Wichita State and Northern Iowa.
Ever since Creighton left the Missouri Valley Conference for greener pastures in the Big East, Wichita State and Northern Iowa have been the poster children for Valley Basketball — and for good reason: Their postseason successes have established the MVC as one of the best mid-major conferences in the country.
Last season, both the Shockers and Panthers advanced in the NCAA Tournament, with the Panthers knocking off Wyoming in the second round, and the Shockers beating traditional powerhouse programs Indiana and Kansas en route to yet another Sweet 16 appearance.
In other words, just another day at the office for two programs who have dominated the conference for the better part of the past decade.
So it comes as no surprise that the two mid-major powers are once again picked to finish 1-2 in the conference. The Shockers still have arguably the best duo in the country in Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker, and the Panthers — even without last year’s Valley Player of the Year Seth Tuttle — still have plenty of talent to compete for another conference championship.
But in the words of College Gameday analyst Lee Corso (Who says you can’t use college football phrases while talking about basketball?), “NOT SO FAST!”
Wichita State and Northern Iowa may be trendy picks to win the Valley this season, but there are a few other teams who may have something to say about it — namely Evansville, Illinois State and Loyola.
That’s right, the Valley won’t be a two-horse race this season. For the first time in a long time, they’ll be at least five teams (if not more) competing for the league title. So before you go crowning the Shockers or Panthers champs, you better do your research first.
Luckily, I’ve already done it for you.
The biggest threat to Wichita State-Northern Iowa supremacy this season will be Evansville. To say the Purple Aces are experienced is an extreme understatement.
Evansville returns 9 of its top 11 players from last year’s squad that won the CollegeInsider.com Tournament. It returns 91 percent of its scoring, 94 percent of its rebounds and three-point baskets, and 97 percent of its assists from last season.
Simply put, this is the best team Marty Simmons has had in his nine years as Evansville’s head coach.
Balentine was the leading scorer in the Valley last season, averaging 20.1 points per game. The two-time first-team All-MVC guard was named MVP of the CIT, averaging 27.2 ppg during five tournament games.
Meanwhile, Mockevicius is one of the nation’s best rebounders, averaging just under 10 boards per game for the Purple Aces last season. He also contributed 12.5 ppg and 74 blocks, and gives Evansville a dominant 6’10” low-post presence.
The combination of Balentine Mockevicius, along with the rest of the returning roster, make Evansville the deepest team in the Valley. With depth and talent, the Purple Aces will be tough to be come tournament-time.
However, if the Shockers and Panthers get past Evansville, there will be another team standing in their way — Illinois State.
The Redbirds knocked Wichita State out of the Valley tournament semifinals last season, and held an 18-point lead against Northern Iowa in the championship game.
This season, coach Dan Muller and the Redbirds want more, and they have the roster to take the next step.
Muller will have to figure out how to replace all-conference players Daishon Knight (graduation) and Reggie Lynch (transfer), but the Redbirds do return three other starters, led by last season’s Newcomer of the Year, DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell, and the league’s best defender, Paris Lee.
Akoon-Purcell — who averaged 12.8 ppg and 5.6 rebounds per game last season — has the potential to be an all-conference performer, and will be Illinois State’s most important player this season.
Lee led the league in steals last season, and was a MVC All-Defensive Team selection. He doesn’t provide as much offensively as Akoon-Purcell, but his defense will be crucial in containing some of the Valley’s best players, such as Van Vleet.
And then there’s Loyola. The Ramblers went from winning four conference games during their first season in the Valley to eight games last season. Truth be told, if star guard Milton Doyle hadn’t missed 11 games due to injury, that total probably would have been more.
Doyle is back this season, as is three other starters and five reserves from last season. The Ramblers also add junior college transfer Maurice Kirby, who began his career at Virginia Tech and will provide immediate help and much-needed size in the frontcourt.
With Evansville, Illinois State and Loyola all on the rise, Wichita State and Northern Iowa are in danger of losing their grip on the Valley. The Shockers and Panthers will face tough competition on a nightly basis in the Valley, and can not take winning for granted.
The Shockers are still conference favorites, with the Panthers close behind, but the gap is closing quickly. If the league’s second tier of teams continues to improve, we will see someone other than Wichita State or Northern Iowa winning the Valley sooner rather than later.
Is this the year that happens? It very well could be. Better buckle your seatbelt, Valley fans — it’s going to be a fun ride.