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Peaks and The Valley: Missouri Valley Conference 2019 Preview

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Only four conferences can say they produced a Final Four team in 2018.  This is one of them.  But after losing a slew of graduating seniors, Loyola Chicago has put this conference firmly back up for grabs.  This is the most wide open I’ve seen the Valley in quite some time, so who will rise up and take it?

 

  1. Drake: Without a doubt the biggest surprise of the bunch, the Bulldogs may very well be the favorite to win this league when all is said and done.  After the abrupt departure of well-respected Nico Medved for Colorado State, Drake was put in a bit of a bind, but boy have they seemed to hit the lottery with Darian DeVries.  DeVries, who will appear on next week’s episode of The Sports Brunch, spent 18 years as an assistant over at Creighton before taking this head coaching job, but did not take long to adjust to his new head coaching role.  Picked to finish 9th of 10 teams in the conference, Drake has won 11 of its first 13 games, including wins over mid-major powerhouses New Mexico State and San Diego just a week after taking Iowa State to the wire.  Drake is doing it with an extremely balanced attack, and with so few weaknesses and likely the best offense in the conference, they are the unexpected favorite heading into conference play.
  2. Loyola (Chicago): When writing predominantly about mid-major conferences, it’s not very often you get to cover a Final Four-defending team, but that is exactly what Porter Moser’s Ramblers are in 2019.  It has not been the smooth ride that we saw a year ago, as Loyola has struggled to find consistent offense since the losses of Aundre Jackson, Donte Ingram, and Ben Richardson.  Clayton Custer has been good, but this team has struggled with backcourt depth outside of him.  Their turnover rate of 20.6% ranks 262nd in the nation according to kenpom.com.  Loyola has taken care of business against inferior teams in the non-conference, but has plenty of losses on the ledger as well.  We now enter the conference portion of the schedule, where those losses will no longer matter.  In what is certainly a one-bid league, the Ramblers have 2 more months to figure out these offensive struggles before Arch Madness begins.
  3. Illinois State: The first of many disappointing teams to date on this list, the Redbirds were unable to find their groove in the non-conference.  The schedule was tough, but a 7-6 record entering conference play was not expected for Dan Muller’s group.  A team that was picked to finish 2nd in the conference, Illinois State has put up a lackluster defensive resume to date, allowing 75 or more points in each of its last 6 games.  However, the Redbirds were young and balanced in 2018, and with most of their players returning from a season ago and a very good coach in Muller, I am expecting a turnaround as the competition will now weaken.  Do not be surprised to see this squad playing in the conference title game in a couple months.
  4. Southern Illinois: Things were looking promising following a huge win over Saint Louis back on December 5th, but the wheels have come off a bit since then.  A home loss to Winthrop could not have been what Barry Hinson had in mind entering Christmas Break, but the 11 days off could not have come at a better time as his team closed the first part of the season on a 3-game losing streak.  The Salukis were particularly careless with the ball outside of conference play, a category that was not exactly a weakness a year ago.  With a minutes continuity of 66.6% from 2018, Southern Illinois has one of the most experienced and synced team in the country, and that should help as conference play begins.  Barry Hinson is a great coach, and I expect him to have his squad ready to go.
  5. Bradley: The Braves have been the most disappointing of the bunch coming in with high expectations.  With most of its squad returning and a 20-win season a year ago, it looked like Bradley was primed for a breakout season.  Much like Illinois State and Southern Illinois, they have failed to produce so far this season.  The difference is that Bradley has not played anywhere close to the same competition as the others.  Despite posting an 8-5 record, Brian Wardle’s crew has competed against the 300th-toughest schedule in the nation.  They’ve closed out the non-conference portion of the schedule losing 4 of their last 6, losing a home game to 303rd-ranked Eastern Illinois in the process.  Their non-conference finale?  An uninspiring 3-point home win over Southeastern Louisiana.  This team should have the talent to compete in this league this year, but color me skeptical entering the new year.
  6. Evansville: Like Drake, Evansville was faced with a major roster turnover and decided to turn the page from Marty Simmons.  Although they have not seen quite as much success as the Bulldogs to this point, Evansville has put up a respectable start to the season.  With only 1 non-conference home loss in the past 2 seasons, the Aces have one of the best-kept home court secrets in the country, making any trip to Evansville, Indiana a dangerous one for their opponents.  Walter McCarty has instilled a defensive mindset into his squad that has for the most part worked out well.  They’ve already beaten Ball State before taking Murray State to the wire in Murray.  The key to Evansville’s season will be how they perform on the road, but they are definitely a dark horse in the Missouri Valley.
  7. Indiana State: I’ll admit, I am writing this section of the article a day after their 35-point shellacking at Loyola.  An absolute embarrassment of the Sycamores just a year after they played Loyola better than any other team in the conference.  Indiana State had an underwhelming campaign in 2018, and I fear they could be in for a similar season in 2019.  Greg Lansing has been unable to get his guys to play disciplined basketball of late.  Their turnover and foul rates have both been sub-par.  And while the Sycamores have shot 41.7% from 3 this season (6th best in the nation), they only shoot 24.2 of their shots from distance (352nd of 353).  Things are out of whack in Terre Haute, and Lansing should be on the hot seat come season’s end.
  8. Northern Iowa: Despite having one of the best coaches in the conference, the Panthers have had a rough past few years under Ben Jacobson.  Although Coach Jacobson always has his team playing at a high level on the defensive end, the offensive talent has just not found its way to Cedar Falls.  The graduation of Bennett Koch will also not help, as he was clearly the number one option for UNI each of the past two seasons.  It remains to be seen if this squad can muster up enough offense to be competitive, but after a 5-8 start to the non-conference season, the Panthers are on the brink of another lost season.
  9. Valparaiso: Now three years removed from the departure of Bryce Drew and two years removed from its departure from the Horizon League, Matt Lottich is still trying to put his stamp on the Valparaiso program and the Missouri Valley.  The Crusaders finished 6-12 in conference play last year and were bounced in the first round, so they did not enter the season with very high expectations.  They were inconsistent, at best, in non-conference play, struggling to find any sort of offensive rhythm, but in a defense-oriented conference like The Valley, Valparaiso will definitely be able to hang around and pester most of its opponents.  I don’t think they are a threat to win this conference.
  10. Missouri State: Thankfully, the Paul Lusk era is over in Springfield.  It was a rocky ride to say the least as Missouri State seemingly wasted a whole bunch of high quality talent in Lusk’s tenure.  The page has now turned to Dana Ford, who comes over after four decent seasons at Tennessee State.  His mantra has been high octane defensive pressure, something that he is now trying to instill at Missouri State, to this point with mixed results.  After three victories to start the season against far inferior opponents, the Bears went on to drop 7 of their next 8, mostly due to defensive struggles.  With a new coach and a much different rotation from a year ago, we might be a year or two away from a competitive Missouri State team once again.

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