the stage for what should be a dynamic perimeter core, led by Green at the point, another 3-point sharpshooter in Wyatt Lohaus and two rangy athletes on the wings in Tywhon Pickford and Isaiah Brown. With Klint Carlson – a prototypical power forward who played exclusively at the 4 last year – now gone, Jacobsen may shift his primary rotation to a smaller, more perimeter-oriented lineup featuring Green, Lohaus, Pickford, Brown and likely Austin Phyfe at the 5. Brown is long enough at 6’7 to hold his own against opposing 4s, but he’s somewhat fragile at a lanky 180 pounds – luckily, the more compact Pickford at 6’4 205 can help pick up the slack on the boards after posting the 3rd highest defensive rebounding rate in the MVC last year. Spencer Haldeman also returns as a steady reserve in the backcourt, who can red hot from downtown in a hurry, and Pepperdine transfer Trae Berhow (recently ruled eligible) knocked down 39% of his trey balls last year as a freshman.
Stylistically, there’s no surprises when it comes to a Ben Jacobsen coached basketball team. Offensively, the Panthers are averse to pushing the pace in transition as Jacobsen loves to work the ball side-to-side with patience in the half-court. Defensively, it’s all about building a wall around the lane and positioning all five defenders to corral opposing misses…
Bottom Line: …which brings me to a lingering concern I have with this roster. While awareness and positioning (and obviously effort) are critical factors in being an effective rebounding team, there are still major holes on the interior. Phyfe is the only returner who played somewhat meaningful minutes last season standing taller than 6’8 and even he was far from a dominant rebounder. Again, the length of Brown and Pickford should help alleviate some of those personnel gaps, and Berhow was a productive rebounder in the WCC last year, but Jacobsen may need big things right away from Shandon ‘Biggie’ Goldman. At 6’10, Goldman did good work cleaning the glass at Panola College in Texas, but his primary value is on the other end with his smooth shooting stroke from distance.
Overall, there’s a ton to like about this collection of guards and wings, but the overall roster makeup is fundamentally different than what we’re used to seeing in a typical Northern Iowa squad. The Panthers should work their way back into the upper-half of the league standings, but the void of a quality interior presence gives me pause about projecting UNI any higher than 4th.
Key Returners: Darrell Brown, Elijah Childs, Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye, Koch Bar, Jayden Hodgson, Nate Kennell, Luke van Bree
Key Losses: Donte Thomas
Key Newcomers: Armon Brummet, Ja’Shon Henry, Ari Boya
Outlook: In just three seasons, Brian Wardle has dragged Bradley out of the Valley’s basement into a team on the brink of competing for a league title. When Wardle first arrived in Peoria, he completely blew up the roster and restocked it with a whole new cast of characters – Bradley ranked 350th in kenpom.com’s ‘Minutes Continuity’ statistic Wardle’s first year in 2015-16. Since then, the Braves have taken enormous strides in each of the past two seasons as BU’s ‘Golden Generation’ has matured from young prospects to cerebral, grizzled veterans. For the exception of rising sophomore Elijah Childs, the core rotation – which will likely go 7-8 deep – will be composed of six upperclassmen, all of whom were critical components to last year’s squad.
Wardle’s reputation as a defensive guru precedes him. From a personnel perspective, tenacious wing defenders are always a key ingredient in his defensive recipe. Donte Thomas was the epitome of this prototype last year – his departure will sting, but the aforementioned Childs is essentially a clone of Thomas at 6’7 225 pounds with the label ‘breakout candidate’ written all over him. Defensively, the versatile Childs will often serve as the rim protecting stop gate on the back-end, but can slide down the lineup to guard opposing 4s and 3s whenever behemoth 7-footer Koch Bar checks in at the 5.
With Childs and Bar holding down the fortress inside, Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye will reassume his role as a shutdown perimeter stopper. As a member of the MVC’s All-Defensive team last season, Lautier-Ogunleye has proven to be one of the premier lockdown defenders in the league - he and Jayden Hodgson (another 6’4 sturdy, athletic defender) will draw 1-v-1 assignments with the best offensive weapons around the league.
And now, we interrupt this preview to bring you a mini crash course on the Missouri Valley Conference (sorry, but this is a mandatory prerequisite before reading the rest of this preview).
