This year, I was asked by Loyola athletics to fill out a ballot for the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) men’s basketball preseason poll after being on the Loyola men’s basketball beat as a sports writer last season. I admit, it was tough to put together this ballot since it’s a wide open field without Wichita State University at the top, after leaving for the American Athletic Conference, but this is what I have.
1. Missouri State University (MSU)
I made this a tougher choice than it should have been. Missouri State has the obvious MVC Preseason Player of the Year in junior forward Alize Johnson. Johnson averaged a double-double last season — 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds per game — and has the potential to go to the NBA. Despite losing DeQuan Miller’s 12.7 points per contest, the Bears return six of their top seven scorers and landed solid recruits in 7-foot-2 redshirt senior center Tanveer Bhullar and 6-foot first-year guard Mustafa Lawrence. They have height and they have depth, which will be important if the Bears want to win their first MVC title since the 2010-11 season.
2. Loyola University Chicago (LUC)
This year’s Loyola team is why the Missouri State pick was so tough. Head coach Porter Moser has a difficult task ahead of him in replacing Milton Doyle’s production. But with three starters, including third team All-MVC swingman Donte Ingram, and MVC Sixth Man of the Year Aundre Jackson returning, I’m confident Moser has assembled a squad that can replace Doyle’s numbers. However, this is dependent on multiple players stepping up, which I think they will. Moser also recruited bigger and taller players, signing forwards Christian Negron and Cameron Krutwig and landing 7-foot graduate transfer Carson Shanks to build a post presence. I’ll be curious to see how the Ramblers perform this season, and I like their chances of making a run at the top spot.
3. University of Northern Iowa (UNI)
UNI is in a unique situation. They lost second team All-MVC guard Jeremy Morgan’s 14.8 points per game and he, like Loyola’s Doyle, will be tough to replace. The Panthers return last season’s second-highest scorer, redshirt senior Bennett Koch, and All-Freshman Team nominee sophomore Spencer Haldeman to the roster. Coupled with redshirt junior Wyatt Lohaus returning from an injury and first-year Tywhon Pickford coming off a high school season in which he averaged 20.9 points per game, UNI will look to be the dark horse in the MVC this season. The team can only do that if head coach Ben Jacobson can make the pieces fit together.
4. Valparaiso University (VU)
I took a gamble here. Valparaiso’s the “new guy” to the MVC, replacing Wichita State. But VU is still a solid team. Sure, the Crusaders lost their top two scorers in all-Horizon League forward Alec Peters — who was drafted by the NBA’s Phoenix Suns — and guard Shane Hammink. But with guard Joe Burton, a four-star recruit, according to ESPN, eligible to play after transferring from Oklahoma State University and guard Bakari Evelyn coming from the University of Nebraska, Valparaiso has the chance to have an instant impact on its new conference.
5. Illinois State University (ISU)
Last year’s MVC co-champions with Wichita State, ISU lost four of its five starters. Reigning MVC Player of the Year Paris Lee, forward Deontae Hawkins and forward Tony Wills graduated, while redshirt junior MiKyle McIntosh — who would have been my preseason Player of the Year this year — and key bench player junior DJ Clayton transferred out of the program. That leaves junior Phil Fayne as the only returning starter and the Redbirds without a true senior on the roster (guard Jerrod Martin is a redshirt senior who transferred in for this season). Even with all of these departures, I think the Redbirds can still finish fifth in the wide-open conference. They have junior guard Keyshawn Evans coming back from an injury, junior center David Ndiaye and Fayne to help lead the team. First-years Taylor Bruninga and Elijah Clarence will now have chances to be instant-impact players. This will be an interesting season in Normal, and we’ll see if my ambition in putting reigning MVC Coach of the Year Dan Muller and the Redbirds this high will pay off.
6. Southern Illinois University (SIU)
Southern Illinois is in a spot similar to Loyola and UNI. The Salukis will have to replace their top two scorers after losing guard Mike Rodriguez and second-team All-MVC guard Sean O’Brien to graduation. However, they have returners senior forward Thik Bol and redshirt junior guard Armon Fletcher. Along with placing third on SIU’s scoring list, Bol — one of my preseason All-MVC nominees — led the MVC with 76 blocks last season. He played a key role in knocking Loyola out of the MVC tournament last year, and I expect him to be an essential defensive presence. Fletcher is also expected to have higher numbers this season after averaging 11.1 points per game last year as a redshirt sophomore. But head coach Barry Hinson’s Salukis will need more players to step up and contribute, since Bol and Fletcher can’t carry the team.
7. University of Evansville (UE)
Evansville will have a rough go of it this season. The Purple Aces lost their leading scorer, second team All-MVC guard Jaylon Brown, to graduation. Brown averaged 20.9 points per game last season and played every minute of the Purple Aces’ two games at the MVC tournament, meaning he left some big shoes to fill. While the team’s second-highest scorer, redshirt junior Ryan Taylor, returns, replacing Brown will be tough for a team that finished eighth in the 10-team MVC field last season. But I think they’ll be able to move up one spot given my prediction of how the following three teams will perform.
8. Drake University (DU)
The bottom three teams could really go any way. I placed Drake eighth because the program went through a lot last year. After Ray Giacoletti resigned on Dec. 6, Jeff Rutter took over as interim head coach for the rest of the season. Then, Drake hired Niko Medved as its third coach in the last year on March 26, meaning the players will be tasked with learning yet another playing system. Senior guard and third team All-MVC nominee Reed Timmer returns to the roster, but there’s not much else there besides him. Coupled with the coaching change, I think Drake’s going to have a turbulent season that will start looking up too late.
9. Indiana State University (ISU)
Indiana State is a program that ran into trouble last season. After finishing tied for third in the MVC in 2014-15, the Sycamores finished tied for sixth last season. The team also lost two of its top three scorers, forward Matt Van Scyoc and guard Everett Clemmons, to graduation. That leaves last year’s leading scorer, redshirt senior guard and third team All-MVC nominee Brenton Scott, as the only returner who averaged more than seven points per game last season. While Scott’s talented — he’s another one on my all-conference team — he has to have scoring help, and I don’t think Indiana State has the capability to give it to him. I think head coach Greg Lansing will have another tough go of it this season given the lack of talent, but I don’t think they’ll be in the cellar of the conference.
10. Bradley University (BU)
Last season, Bradley didn’t have a senior on its roster. This year, the Braves have one true senior, guard Donte Thomas, and one redshirt senior, JoJo McGlaston. Sophomore Darrell Brown, Jr., led the team in scoring last season as a first-year, but I still think Bradley is in rebuilding mode. With two MVC All-Freshman team nominees in Brown and sophomore Koch Bar, they could absolutely finish higher than last place. However, these players still need to develop their games, and having only one true senior won’t help that. The talent is there, but I figured it would be best to leave room for improvement.