Missouri Valley Conference Catchup: Who challenges Wichita State?

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The 2013-14 season was one of transition for the Missouri Valley Conference, with the league moving forward following the move of Creighton to the Big East. And while much was expected of current standard-bearer Wichita State in the aftermath of their trip to the Final Four, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who expected Gregg Marshall’s Shockers to run through their regular season schedule in the manner that they did.

Wichita State ran the table, winning all 34 of their games before the NCAA tournament. And while there were critics who questioned Wichita State’s credentials for much of the season, their 78-76 loss to eventual national runner-up Kentucky in the Round of 32 resulted in many giving the Shockers the respect they felt they deserved all season long. With Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton all returning, the Shockers will once again be the clear favorites to win the Valley despite the loss of Cleanthony Early.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

But who will step forward to challenge Wichita State? That’s an important question for the conference to address, with regards to not just the 2014-15 season but also the campaigns that follow. As a whole the conference’s computer numbers weren’t at the level Valley fans had grown accustomed to, with non-conference play being a big reason why, and that will have to change. And there are some personnel losses that need to be addressed, most notably the aforementioned Early and Jake Odum at Indiana State. But the Valley welcomes some solid newcomers from both the high school and junior college ranks.

The one program that didn’t stock up on the recruiting trail is Northern Iowa, with head coach Ben Jacobson adding just one freshman in point guard Wyatt Lohaus. But that isn’t a major issue for the Panthers due to the fact that their top five scorers, led by forward Seth Tuttle, are back. Does that experience make UNI the biggest threat to Wichita State? That remains to be seen, and Missouri State, Illinois State and even Indiana State will factor into the equation as well.

The discussion of who makes a run at Wichita State is the “obvious” question with regards to the Valley, but it isn’t the most important one. Can the league use Wichita State’s run as the boost needed to take a step forward collectively in 2014-15? That needs to be the case.

THREE UP

Illinois State: Dan Muller’s Redbirds were one of three Valley teams to finish conference play with a 9-9 record, with their regular season ending with a loss to Missouri State in the quarterfinals of Arch Madness. But Illinois State did win two games in the CBI, and the return of leading scorers Daishon Knight (13.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.2 apg) and Bobby Hunter (10.5, 3.7, 2.4) will help as the Redbirds look to use that as a boost into 2014-15. In total Illinois State returns four of its top six scorers, and the addition of junior college transfer guard Devaughn Akoon-Purcell will help as well.

Evansville: A lot was placed upon the shoulders of prolific scoring guard D.J. Balentine last season and with good reason, as he averaged 22.8 points per game. But for Marty Simmons’ Purple Aces to make a move up the Valley pecking order they needed to find players capable of consistently helping Balentine with the scoring load, and the addition of junior college transfers Taylor Stafford (Eastern Arizona) and Willie Wiley (Vincennes) may be just what the doctor ordered. The 6-foot-1 Stafford averaged 25.0 points per game, and Wiley was a quality front court presence on a team that finished third in the NJCAA tournament. Add in center Egidijus Mockevicius (10.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg), and Evansville could take a step forward in 2014-15.

Northern Iowa: The Panthers have been a formidable program throughout Ben Jacobson’s tenure as head coach, and their 10-8 conference record was good enough for a third-place finish in 2013-14. But UNI finished 16-15 overall, meaning that the Panthers didn’t perform as well as they would have hoped for in non-conference play. With their top five scorers back, led by forward Seth Tuttle (15.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and guard Deon Mitchell (12.1, 2.3, 3.4 apg), UNI has experience on its side and could turn out to be the biggest threat to Wichita State. But the Panthers have to perform better in non-conference play than they did a season ago if they’re to play in a postseason event.