Over the past four seasons, no league in America has been more allergic to scoring points than the MVC. Since 2015, the Valley has ranked 28th, 32nd, 27th and 30th out of 32 conferences in overall offensive efficiency, as defined by points per possession (per kenpom.com). Some of this stems from the astute defensive coaching minds who excel at game devising game plans to stymie opposing offenses. But this may also be a byproduct of a sheer lack of top-flight offensive skill coming through the talent pipeline in recent years. This combination is often what makes this league an eyesore to watch at times.
This also explains how Bradley’s unappealing 184th nationally ranked offense (for the entire season) somehow graded out as the 2nd best offense in the conference.
Setting that macro trend aside, the Braves offense should remain on an upward trajectory as Lautier-Ogunleye continues to blossom into a more complete offensive threat, coupled with the emergence of sharpshooting wing Nate Kennell and dynamo point guard Darrell Brown. Lautier-Ogunleye is an invaluable asset as a supporting combo guard next to Brown, who, despite his game breaking quickness, struggles to finish against length inside (Brown converted just 36% of a whopping 259 2-point attempts last year). Lautier-Ogunleye also doubles as a lead ball handler and is fully capable of running the offense whenever Brown takes a breather.
One of the few holes in Lautier-Ogunleye’s game – long range shooting – is precisely what Kennell brings to the table. Before Kennell joined the program two years ago, the Braves were a bunch of blindfolded brick layers, converting an embarrassing 28% of their 3s back in 2015-16. Kennell’s insertion into the primary rotation has boosted BU from one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in America to a respectable one, as evidenced by a slightly above average team 3PT FG% of 35% over the past two seasons. Outside of Kennell and the aforementioned Brown, no one attempted more than 64 threes last season, which makes Kennell and stretch forward Luke van Bree’s combined shooting precision a treasured resource for the BU offense.
After playing pretty much everyone with a beating pulse on the roster two years ago, Wardle significantly cut back on his bench usage last season - though, there are still some good options for Wardle to turn to if needed. A prime example is Antoine Pittman, who redshirted last season after being a fixture in the starting lineup two years ago. The Braves also welcome three new freshman to the mix (Armon Brummet, Ja’Shon Henry, Ari Boya), but it remains to be seen what part they’ll play on a veteran-laden roster.
Bottom Line: Wardle’s rebuilding project in Peoria has progressed at a rapid pace and the Braves now look one year away from being surefire MVC title contenders. It’s hard to see BU leapfrogging the talent and experience Loyola, Illinois State and Southern Illinois have coming back this season, but I wouldn’t rule out the possibility of the Braves crashing the top-3 party as a best case scenario.
6. Indiana State
Key Returners: Jordan Barnes, Tyreke Key
Key Losses: Brenton Scott, Qiydar Davis, Brandon Murphy
Key Newcomers: Cooper Neese (Butler transfer), Christian Williams (Iowa transfer), Allante Holston (North Texas transfer), Blake Brinkmeyer, De’Avion Washington
*Eligible at end of 1st semester
Outlook: The fighting Larry Birds were one of seven teams in the Valley separated by just four games in the final MVC standings last year. An 8-10 league record slotted the Sycamores right smack in the middle of the shuffle at 6th place, which culminated in a forgettable ‘one-and-done’ showing in the MVC championship in St. Louis.
Last season’s near .500 showing in conference exemplifies the broader Greg Lansing era in Terre Haute. Now kicking off his 9th season at the helm, Lansing has been the epitome of ‘average’ as he currently holds a 73-71 Valley record to his name. There are some minor rumblings that Lansing’s coaching chair may be getting a little toasty with the fanbase slowly becoming fatigued with the recurring mediocrity – although, that demolition of Indiana in Assembly Hall last year should earn him a free pass for at least one more season, right?
Looking ahead to the 2019 season, Lansing has a unique roster situation in which one – and potentially two – of his better players will not be eligible until 2nd semester. Right when conference action is set to heat up, the Sycamores will welcome Cooper Neese and Christian Williams, two high-major caliber guards, to the rotation. While I might be overestimating how quickly they’ll be integrated upon their return, here’s what I know for sure: Neese was one of four finalists for Indiana’s Mr. Basketball award coming out of high-school and ranks 7th on the all-time ISHAA scoring list – in case you’ve been trapped in a cave all your life, the Hoosier state is a well-oiled assembly line that consistently churns out high-level talent. Neese was originally pegged to play for Butler before deciding to transfer prior to the 2016-17 season kicked off (coinciding with Chris Holtmann accepting the Ohio State job) and he should feast against slightly watered down competition in the MVC.
