Fred Van Vleet

Kris Dunn (AP Photo)

College Basketball’s Most Important Players

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While the conversation of who is the best player in college basketball can be rather straightforward most years, as many have focused on Providence’s Kris Dunn and LSU’s Ben Simmons ahead of this season, determining who are the most important players in college basketball is a different matter. For some that may mean that they’re the primary scorer, while the importance of other players may best be measured in areas such as defense and leadership.

Below are ten of the nation’s most important players heading into the 2015-16 campaign.

1. Kris Dunn, Providence: Say what you want about the Friars’ chances of reaching the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive season, but there’s no denying just how important the redshirt junior point guard is to his team. Last season Dunn averaged 15.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 2.7 steals per game, emerging as one of the nation’s best point guards. Now expected to be the best player in the country, Dunn has to lead a team that lost three of its top four scorers from a season ago. His skill level and leadership will be critical for Ed Cooley’s team.

2. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky: Sure the future professional prospects of players such as Jamal Murray and Skal Labissiere are bound to receive attention, but no player may be of greater importance to the Wildcats than their sophomore point guard. Ulis played in a reserve role on last year’s 38-1 team, and given the overall youth of this group his ability to lead will be of great importance to John Calipari’s team. While Kentucky does have some experienced players, the best of that bunch is either returning from injury (Alex Poythress) or getting used to a more prominent role (Marcus Lee).

3. Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble met (and some would argue, exceeded) the hype in College Park as a freshman, accounting for 16.2 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game. Also one of the nation’s best at getting to the foul line, Trimble was a key factor in the Terrapins’ turnaround in 2014-15. Now with Mark Turgeon’s team being labeled as a national title contender, Trimble’s strides as a leader will be key for a group that isn’t short on talent by any stretch of the imagination. How will this group deals with those expectations will depend largely upon the play of their point guard.

4. Marcus Paige, North Carolina: Paige is currently sidelined with a broken bone on his non-shooting hand, with the expectation being that he’ll miss between three and four weeks. While that provides some of his teammates with opportunities to step forward, that doesn’t mask just how important the senior guard is to North Carolina’s national title hopes. Paige (14.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) was UNC’s best distributor and scorer a season ago, and he was also by far their best perimeter shooter. He’s the biggest key for a team expected to contend for a national title.

5. Tyrone Wallace, California: We’ve discussed Wallace’s role on here during our preseason coverage and with good reason. The left-handed senior was a Bob Cousy Award finalist last season and will once again run the show for Cuonzo Martin’s Golden Bears. But the circumstances are much different this time around, with Cal being a team expected to both contend in the Pac-12 and be a factor nationally. None of that happens if Wallace, who averaged 17.1 points, 7.1 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game as a junior, doesn’t lead.

Tyrone Wallace (AP Photo)
Tyrone Wallace (AP Photo)

6. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: The Spartans lost two key contributors from last year’s Final Four team in Travis Trice and Branden Dawson, but they have enough talent to make a return trip. One of those players is Valentine, a senior whose versatility is matched by few in college basketball. Valentine can play any position on the perimeter, and after averaging 14.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game as a junior he’s capable of taking another step forward in 2015-16.

7. Monté Morris, Iowa State: Morris took a significant step forward as a sophomore, averaging 11.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game on a team that won its second consecutive Big 12 tournament crown. But that team was one and done in the NCAA tournament, and with a new head coach in Steve Prohm at the helm a team with national title desires will have to adjust to a different style. At the forefront is Morris, and given how point guards who have played for Prohm in recent years (Isaiah Canaan, Cameron Payne) have flourished this could be a big year for the junior. While the front court has talent and experience, how well Morris runs the show will have the greatest impact on the Cyclones.

8. Ben Simmons, LSU: Simmons arrived in Baton Rouge amidst much fanfare and with good reason, as he’s considered to be the top prospect heading towards next June’s NBA Draft. At 6-foot-10 the Australian has the size and athleticism needed to make an immediate impact for a team that lost Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, and his skill set is such at he’ll serve as a point forward for Johnny Jones’ Tigers. How Simmons navigates the balance between scorer and table-setter will be key for a team looking to rebound from their disappointing NCAA tournament loss to NC State.