THREE DOWN

Indiana State: In addition to Odum the Sycamores also lost wing Manny Arop (10.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and guard Dawon Cummings (9.9, 2.7, 2.3 apg), meaning that head coach Greg Lansing has to account for the loss of three of his top five scorers. Forward Justin Gant and guard Khristian Smith are both double-digit scorers, but the most important player could turn out to be junior college transfer Charles Bennett III. A point guard who’s also capable of scoring (20.8 ppg), Bennett will have every opportunity to grab the reins. Point guard play is the biggest question for Indiana State at this time. But it should be noted that the program has finished in the bottom half of the Valley just once during Lansing’s tenure, so while the Sycamores may fall from its second-place finish of a season ago they may not fall too far down the standings.

Drake: With leading scorers Richard Carter (guard) and Aaron Hawley (guard/forward) out of eligibility, Ray Giacoletti will need to account for the 26.9 points per game those two combined to average in 2013-14. The good news for Drake is that guard Jordan Daniels (10.2 ppg) will be back, and the same can be said for redshirt senior guard Gary Ricks Jr. Ricks played in just eight games before breaking a bone in his foot, and he was averaging 12.2 ppg at the time of the injury. The concern for Drake is their inexperience/lack of depth in the front court, meaning that of their five incoming freshmen power forwards Casey Schlatter and Kory Kuenstling will be important additions. That may lead to lowered expectations from the outside, but Drake finished in a tie for eighth after being picked to finish last in the Valley in the preseason poll.

Southern Illinois: Barry Hinson’s Salukis may have finished the season with an overall record of 14-19, but they managed to finish 9-9 in conference play with wing Desmar Jackson (18.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.1 apg) leading the way. Now that Jackson’s gone even more will be asked of guard Anthony Beane Jr., who averaged 14.7 points per game last season. But with Beane being SIU’s lone returning double-digit scorer, who steps forward? The Salukis add a five-member freshman class led by high-scoring guard Deion Lavender, and Illinois transfer Ibby Djimde gives them some size inside. But SIU doesn’t have much depth in the post, and the question regarding scoring options could be a big one if they struggle to address it.

FIVE NEW FACES

Josh Cunningham, Bradley: There were some raised eyebrows when the Morgan Park HS (Chicago, Ill.) product announced his decision to join Geno Ford’s program in late-April, picking Bradley while holding offers from programs such as Creighton, Indiana and St. John’s. A very athletic four-star prospect, Cunningham was also a member of the Mac Irvin Fire grassroots program, playing with the likes of Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander. And with leading rebounder Tyshon Pickett having departed, the opportunity to earn significant playing time will be there for Cunningham.

Tevin Glass, Wichita State: Wichita State’s success with junior college prospects is well-documented, with front court players such as Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early enjoying success during Gregg Marshall’s tenure. And with Early having moved on, the arrival of Tevin Glass is an important one for the Shockers. At Northwest Florida State the 6-foot-7 forward averaged 12.0 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in 2013-14, shooting 55.1% from the field.

Marcus Marshall, Missouri State*: No Marshall isn’t a new face, as he played in 12 games (11 starts) last season. But the 2013 MVC Freshman of the Year was lost in January to a torn meniscus in his right knee, and Marshall’s return is big for Missouri State given the fact that leading scorer Jamar Gulley is out of eligibility. In those 12 games Marshall averaged 14.3 points per game, shooting 42.6% from the field and 39.6% from three. He’ll likely be asked to lead the way for a team that finished the 2013-14 with a 20-13 record (9-9 MVC).

Charles Bennett III, Indiana State: The now-departed Jake Odum was a first-team All-MVC selection in each of his final two seasons at Indiana State, and he left the school ranked in the top five all-time in scoring (fifth), assists (second), steals (fourth), made free throws (first) and free throw attempts (first). So how will the Sycamores go about accounting for the loss of their outstanding point guard? Enter Bennett, who was an NJCAA Honorable Mention All-American at Lamar State College-Port Arthur last season. Bennett averaged 20.8 points and 2.6 assists per game, and with the Sycamores losing three of their top five scores he’ll need to display that scoring ability as well.