Williams also comes in with Power-6 conference pedigree after beginning his collegiate career at Iowa two years ago. Hawkeye head coach Fran McCaffery clearly saw potential in the 6’5 point guard early on as he awarded him a spot in the starting rotation to start the season. Williams would go on to start the next five games before ultimately having his slot in the starting-5 seized by Jordan Bohannon. Naturally, Williams opted to take his talents down a notch in competition, a path that ultimately lead him to Indiana State.
Until those two reinforcements join the squad, Lansing will be strapped for depth at the guard spot. With Brenton Scott graduating, ISU will be the Jordan Barnes show for the first two months of the season, starring Jordan as himself, and his trusty up-and-coming sidekick Tyreke Key in the backcourt. Last season, the Sycamores relied heavily on Barnes and Brenton Scott to score, shoot, handle and pass – other than grab their own rebound, you name it, Barnes and Scott did it. Key was a serviceable 3rd scoring option last year and North Texas transfer Allante Holston should eat up some minutes on the perimeter, but Lansing will need a mega-leap from the rising sophomore to keep the offense afloat until Neese and Williams are eligible.
Last season, Brandon Murphy and Emondre Rickman were two of the more physically imposing big men in the league. The 270 pound Murphy was far and away the more skilled of the two, and his departure will create more chances for the big-bodied Rickman to prove himself, along with Devin Thomas and Bronson Kessinger in the frontcourt. Rickman is an absolute eraser at the rim, but Thomas and Kessinger are arguably more polished on the other end (though neither were that efficient last year, even in limited action).
Bottom Line: The Valley has always been one of the slower, more methodically paced leagues in the country, but Lansing ‘zigs’ while the rest of his competition ‘zags’. He’s one of the few coaches in the MVC who looks to push the pace offensively and Barnes is the perfect catalyst to ignite the fast break. Losing a bonafide scorer like Scott seems like a tough pill to swallow, but the advanced stats indicate his high-volume, low-efficiency tendencies may have actually been a liability last season. If Neese and / or Williams bloom into legitimate 2nd and 3rd scoring options, and the incumbent guards (Key and Clayton Hughes) continue to develop, this could wind up being one of the most potent offenses in the Valley with Barnes at the point of attack.
Key Returners: Bakari Evelyn, Joe Burton, Markus Golder
Key Losses: Tevonn Walker, Max Joseph, Joe Burton
Key Newcomers: Ryan Fazekas (Providence transfer), Deion Lavender (UAB transfer), Langston Stalling, Daniel Sackey, Javon Freeman-Liberty
Outlook: On the surface, Valpo’s inaugural MVC season appeared like somewhat of a disappointment. When it was all said and done, the Crusaders found themselves looking up at the other nine teams in the MVC standings. It was a tough spot for a young team having to step in and replace Wichita State – the league’s brightest beacon of light for the past decade – after the Shockers bolted for the AAC . But those who tracked the Valley closely last season would tell you Valpo was far from a punching bag.
Despite the loss of Tevonn Walker, a terrific two-way player, Matt Lottich has plenty of bullets left in the chamber to climb up the league standings in 2019. Lottich will lean on a junior-heavy core lineup, headlined by two returning starters, Bakari Evelyn and Derrik Smits, ‘super-sub’ Markus Golder and newcomer Ryan Fazekas, a Providence transfer with high-major talent. Walker’s absence means Evelyn likely becomes the lead creator for the Crusaders, who should be oozing with confidence after a scintillating sophomore campaign. He’s as steady of a lead guard as you’ll find in the Valley and he’ll be in charge of spearheading Lottich’s motion-heavy offense, which typically manifests in a balanced scoring attack.
Lottich has an abundance of depth in the front court, including a pair of inverse forwards in Fazekas and Mileek McMillan at the 4, along with a pair of twin towers in Smith and Jaume Sorolla at the 5. He also has a budding star in 6’6 multi-positional wing / forward hybrid Golder, who proved he can check both guards and forwards last season with his length and bounce. It’s worth noting that McMillan started every conference game but one, so it’s likely he could retain his familiar spot in the opening lineup over Golder or Fazekas.
With all other positional boxes checked, the only real gap is at the other guard spot. This will have to be filled collectively by incumbents Micah Bradford and John Kiser or one of a few newcomers that could emerge. While three freshmen rise could certainly rise to occasion (Langston Stalling, Daniel Sackey, Javon Freeman-Liberty), I’m betting on UAB transfer Deion Lavender to turn some heads and shore up that last spot in the rotation.