9. Brandon Ingram, Duke: The reigning national champions have a lot to replace from last season’s team, with three first-round picks (Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones) and senior leader Quinn Cook all having moved on to the professional ranks. Adding another top-ranked recruiting class to the ranks helps with the adjustment process, with the crown jewel being the 6-foot-8 Ingram. Slender of build, Ingram has the skill set needed to play any of the three perimeter positions in Duke’s offense and there’s a good chance he’ll be asked to do so. While Grayson Allen’s expected to make a sizable jump as a sophomore, Ingram’s production could be the key to a run at a sixth title for Coach K.

10. Wayne Selden Jr., Kansas: How far Bill Self’s loaded team goes this season may rest on the shoulder of the junior off-guard. And how ready Selden is to shepherd this group will depend largely upon his mindset entering the season. Does Selden play as the sometimes deferential player he was in his first two seasons in Lawrence? Or does he play in the “attack mode” shown at the World University Games in South Korea this summer? If Selden is the former, Kansas risks not reaching their full potential even with the talent they have on the perimeter (Frank Mason III, Devonté Graham, etc.) and in the post (Perry Ellis, Carlton Bragg, Cheick Diallo if cleared, etc.).

AND TEN MORE

  • 11. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: The last standing member of “The Movement” that was supposed to change Indiana basketball, Ferrell will have to lead the way for a talented team facing high expectations.
  • 12. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: While Iowa State has received a lot of attention as Kansas’ biggest threat in the Big 12, do not overlook Oklahoma with the reigning Big 12 POY being a key reason why.
  • 13. Fred VanVleet, Wichita State: The tandem of VanVleet and Ron Baker has accomplished a great deal to this point in their college careers. VanVleet will look to lead the Shockers to their second Final Four appearance from the point, and don’t be shocked if he pulls it off.
  • 14. Daniel Ochefu, Villanova: The Wildcats are loaded with perimeter talent, but do not overlook the importance of their defensive anchor.
  • 15. Caris LeVert, Michigan: Healthy after playing just 18 games due to a foot injury, the versatile LeVert is a key component for a Michigan team more than capable of rebounding from last year’s 16-16 record.
  • 16. Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame: With Jerian Grant moving on Jackson will run the show for Mike Brey’s Fighting Irish. Expected by many to make a considerable jump as a junior, Jackson is the kind of talent who can make Notre Dame a contender in the ACC.
  • 17. Ryan Anderson, Arizona: The Wildcats’ closest thing to a proven scorer at this level, the Boston College transfer will need to be that guy for a team looking to mesh a lot of new pieces with holdovers who played in supplementary roles the last couple years.
  • 18. Taurean Waller-Prince, Baylor: As a key cog in one of the nation’s top front courts, the 6-foot-8 senior has the ability to score at all three levels. That will be key for a Baylor team with perimeter questions to answer.
  • 19. Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State: Rathan-Mayes’ scoring abilities aren’t be questioned based upon what he did as a freshman on a team lacking scoring options. Now with the Seminoles loaded with talent, his role as a distributor will be key for a team that can be a sleeper in the ACC.
  • 20. Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin: Given how much the Badgers lost from last season’s national runner-up team, both Koenig and Nigel Hayes will be key players. The pick for most important is Koenig, as he’ll be the one with the ball in his hands at the point.

NBC Sports Preseason All-Americans: Kris Dunn Player of the Year

Kris Dunn (AP Photo)
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PRESEASON PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Kris Dunn, Providence

Kris Dunn was criminally-underrated last season, and despite the fact that he’s being projected as a top ten pick, it seems that the media at large is intent on doing the same thing once again this season. Here’s the deal: Dunn is a big, athletic point guard in the mold of John Wall, only, as one NBA scout put it to NBC Sports, a B-plus athlete instead of an A-plus athlete. He’s as good in transition and in ball-screen actions as any guard in the country, which is important because Providence head coach Ed Cooley is going to be putting Dunn in those situations quite a bit this season.

Cooley always asks his point guards to carry the water for his team’s. That’s why guys like Vincent Council, Bryce Cotton and, at Fairfield, Derek Needham put up such big numbers. Last season, Dunn averaged 15.6 points, 7.5 assists and 5.5 boards despite struggling with his efficiency; that’s what happens when you average 4.2 turnovers. Providence hemorrhaged big bodies this offseason and lost leading scorer LaDontae Henton to graduation.

[MORE: Top 100 players | Preseason Top 25]

In other words, Dunn’s usage this season is going to be off-the-charts, and so long as he can rid himself of the massive number of unforced turnovers he committed last season, his efficiency should improve. Throw in his elite defensive ability and (hopefully) an improved jumper, and you’re looking at the nation’s best player.

