Nick Knacks

Column: Breaking Down My 2018 MVC Preseason Ballot

Henry Redman | The PhoenixLoyola has a strong chance to repeat as MVC champion this season.

Last week, I turned in my ballot for the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) preseason poll for the second straight year. The MVC’s wide open this year; while Loyola’s coming off its first Final Four appearance since 1963, the Ramblers will have some stiff competition for the conference title this season.

Nonetheless, here are my picks. All I ask is that you don’t hold these against me as there’s a very good chance I’ll be wrong. Please save the @OldTakesExposed tweets for the pros.

  1. Loyola University Chicago (LUC)

Despite how competitive I think the MVC will be this year, I have the Ramblers winning their second straight conference title. Although  key players Donte Ingram, Ben Richardson and Aundre Jackson all graduated after last season, the Ramblers are still my favorite to win the MVC this year. They return three starters — reigning MVC Player of the Year Clayton Custer, Marques Townes and MVC Freshman of the Year Cameron Krutwig — as well as key bench players Lucas Williamson and Bruno Skokna. Along with talented newcomers and the momentum from last year’s run, Loyola’s my preseason favorite to win the conference.

2. Illinois State University (ISU)
Illinois State’s in an interesting situation. The Redbirds didn’t lose anyone to graduation after Loyola beat them in the Arch Madness title game; however, Elijah Clarence left the program to play professionally after a successful first season in Normal. The biggest piece ISU brings back is MVC Newcomer of the Year Milik Yarbrough. Yarbrough led the MVC with 4.8 assists per game and ranked fourth with 16.6 points per game in his first season after transferring from Saint Louis University. But Yarbrough has run into legal trouble during this past offseason and is suspended “indefinitely.” Although he continues to practice, ISU head coach Dan Muller said he’s not sure if Yarbrough will even play in the home opener. Should his suspension be lifted, I think he helps carry the Redbirds toward the top of the MVC, but it won’t be enough to fend off Loyola.

3.  Southern Illinois University (SIU)
SIU’s another team that didn’t lose anyone. In fact, they may be even better with 2017 MVC All-Defense nominee Thik Bol back from a knee injury which sidelined him all last season. The Salukis also bring back key players Sean Lloyd, Kavion Pippen and Armon Fletcher, meaning all the pieces are there for SIU to be toward the top of the MVC. Head coach Barry Hinson — who, I might add, is one of my favorite interviews — did a lot with a little last year, working with a seven-man rotation at one point. With so many different combinations, it’ll be easier for Hinson to take the Salukis toward the top.

4. Bradley University (BU)
You may as well rename it the Illinois Valley Conference, right? Bradley’s going to round out the top four this year because they’ve also got a solid core returning. Luuk Van Bree, Elijah Childs, Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye, Darrell Brown, Jr. and Koch Bar would make for a great starting five, and head coach Brian Wardle could finally have a chance to make some noise in the MVC. However, despite this starting lineup, I’m not sure the Braves have the depth to match up against SIU, Ilinois State or Loyola, but it’ll still be an all-Illinois top four this season. That much is easy to predict; the last six spots, however, are completely up for grabs.

5. Valparaiso University (VU)
Valparaiso finished dead last in the MVC in its first season since jumping up from the Horizon League — Loyola’s former conference. Now that they have a year in the MVC under their belts, the Crusaders finally have a chance to get out of the cellar and into the middle of the pack. It also helps the rest of the conference looks like it could struggle this year. Led by Bakari Evelyn, Markus Golder and Derrik Smits — along with incoming first-year Javon Freeman-Liberty — Valparaiso looks like a fifth-place team this season.

6. University of Northern Iowa (UNI)
Northern Iowa is a bit depleted this year, losing redshirt seniors Bennett Koch and Klint Carlson to graduation. Koch was one of the Panthers’ leading scorers, and it’ll be tough to replace his production. The saving grace is Tywhon Pickford, who was named to the MVC All-Freshman team last year, is back with another offseason to his name. His development is why UNI will be as high as sixth. Although Ben Jacobson is regarded as one of the better coaches in the MVC, he won’t have enough to crack the top five this year.

7. Indiana State University (ISU)
Indiana State finished 8-10 in the MVC last year, but lost Brenton Scott’s 14.5 points per game and Qiydar Davis’ 10.7 points per game to graduation. That leaves rising junior Jordan Barnes, who had a breakout season last year. But he might be the only player who’d come close to filling the holes left by Scott and Davis. The Sycamores simply don’t have enough depth to get out of the bottom four and, as of right now, appear to be one of the four teams to play on Thursday of Arch Madness this season.

8. Drake University (DU)
After undergoing its third coaching change in as many years, Drake isn’t in the most ideal spot to start competing for an MVC title. Sure, the Bulldogs played well to start conference play last year and finished 10-8, but they lost to Bradley in the first round of Arch Madness last year. They’re also without Reed Timmer, who graduated last year as one of the program’s all-time leading scorers. Losing Timmer and head coach Niko Medved will prove to be too much for the Bulldogs despite the fact that new head coach Darian DeVries is familiar with the MVC from his days as a coach at Creighton University. At least this season, Drake will be in the bottom three of the conference standings.

9. Missouri State University (MSU)
Last year, I picked Missouri State as my preseason favorite for the MVC — at the urging of Porter Moser, I might add. Could I have been more wrong? The Bears wound up finishing seventh in the MVC, which ultimately led to the firing of head coach Paul Lusk. Along with Alize Johnson graduating and going to the NBA and Reggie Scurry transferring out of the program, new head coach Dana Ford doesn’t have much to work with this year. While he’s started out strong on the recruiting trail, the Bears are bound for an in-between year this season until the transfers and a four-star recruit are eligible next season.

10. University of Evansville (UE)
Last, but certainly not least, Evansville will be in the basement of the MVC this year. The Purple Aces not only lost head coach Marty Simmons after last season, but they also lost the MVC’s leading scorer Ryan Taylor, who transferred to Northwestern University for this coming season. Evansville, despite the leadership of former Boston Celtics assistant Walter McCarty, are doomed for a rough go this year, and they’re my pick to be at the bottom of the standings.

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