Lavender’s long and windy road of a collegiate career makes it difficult to foresee how Lottich will use him this season. During his tenure at SIU and UAB most recently, he struggled to find his identity as his game-to-game minutes constantly fluctuated due to a lack of consistency. At his peak, Lavender has the chops to be a reliable 2nd ball handler and offensive facilitator, which could be a tailor-made fit next to the scoring-minded Evelyn in the backcourt.
Bottom Line: Per kenpom.com’s overall adjusted efficiency rankings, only 15 spots separated the Valley’s 2nd place team (Southern Illinois) from Valpo at the bottom of the barrel. This miniscule margin is indicative of a league that was ridden with parity last season, which leads me to believe a major shakeup in the conference standings is coming in 2019. While Illinois State, Loyola and SIU-C will likely duke it out at the top of leaderboard for the outright conference crown, Valpo should be right in the thick of that next tier down, along with a handful of other squads that should NOT slept on.
8. Missouri State
Key Returners: Jarred Dixon, Obediah Church, Ryan Kreklow
Key Losses: Alize Johnson, JT Miller, Jarrid Rhodes
Key Newcomers: Jared Ridder (Xavier transfer), Keandre Cook (JUCO)
Outlook: It’s not a coincidence that the bottom-3 teams in our projected final standings also happen to be in the midst of a transitionary period to 1styear head coaches. In Springfield, MO Paul Lusk is out and Dana Ford – a charismatic rising star amongst the D1 coaching ranks – is officially in after a successful 4-year stint as the head honcho at Tennessee State. Ford may not be a household name at the national level, but those around the Valley appreciate how well he knows the league. Despite just turning 34 years old this summer, Ford has already studied under two of the conference’s sharpest basketball minds – Greg Marshall in 2011-12 and Dan Muller in 2012-13 and 2013-14 – before getting his crack as the leading man at Tenny State.
While Ford’s vision for resurrecting the program extends far beyond the 2018-19 season, his immediate challenge will be replacing Alize Johnson, MSU’s first NBA-draft pick in over 30 years. At 6’9 with a silky-smooth handle, confident shooting stroke (though, he went ice cold last year) and never-ending pursuit of the glass, Alize’s talent and versatility made him a unicorn in the Valley.
MVC All-Defensive team force Obediah Church is back to patrol the paint as the primary rim-protector. Church will bring a calming presence to the interior, but the defensive rotations and positioning engraved in him under Lusk will likely undergo a seismic shift under the new boss.
There are two defining characteristics about Ford’s strategic blueprint on defense: 1) Walling off the lane at all costs 2) Disrupting passing lanes to generate steals (a complete 180 from Lusk’s approach). These two traits don’t typically go hand-in-hand, but Ford’s innovative defensive scheme(s) make it possible. During his time at Tennessee State, the Tigers consistently produced one of the highest defensive steal rates in the country, but remained disciplined enough to recover back and close off open driving lanes to the rim.
But, with any defensive blueprint, tradeoffs must be made. Ford’s emphasis on generating turnovers and limiting penetration often leaves uncontested shooters scattered around the arc. Thus, if you’re going to exploit a Ford-coached defense, getting hot from distance is your best bet. Teams in the Ohio Valley took full advantage of this ‘soft spot’ in Ford’s defense as Tennessee State surrendered the 2nd most 3s in the country last year.
What’s interesting is that when Ford opts to change defenses, those aforementioned two principles don’t change. He will primarily play straight-up man-to-man, but also mixes in some extended full-court pressure along with a trapping zone. Per this clip below, this unpredictable zone allows his guards to sit back and anticipate both point-to-wing and crosscourt passes:
While the defensive structure may look discombobulated on the surface, it truly is ‘organized chaos’ and something that Ford has been preaching for many years.
Ok, enough with the ‘Xs and Os’ – let’s cover the ‘Jimmys and Joes’…
While Lusk’s 7-year tenure was exceptionally average by most Bears’ fans standards – far below the bar set by his predecessors – he was an effective recruiter on the JUCO circuit (Dequon Miller, Jarrid Rhodes and Alize Johnson are three recent examples). Dana Ford is no stranger to the JUCO talent pool and dipped into that well this offseason to snag the #76th rated JUCO prospect in Keandre Cook, who should pan out to be a serviceable off-the-bench asset.