Now I get it.

Providence is likely going to be one of those teams that doesn’t lock up an NCAA tournament berth until late-February. This is a group that’s probably looking at getting seeded somewhere in that No. 7-No. 10 range.

Assuming the Preseason Player of the Year Award is a prediction of who we think wins it at the end of the year, is it possible to give that honor to a player that isn’t supposed to advance out of the first weekend of the NCAA tournament?

When they’re as good as Kris Dunn is, I say yes.

(And as an addendum, I understand why someone would vote ‘no’ there. I get that argument. But leaving him off of first-team all-america entirely? That’s just plain wrong.)

MORE: Top leads guards | Top off guards | Top Wings | Top Bigs

Buddy Hield (AP)
Buddy Hield (AP)

NBC SPORTS’ FIRST TEAM ALL-AMERICANS

Kris Dunn, Providence

Marcus Paige, North Carolina

Last season, we had Marcus Paige pegged as the Preseason National Player of the Year. That … did not turn out well, but it wasn’t because Paige suddenly became a bad basketball player. It’s because he was injured. He underwent arthroscopic surgery on his ankle. He was able to rest the plantar fasciitis that bothered him last season. He’s back to 100 percent, which means, theoretically, he’s back to being the player that was predicted to be the National Player of the Year at this time last year.

Buddy Hield, Oklahoma

As a freshman, Hield was considered to be mostly a defensive stopper. Over the course of the last two seasons, however, he developed into one of the nation’s best scorers as well, averaging 17.4 points and 5.4 boards as a junior. He deserves his spot on this list, even if he plays for a team off of basketball’s beaten bath. The next step for Hield will be to solidify his jumper. At the tail end of his junior year, the 6-foot-4 Bahamian shot just 9-for-40 from beyond the arc.

Ben Simmons, LSU

Basketball fans are going to fall in love with Simmons’ game rather quickly. In the pantheon of new-age big men, Simmons, a 6-foot-9 Australian, falls somewhere between point forward and small-ball four. He’s a deft passer and a slick ball-handler, smooth in spite of his size with a flair for making dazzling plays in the open floor. He’s has a bad habit of trying to make the fancy pass instead of the easy pass, and his jumper needs work, but given his size and skill-set, Simmons will likely make a run at Kyle Collinsworth’s record of six triple-doubles in one season.

Skal Labissiere, Kentucky

Labissiere has everything that NBA teams look for in a big man these days. He’s a face-up post scorer with range, for now, out to the college three-point line. He’s functional with his back-to-the-basket. He has the size (7-feet) and the athleticism to catch lobs and finish above the rim. He can protect the rim defensively. He works hard. He wants to be good. He has a tremendous backstory. These are the kind of kids that John Calipari always has success with, and while Labissiere isn’t the defender that Anthony Davis is or the low-post scoring threat that Karl Towns is, but he should be just as good in Kentucky blue.

Denzel Valentine (AP Photo)
Denzel Valentine (AP Photo)

SECOND TEAM

  • Melo Trimble, Maryland: Trimble is the star point guard on a Maryland team that is the favorite to win the Big Ten title and has the horses to reach the Final Four. I expect Trimble’s scoring (16.0 ppg last year) to drop this year, but he’ll be this team’s engine and the guy with the ball in his hands down the stretch.
  • Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia: Brogdon is one of those guys that doesn’t have a weakness in his game. He can shoot, he can pass, he can score in the post, he can rebound the ball, he can defend. Tony Bennett loves guys like that, which is why Brogdon is such a perfect fit in Charlottesville.
  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine is going to go from being a good player teams in the Big Ten know about to a star in the college ranks this year. As a junior, he averaged 14.5 points, 6.3 boards, 4.3 assists and shot 41.6 percent from three.
  • Georges Niang, Iowa State: Niang may be the toughest cover in the sport. The biggest question that he faces this season: How much of his success the past two seasons was due to his ability, and how much was a result of just how good Fred Hoiberg was at taking advantage of his skill-set?
  • Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga: Wiltjer’s shooting splits as a junior (54.0/46.6/78.9) strongly resembled those of Doug McDermott. I get why people will make that comparison: high-scoring, sharp-shooting, defensively-lacking fours playing for programs outside the Power 5 Conferences.
Fred Van Vleet (Getty Images)
Fred Van Vleet (Getty Images)

