Missouri Valley Preview: Wichita State once again in the driver’s seat

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Beginning in October and running up through November 13th, the first day of the regular season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2015-2016 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Today, we are previewing the Missouri Valley Conference.

The Missouri Valley Conference became a multi-bid league last season as Wichita State was joined by Northern Iowa as winners of at least one NCAA tournament game in 2015. While it’s hard to say if that will be the case again this season, Wichita State certainly looks dangerous once again, as the Shockers return potential all-americans Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker from a team that made the Sweet 16. That duo, which has reached the 2013 Final Four and led the 20113-14 version of the Shockers to a 35-0 record, is as good as any back court in the country.

Head coach Gregg Marshall has to replace two very good players in former starters Tekele Cotton and Darius Carter, but the transfers of former Kansas guard Connor Frankamp, who will be eligible in December, and former Cleveland State forward Anton Grady should alleviate that burden. The Shockers don’t make mistakes and harass you on the defensive end, two traits they hope help lead them to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament for the third time in the last four years.

There isn’t a second team in the Valley as strong as the Panthers last season, but Illinois State is riding some nice momentum after ending last season strong with an Arch Madness win over Wichita State before pushing Northern Iowa to the limit. Former starters Daishon Knight and Reggie Lynch (transfer to Minnesota) will be tough to replace but versatile wing DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell returns along with junior guard and defensive dynamo Paris Lee and forward Deontae Hawkins. If New Mexico transfer Nick Banyard can help replace Lynch, the Redbirds should be tough.

Evansville brings the Valley’s most potent one-two punch in high-scoring senior guard D.J. Balentine and center Egidijus Mockevicius and the Purple Aces return all five starters from a 24-win team that won the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. Head coach Marty Simmons is hoping that his roster — which returns 91 percent of the scoring and 94 percent of the rebounding — can make an additional leap this season.

It’s not likely that Northern Iowa wins another 31 games now that Valley Player of the Year Seth Tuttle has exhausted his eligibility, but you can’t count out this new-look Panther team. Starters Matt Bohannon and Jeremy Morgan return and Northern Iowa also has some key reserves like wing Paul Jesperson and guards Wes Washpun and Wyatt Lohaus returning.

One of the league’s most intriguing teams will be Loyola, who won 24 games and the CBI last season despite 11 missed conference games from star guard Milton Doyle. When healthy, Doyle is a potential first-team All-Valley player and he’s flanked by a talented and productive group that returns four starters. Indiana State boasts one of the league’s best backcourts as starters Devonte Brown, Brenton Scott and Khristian Smith return, but the frontcourt is a very big question mark. The Citadel transfer Matt Van Scyoc should help up front after sitting out a redshirt season.

Drake is beginning to put together a talented roster after back-to-back solid recruiting classes. Sophomore guard Reed Timmer looks like a future all-league candidate and the Bulldogs brought in a lot of size this recruiting class to bolster their overall depth. Missouri State returns a decent amount of experience, but they finished last season losing 14 of their final 17 games and need to make a major leap this season. Among the returnees, seniors Camryn Boone and Austin Ruder are the most productive players.

It was a tough offseason for Southern Illinois as the program lost five transfers, including some promising younger players. But the Salukis will move on with senior guard Anthony Beane, who should put up big numbers like he did last season. Head coach Barry Hinson needs junior forward Sean O’Brien to be consistent while he’s hoping a recruiting class of some junior college players and late signees can get up to speed quickly. New head coach Brian Wardle is essentially starting from scratch at Bradley as the Braves return one starter from a team that was 3-15 in the conference last season. It will be a year of seeing which newcomers can be important pieces for the future, but Wardle was successful at Green Bay and is hoping to turn it around in Peoria.

MORE: 2015-16 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

COACH’S TAKE

  • Favorite: “As long as VanVleet and Baker are roaming the backcourt, you can write the Shockers as the favorites with a pen. They rarely make mistakes and they always step up in the clutch.
  • Sleeper: “You look at Loyola winning eight conference games last season without [Milton] Doyle [for some of that time] and that’s an impressive feat. It wouldn’t surprise me to see them have another nice season.”
  • Star to watch: “Just sit back and enjoy the ride when it comes to Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker. That’s one of finest backcourts that this game has seen in the last few years and, while I won’t miss playing them, I will miss what they brought to this league.”

PRESEASON MVC PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State

It’s a toss-up for this award between Baker and Van Vleet, but Van Vleet gets the slight edge for the way he stepped up at the end of last season. One of the country’s most experienced floor leaders, Van Vleet has already earned 95 wins during his career and he’s coming off of a balanced season. The 6-foot-0 senior averaged 13.6 points, 5.2 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.9 steals per game and he’s a player that isn’t afraid to play in big games and take big shots.

THE REST OF THE PRESEASON ALL-MVC TEAM:

  • Ron Baker, Wichita State: The better long-term prospect of the Shocker senior duo, Baker is a versatile guard who also brings an absurd amount of big-game experience. Baker has shot 38 percent from 3-point range the last two seasons and he cut his turnovers significantly last season despite playing more minutes.
  • D.J. Balentine, Evansville: One of the best scorers in the country, the senior is coming off back-to-back 20-point seasons and figures to put up big numbers. If Balentine can continue to improve his assist-to-turnover ratio he’ll be tough to stop.
  • DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, Illinois State: The versatile forward was Illinois State’s leading rebounder last year while being named the Valley’s Newcomer of the Year. The Redbirds are hoping for even more production in extended minutes.
  • Egidijus Mockevicius, Evansville: The interior running mate to Balentine, Mockevicius finished top 20 in the nation in both field-goal percentage (59%; 16th) and rebounding (9.9 rpg; 19th) as a junior.

ONE TWITTER FEED TO FOLLOW:

PREDICTED FINISH

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