Ford has three solid contributors coming back from last season with Church and a pair of off-guards in sharpshooter Ryan Kreklow – who needs to wipe last year’s shooting slump from his memory - and effortless scorer Jarred Dixon. To fill the remaining voids at point guard and on the wing, Ford gets a timely injection of high-major transfer talent in Josh Webster from Texas Tech and Jared Ridder from Xavier. Webster barely saw the floor for a loaded Red Raiders team last year, but should certainly get an opportunity to make a name for himself in the Valley, especially for a roster in desperate need of some backcourt leadership.
Ridder is the real reason Bears’ fans should be giddy, as he enters Springfield with an unprecedented amount of buzz. A former high school standout at nearby Kickapoo, Ridder was the top-rated Missouri prospect entering college when he initially took his talents to Xavier. You don’t need to take my word for it. Just listen to Alize Johnson rave about how high Ridder’s ceiling could be:
"Jared Ridder is a pro," Johnson said in a phone interview on Tuesday. "He'll be in this same position. There's no doubt in my mind."
Bottom Line: Keep in mind that two more of Ford’s big splashes on the recruiting trail, Tulio da Silva and Josh Hall, won’t suit up until next season, both of whom are high-major caliber transfers and near locks to crack the starting lineup when they become eligible. These acquisitions, combined with Ridder and the new wave of underclassmen, should form a sound foundation for Ford to build upon for the 2019-20 campaign and beyond.
Narrowing our focus to this year’s prognosis, the Bears certainly have the chops to sneak up on some people in the Valley. Kreklow, Dixon and Church all bring invaluable Valley experience and are well-qualified to play effective supporting roles – the question is can Ridder ascend to ‘alpha-dog’ status in his first full collegiate season, which will allow the rest of pieces to fall in place.
Key Returners: Nick McGlynn
Key Losses: Reed Timmer, De’Antae McMurray, Graham Woodward, CJ Rivers, Ore Arogundale
Key Newcomers: Nick Norton (UAB grad transfer), Brady Ellingson (Iowa grad transfer), Tremell Murphy (JUCO)
Outlook: Let’s just get the bad out of the way to start. Drake loses four starters and arguably five of their top-6 players, along with head coach and program turnaround mastermind, Niko Medved. Medved’s coaching brilliance should not be glossed over. Not only did he lead the Bulldogs to a 3rdplace finish in the MVC – far ahead of where most pundits predicted – but his 4-year transformation of Furman basketball from 2014 – 2017 was the work of a mad genius.
Losing a savant on the sidelines like Medved, especially after just one season, surely stung the Drake basketball faithful, but the athletic department appears to have pinpointed a viable replacement in former Creighton assistant Darian DeVries. As many first year coaches encounter, DeVries will inherit a bare bones roster that was depleted by the graduation of a deep senior class, combined with the exodus of three outbound transfers.
To restore the talent cupboard, DeVries got busy on the transfer market where he found two solid grad transfers in Nick Norton and Brady Ellingson. The collective backcourt IQ of Norton and Ellingson is off-the-charts and their advanced basketball minds will help ease the transition to a new system under DeVries, which he described in an offseason interview with the Des Moines register:
“We want to play fast and be explosive in transition and have some skill to go with that. So as we were going out, that’s kind of what we were looking for, from a talent standpoint.”
This should not come as a surprise given the brand of basketball DeVries’ was groomed in under Greg McDermott at Creighton. Norton and Ellingson, along with the veteran returner Noah Thomas, should be drooling over the freedom DeVries will give them out in the open floor, as well as the green light to gun from distance.
Other than Thomas, versatile forward Nick McGlynn is the only consistent contributor from last season that opted to stick around through the coaching transition. McGlynn is the total package at the forward spot and will be the Bulldogs’ linchpin on both ends of the floor. His advanced skill level allows him to score all over the floor, whether it be a face-up midrange jumper or off an intermediate drive to the bucket. He’s also hyperactive on the glass on both ends and was the only source of rim protection for last year’s guard-oriented lineup under Medved.
DeVries is hoping two twins from perennial JUCO powerhouse Florida Southwestern (Tremell and Anthony Murphy) will help inject some much needed length and size this year. While Norton and Ellingson are proven Division 1 commodities, a pair of highly respected talent evaluators Mike Gribanov and Jackson Hoy are RAVING about the upside of Tremell, who chose Drake over some marquee suitors in Oregon and Xavier. I fully expect to regret not including him on my All-Newcomer team, but his pure counting stats could be limited by McGlynn likely remaining the #1 option offensively.