THIRD TEAM

  • Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame: Jackson will be taking over the Jerian Grant role this season. Another super-talented point guard, Jackson will be put into plenty of ball-screen actions by head coach Mike Brey, something he thrives on.
  • Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State: We went with Van Vleet over Baker here. Baker may have the better pro prospects, but Van Vleet is the guy with the ball in his hands in the big moments.
  • Jamal Murray, Kentucky: I’m still not quite sure what to expect from Jamal Murray. He’s a big-time shooter that can get hot in a hurry, but is he truly a lead guard? He’s the odds-on favorite to lead Kentucky in scoring.
  • Perry Ellis, Kansas: Mr. Consistency. For some reason, Ellis always seems to be overlooked when we talk about the best players in college basketball.
  • Damian Jones, Vanderbilt: Jones is going to sneak up on some people this season. A junior, he was one of the best big men in the SEC last season. He’ll be surrounded by shooters this year, meaning he’s going to have a ton of room to operate.

Ranking the best lead guards in college basketball

Kris Dunn (AP)
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We kick off our position-by-position rankings with the lead guards.

What is a lead guard, you ask? 

It’s a loose definition, I know, but it’s the guy that we think is going to be the team’s primary ball-handler and/or playmaker. True point guards, combo-guards, shooting guards that operate best with the ball in their hands. They all count.

Definitive, right?

Anyway, here are our rankings.

What did we get wrong?:

[MORE: Top backcourts | Top frontcourts]

1. Kris Dunn, Providence

Dunn was an easy pick here just as he was an easy pick for No. 1 in our top 100 players countdown. As a sophomore last season, Dunn averaged 15.6 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 boards and 2.7 steals. With LaDontae Henton graduating during the offseason and Ed Cooley’s preference to play uptempo basketball, I wouldn’t be surprised to see those stats on the uptick this year. Dunn does, however, have two major flaws in his game: he turns the ball over too much and he needs to become a more consistent and confident jump-shooter. He’s been putting in the work to improve, but we have to wait and see if it manifests in production on the court.

2. Marcus Paige, North Carolina

We had Paige pegged as the Preseason National Player of the Year last season, and that turned out to be wrong. It wasn’t necessarily because Paige wasn’t good enough. The 6-foot-3 senior spent much of last season battling foot and ankle injuries and was forced into a situation where he had to primarily play as a point guard. Well, Paige is healthy now, and with Joel Berry expected to take over the point guard role for the Tar Heels, Paige should be freed up to be in more of an attacking role.

3. Melo Trimble, Maryland

Trimble’s numbers as a freshman were impressive: 16.2 points, 3.0 assists, 41.2% 3PT, 86.3% FT. As good as those numbers were, perhaps Trimble’s true value came in his late-game demeanor. He was, for lack of a better term, one of the most clutch players in the sport, a major reason that the Terps were able to win so many close games. Losing Dez Wells is going to hurt, but with more talent around him this season, Trimble should be asked to do less offensively as a sophomore. But he’ll still have the ball in his hands late in games, which is why Maryland is a considered a favorite to win the national title.

4. Jamal Murray, Kentucky

At this point, it’s hard to imagine Murray living up to the hype he has entering the season. Anything short of Steph Curry or Jimmer Fredette will almost feel like a disappointment. That’s not to say Murray can’t play. He can. He’s the odds-on favorite to lead Kentucky in scoring and will likely be the primary handler in ball-screen actions. The key for Murray: efficiency and consistency. He has a habit of being a bit of a streaky shooter.

RELATED: Top 100 players | Top off-guards | Top Wings | Top Bigs

5-foot-11 Demetrius Jackson (AP Photo)
5-foot-11 Demetrius Jackson (AP Photo)

5. Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame

If this list was my own, and not a collaboration with the rest of the CBT team, Jackson would be higher. I think he’s going to have a huge year, good enough to be a second- or third-team all-american. Mike Brey loves to force-feed his lead guards, putting them in ball-screen after ball-screen and allowing them to carry the load offensively, as a scorer and a creator. Jackson has the talent to follow in those footsteps. He may not be as good as Jerian Grant, but he’s got lottery pick written all over him.