Devaughn Akoon-Purcell, Illinois State: Bennett isn’t the only NJCAA Honorable Mention All-American joining the Valley, with Akoon-Purcell making the trek from Eastern Oklahoma State CC to Illinois State. Last season the 6-foot-4 Akoon-Purcell posted averages of 20.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, shooting 55.5% from the field and 40.6% from three. The Redbirds return two of their top three scorers in guards Daishon Knight and Bobby Hunter, and the arrival of Akoon-Purcell gives Muller another offensive option to work with on the perimeter.

Way Too Early Power Rankings

1. Wichita State
2. Northern Iowa
3. Illinois State
4. Missouri State
5. Indiana State
6. Evansville
7. Bradley
8. Southern Illinois
9. Loyola
10. Drake

Indiana hires Dayton head coach Archie Miller

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Indiana is expected to hire Dayton head coach Archie Miller, the school announced.

The deal will be for seven years, according to The Vertical. Miller had spent the last six seasons as the head coach at Dayton, getting to four straight NCAA tournaments, including the Elite 8 in 2014, while winning the last two Atlantic 10 regular season titles.

Miller had been targeted by seemingly every high major program with an opening since he reached the Elite 8, but similar to Shaka Smart when he left VCU, Miller simply waited for the right job to come long.

Indiana is the right job.

There had been some speculation that Miller wouldn’t want to take Indiana, that his dream job is Ohio State and that the idea of coaching in a fishbowl like Bloomington is not something that would be all that appealing to him. But Indiana is an elite job. It’s the kind of opening that happens once every four or five years, and if Miller had said no to the Hoosiers now, it’s very possible that an opportunity like this wouldn’t come along for years, if ever.

This hire is surprising, not because it’s the wrong hire — I think they got this right — but because Indiana actually made the right decision.

The overwhelming sentiment since Tom Crean was fired was that UCLA head coach Steve Alford would be named the next head coach at Indiana because the Hoosiers wanted an “Indiana Guy”. Alford was born in New Castle, he played at IU for Bobby Knight, he won a national title with the program. The goal was to get the Indiana fan base back, a fan base that was so estranged from the program that Indiana had to play an NIT game on the road as a higher seed because they were reportedly afraid of allowing ESPN’s cameras to see the empty seats.

But just because a hire appeases the fans doesn’t make it the right hire.

Miller was the right hire.

If they really want to get the fans back, winning is the best way to do it. Archie is as good of a bet to win at Indiana as anyone.

Elite 8 Preview: Saturday’s picks, predictions, betting lines and channels

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So Friday got good.

If Zak Showalter’s game-tying three and subsequent discount double-check wasn’t enough, we had Canyon Barry’s chasedown block and, well, this game-winner from Chris Chiozza.

And all that came after De’Aaron Fox took out what felt like a season’s worth of frustration out on Lonzo Ball.

What is on tap for tonight?

No. 1 GONZAGA (-8) vs. No. 11 XAVIER, 6:09 p.m., TBS: Someone is going to be making their way to the Final Four for the first time on Saturday night, as Xavier’s Chris Mack and Gonzaga’s Mark Few square off for the right to play on the final weekend of the season.

And in a way, this is the perfect Final Four game. Both the Zags and the Musketeers are basketball schools in basketball leagues. They come from outside the power structure and have head coaches that have spurned jobs from within the power structure to remain there. They are built for a run like this, even if they were both overlooked on the way here.

Xavier was obvious. Playing without Edmond Sumner and Myles Davis, the Musketeers just haven’t been the team that they were supposed to be this season. That’s why they lost six straight games in February, but things have turned around in March, as Trevon Bluiett has put the program on his back and willed them to the Elite 8. Gonzaga is the opposite. They went 29-0 to start the season, but they have yet to be accepted as a legitimate title contender by most of the people that watch the games.

My guess on Saturday night is that the Zags make their statement and emphatically get into the Final Four.