Bottom Line: There’s a myriad of other newcomers that could jump off the page this season, almost all of whom should mesh well into the style of ball DeVries wants to play. Similar to Missouri State, Drake will heavily rely on some experienced transfers to sustain competitiveness with so much production walking out the door this summer. Much like what transpired last season, only a handful of games will likely separate the 4th and 9th place teams in the final standings in 2019. Medved made all the difference in those tight contests last year, so we’ll see if DeVries can match the in-game brilliance of his predecessor.
Key Returners: KJ Riley, Noah Frederking, Dainius Chatkevicius
Key Losses: Ryan Taylor, Dru Smith, Blake Simmons
Key Newcomers: Shea Feehan (Eureka College grad transfer)
Outlook: Ahhh, the 3rd and final episode in our ‘Coaching Swap’ series (Missouri State and Drake were the first two teams) brings us to the Purple Aces of Evansville. The decade-long Marty Simmons era comes to a wrap and a new era will unfold under the direction of NBA-journeymen Walter McCarty.
Other than a 3-year gig as a Louisville assistant studying under Rick Pitino, McCarty’s basketball experience as both a player and as a coach are heavily rooted in the NBA. His windy road has taken him to the Knicks, Celtics, Suns, Pacers and then back again to the Celtics as an assistant before ultimately returning to his hometown of Evansville.
I could try and extrapolate what type of style McCarty intends to play, but his quote from a local newspaper, Courier & Press, sums it up:
“We’re going to let it fly,” McCarty said. “The quickest way to get yourself out of the game is not shooting when you’re open”
The article goes on to further state that McCarty is even more focused on ramping up the Aces offense to be transition-oriented – this will be a far cry from the snail’s pace, motion-drive half-court style of offense preached under Simmons. It’s rare that you find a coach ‘open up the komono’ and reveal so explicitly how his team intends to play, but perhaps this should come as no surprise given his NBA-heavy background.
Unfortunately, as we scan the projected 2019 lineup, I can’t seem to find any Jayson Tatums or Terry Roziers on the returning roster. With a flood of departures this summer in the form of both graduates and transfers, the leftover incumbents don’t offer a ton of upside for McCarty’s first season, nor do they seem to integrate well with McCarty’s preferred style of offense. KJ Riley and Noah Frederking will return on the wing after decent, yet forgettable, seasons in supporting roles last year. While Riley is a disruptive defender and a precise passer, neither he or Frederking are proven long range shooters. Dainius Chatkevicius is the other returner worth mentioning, who posted excellent per possession rebounding and block stats last year – the question is can he maintain that effectiveness inside with a major bump in minutes and exposure.
Of the new crop of talent now entering the fold, Shea Feehan is the one who should turn some heads this year. I’m not saying Feehan, a grad transfer from DIII Eureka College, will be the 2nd coming of Derrick White (the former Colorado standout who went from D3 to fringe lottery pick in just one year), but given how dominant he was at his prior destination, something tells me he’ll transition to the step up in competition without skipping a beat. His numbers at Eureka were straight-up redonkulous – Feehan poured in 31 PPG while shooting 54% from the floor, including a white-hot 44% from the land of plenty. With the gaping holes left by Ryan Taylor and Dru Smith in the backcourt, there are a ton of shots left on the table and Feehan is the type of gunner who shouldn’t hesitate to gobble those up.
Highly touted freshman DeAndre Williams could also emerge as a mismatch nightmare on the wing, as described by his former coach at Nation Wide Academy in Oklahoma, Kenneth Roy:
“He’s a stretch 4 who is eventually going to end up being a 3, but that kid can pass the heck out of the ball,” said Kenneth Roy, who is also the athletic director at NWA. “He’s got ability that hasn’t been tapped into and that’s what Walt loves the most about that young man. I think in a couple of years, you guys are going to be really enthralled with DeAndre’s ability.”
Bottom Line: McCarty spent 5-years in the Celtics organization, two of which were under the oversight of the President Brad Stevens. McCarty should bring with him many of the offensive quick-hitter plays that the Celtics so routinely carved up opposing defenses with, as well as some of the defensive pressure schemes from his time with Pitino at Louisville. The bottom-line is that this appears to be a home-run hire for the Aces long-term, but year 1 will likely go down as the forgotten, throw away year for McCarty’s legacy.