6. Fred Van Vleet, Wichita State

Fred Van Vleet is a senior. He reached the Final Four as a freshman, he led Wichita State to a 35-0 record and a No. 1 seed as a sophomore and, as a junior, he helped get the Shockers to the Sweet 16 by beating Kansas in the NCAA tournament. He’s a winner in every sense of the word, and it doesn’t hurt that he averaged 13.6 points and 5.2 assists.

7. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana

Ferrell is the engine that makes Indiana’s high-octane offense go. As a junior, Yogi’s numbers were quite impressive: 16.9 points, 4.9 assists, 1.9 turnovers and 41.2 percent shooting from three. But the reason that the Hoosiers lost 14 games last season was that they were ranked 214th in defensive efficiency, according to KenPom. That wasn’t all on Yogi, but he didn’t exactly solve the issue of Indiana’s sieve-like perimeter defense. I will say this: You may not find a more entertaining point guard to watch this season.

8. Monte Morris, Iowa State

Morris is a junior. He’s also the two-time national leader in assist-to-turnover ratio. Starting at the point on a team that has ranked 16th and 17th nationally in pace the last two years, Morris has a grand total of 66 turnovers. For comparison’s sake, Kris Dunn had 138 turnovers last year alone. The biggest question with Morris, like Iowa State as a whole, is how well he will adjust to Steve Prohm’s offense. Worth noting: Prohm turned Isaiah Canaan into an all-american and an early second round pick while helping Cameron Payne develop into a lottery pick.

9. Tyler Ulis, Kentucky

Murray is the guy that is likely going to put up the impressive numbers for Kentucky this season, but don’t let that blind you to just how good Ulis is. He’s everything that a coach looks for in a point guard: he’s a tough defender, he’s a leader, he’s unselfish, he protects the ball, he creates for his teammates, he can shoot it.

10. Malik Newman, Mississippi State

Newman is a tough guy to rank. On the one hand, the kid is one of the more talented scorers in the country, a combo-guard that can get hot and hit threes from deep. He’s a good bet to lead the entire SEC in scoring. But he’s also on a team that isn’t going to have that many other weapons, meaning that there are going to be times where a bad shot from Newman is a good shot for the Bulldogs. In other words, he’ll be a high-usage, high-scoring, low-efficiency player. How much do you value those offensive ratings?

  • 11. Tyrone Wallace, Cal: Wallace is a guy that I think should be getting more attention nationally. His shooting issues are a red flag, but he’s going to be the lead guard for what should be a Pac-12 contender embracing the small-ball revolution.
  • 12. Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Florida State: Consistency and efficiency. He went for 30-plus three times last season, but he scored in the single digits eight times, shot 28.1 percent from three and averaged 3.4 turnovers. Hopefully, the influx in talent in Tallahassee means he won’t have to do so much.
  • 13. D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown: Arguably the most underrated player in the Big East. His decision to return to school instead of declare for the NBA Draft is the reason Georgetown is a Big East contender.
  • 14. Nic Moore, SMU: Moore’s three postseasons at SMU: snubbed as a sophomore, goaltended as a junior and banned as a senior. It’s a shame, because he’s really, really good.
  • 15. Frank Mason, Kansas: Mason turned into the heart and soul of last year’s Kansas team. He’s tough, he sets a tone defensively and he makes some big shots. The most popular man in Lawrence not named Bill Self.
  • 16. Jalen Brunson, Villanova: How good is Brunson? He may end up moving the reigning co-Big East Player of the Year Ryan Arcidiacono off the ball this season.
  • 17. Isaiah Taylor, Texas: Taylor never really seemed to get into a rhythm after injuring his wrist last November, but he should be a perfect fit at the point for new head coach Shaka Smart.
  • 18. Cat Barber, N.C. State: The former five-star recruit should finally round into form as a junior. He’s had some big moments helping the Wolfpack reach back-to-back Sweet 16s.
  • 19. Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin: Koenig took over for the injured Traevon Jackson midway through last season, keeping his starting spot even when Jackson returned to health. He’ll have a lot on his plate this year as the Badgers replace five of their top seven from last season.
  • 20. Sterling Gibbs, UConn: Gibbs was impressive last season despite Seton Hall’s late season collapse. He’s a stop-gap for UConn at the lead guard spot as they wait for Jalen Adams to be ready to run the shot.

Others considered: Shaq Harrison (Tulsa) Ryan Arcidiacono (Villanova), London Perrantes (Virginia), Maodo Lo (Columbia), Bryce Alford (UCLA), Jalan West (Northwestern State)

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