PREDICTION: Gonzaga (-8)

No. 1 KANSAS (-7) vs.  No. 3 OREGON, 8:49 p.m., TBS: This matchup is a lot tastier on paper than it is likely going to end up being on the floor. As good as Oregon has been this season, they are, essentially, Kansas light. They play two lead guards together and they play small-ball, with a natural wing lined up at the four.

The problem?

The Kansas guys are just better. Josh Jackson is a better player than Dillon Brooks. His length and athleticism should give the Oregon star fits. Frank Mason III and Devonte’ Graham are better than whatever combination of Payton Pritchard, Tyler Dorsey and Dylan Ennis the Ducks opt to use.

And, for that matter, no team is playing better right now that they Jayhawks, who beat Michigan State by 20, Purdue by 32 and became the first team to score 90 points in their first three NCAA tournament games since 1995. I think that trend continues on Saturday night.

PREDICTION: Kansas (-7)

Sunday’s NCAA Tournament Elite Eight schedule, tip times, and announcer pairings

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Regional Finals – Sunday, March 26

2:20 p.m.,CBS, New York
No. 7 South Carolina vs. No. 4 Florida (Verne Lundquist, Jim Spanarkel, Allie LaForce)

5:05 p.m., CBS, Memphis
No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kentucky (Jim Nantz, Grant Hill, Bill Raftery, Tracy Wolfson)

Steve Alford: ‘I’m very happy at UCLA’

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UCLA head coach Steve Alford was still processing an 86-75 season-ending loss to Kentucky in the Sweet 16 on Friday night when he had to answer questions about another blueblood program.

Sine the dismal of Tom Crean at Indiana, Alford has been one of the names rumored to be in the mix for the coaching vacancy. A reporter in the press conference in Memphis didn’t even get a chance to finish his question before Alford cut him off and a publicly state that he was happy in Westwood.

“I said it last week, and I’ll reiterate it again even more so, I guess, that I love Los Angeles,” Alford said. “To begin with, it’s a beautiful place, and our family has fallen in love with it. I’ve got two sons now, Kory first and now Bryce, that have graduated. Bryce is done, so he’s graduating from UCLA, so I’ve got two sons that are graduates from there, a daughter that loves the school she’s going to in Thousand Oaks. I’m very happy. I’m at UCLA. I don’t know of a lot of people that are out there wanting to leave UCLA.

“This is a pretty special place. We’ve worked awfully hard. Our staff has worked hard. We’ve got the No. 2 recruiting class coming in next year. We’re opening a brand-new, state-of-the-art, 60-plus million practice facility, Mo Ostin Center, that is going to be spectacular that we’ve worked awfully hard to be a part of that, and I want to see that through, and we’ve got some special kids that are coming to join us.

“I’m very, very happy where I’m at, and hopefully, that’ll continue.”

Alford won a national championship with the Hoosiers in 1987, scoring more than 2,400 points in his career under head coach Bob Knight. He has been with UCLA since 2013, reaching the Sweet 16 in three of his four seasons with the Bruins.

Crean was fired on March 16 after nine season in Bloomington.

Lonzo Ball has officially declared for the 2017 NBA Draft

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Following a season-ending loss in the Sweet 16 of the 2017 NCAA Tournament, UCLA freshman point guard unsurprisingly announced that he will enter the NBA Draft.

“That was my final game for UCLA. I appreciate the fans,” Ball told reporters.

The 6-foot-6 point guard has a strong case to be the No. 1 overall pick. It could be almost too enticing for the Los Angeles Lakers to pass on a Southern Cal product if the ping pong balls fall in their favor. New Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager Rob Pelinka were in Memphis for Friday night’s Sweet 16 matchup with Kentucky.

Ball, in an All-American freshman season with the Bruins, averaged 14.7 points, 6.1 rebounds and a nation’s best 7.6 assists per game, while shooting 56 percent from the field and 42 percent from three.

He ended his college career with an 86-75 loss to the Wildcats, scoring 10 points, off 4-of-10 shooting, with eight assists.