2020-21 MVC BASKETBALL PREVIEW PART II: THE MIDDLE
Updated: Dec 7, 2020
The preview continues with the teams that I believe will avoid Thursday and claim spots three through six at Arch Madness. Author’s note: It is becoming pretty clear as I write these that they are not just previews but long form essays on how each MVC team got to their current spot on the college basketball landscape. So I hope you’re into that.
6.) Missouri State (2019-20 Results: 16-17, 9-9, BPI: 127): To be a Missouri State Bears fan in the 21st century is to be in college basketball purgatory. Perhaps no other team in the league has had as much unfulfilled promise as the Bears. A Sweet 16 team in 1999 under Steve Alford, the MSU spent the Barry Hinson years of the early 2000s flying close to the sun and always getting burned. From 2002 until 2007, in an MVC that had multiple teams in the tournament every year, Hinson’s Bears won an average of 11 league games. They lost the Arch Madness title game twice and played in the NIT three times. This was a time when the Valley was as strong as it has ever been, including the four-bid season of 2005-06 in which Missouri State actually finished 3rd but was not granted a bid and remains one of the best rated teams of all-time to not be included in the field. It is hard to forget the scene that played out in Springfield that selection Sunday when Barry Hinson invited a bunch of media to join them in their watch party, only to see a subdued Hinson have to address the disappointed group instead of capturing a celebration.
Unfortunately for everyone involved with the MVC, Barry couldn’t get MSU over the hump. The Missouri State brass made a great hire in Cuonzo Martin to replace him. It was almost too good a hire. Martin led the Bears to a CIT championship in just his second season. In his third year his team captured what is to date their only MVC regular season title, finishing with a 15-3 league record. But their bridesmaid status was reaffirmed as they lost the Arch Madness title game and had to settle for another NIT bid. Martin bolted to Tennessee (then Cal, then Missouri), and Bears fans prefer not to talk about the ensuing Paul Lusk years. The evidence suggests the guy could recruit but couldn’t really coach and the Bears seemingly had lofty expectations but failed to live up to them every year. Lusk never finished above .500 in the league in seven years and was finally ousted two years ago. Dana Ford was his replacement, and he led the team to a surprising fourth place finish in year one.
That brings us to last year. Missouri State was the unquestioned favorite in the league heading into the season. They had a young up-and-coming coach, and the most talented roster paper. They scheduled like they knew they were good too….making a push for a resume that was good enough to garner at-large consideration with the likes of Xavier, Miami, LSU and VCU on their nonconference ledger. In the end, it was yet another year of wildly missed expectations. MSU lost every single game I listed above, as well as games to Little Rock, Buffalo, and Oral Roberts in the nonconference and proceeded to lose half of their MVC games as well. When the dust settled on the season the unanimous preseason favorites had to cling to a tiebreaker just to avoid the Thursday play-in round at Arch Madness. While they did get a big win in their first Arch Madness game, they blew another opportunity in the semifinals losing to 7th seeded Valpo, who was playing their third game in as many days.
This year MSU comes in with significantly lower expectations. Lower, in fact, than even my placement of them in most cases. That comes from a combination of factors, their disappointing year last year chief among them. They also lost leading scorer (and third leading rebounder) Keandre Cook, leading rebounder (and third leading scorer) Tulio Da Silva, and other key players Josh Hall and Lamont West. That is four out of seven guys that averaged twenty minutes or more no longer on the roster.
On the positive side, the Bears do return Gage Prim who came seemingly out of nowhere to garner 3rd team All-MVC honors and a spot on the All-Newcomer team. He averaged 13.7 PPG and nearly 5 rebounds per game and emerged as one of the better bigs in the MVC. He is the foundation they will build around this year as their senior leader. Isiaih Mosley is another key returner, as well as Jared Ridder who returns from injury.
Mo State will once again be relying on a bevy of newcomers, many of which are JuCo transfers, to have success this year (as is their custom). Three JuCo transfers will count among their key guys this year. The most hyped of the bunch is NJCAA All-American Demarcus Sharp who will likely be the starting point guard. Freshman Sidney Wicks will also be looked upon for minutes, and the other two JuCos and four freshmen will provide depth.
This season’s roster is not as proven or talented as last year’s group, but I think there is something to be said about not having to deal with the burden of expectations. The talk out of Bears camp is that the team is closer-knit and having more fun than last year’s group and I think that can go a long way. This is sort of the opposite of my SIU pick. I like the Bears to be more competitive because they don’t have the pressure of living up to the expectations that have caused so many previous MSU teams to wilt. This could definitely be a play-in team, but I think they’re more likely to be playing in the 4/5 game than on Thursday.
5. Indiana State (2019 Results: 18-12, 11-7, BPI: 149): Indiana State is due for an NCAA Tournament. The Sycamores made unlikely runs to the big dance in both 2000-01 and 2010-11. With the 2020-21 season coming up it would make sense that ISU is in the mix again, following their 10-year tradition (in case you’re wondering, yes, this theory loses steam if you look back any further than 2001). Those two NCAA Tournament appearances are the highlights of a somewhat depressing 21st century resume in Terre Haute. It isn’t entirely their fault, however. Despite their strong history of having Larry Bird, Indiana State is one of the toughest coaching jobs in the MVC. The facilities and resources are among the bottom tier of MVC schools. And while Indiana is a basketball hungry state, the Trees must compete with the likes of Indiana, Butler, Notre Dame, Purdue and five other mid-major programs for in-state recruits. That can be blamed for why Indiana State’s history is so inconsistent.
ISU Blue opened the century with two NCAA Tournaments in 2000 and 2001, including an upset win over 4th seeded Oklahoma in 2001. They then went completely underground, paying the penance for that success with eight consecutive losing seasons under Royce Waltman and Kevin McKenna in which they averaged only five MVC wins per season. The Greg Lansing era began in 2011 with another NCAA Tournament in a surprise run through Arch Madness. Under Lansing Indy State has been more competitive than they were under the previous two administrations. The Jake Odum era garnered two NIT bids, and Indiana State would have been the best team in the MVC by a pretty wide margin in 2014 if the league had not featured the undefeated Wichita State juggernaut coming off a Final Four year. Overall, Indiana State has been middle-of-the-pack pretty consistently under Lansing, winning about half of their games and losing at Arch Madness. Oh yeah, that is definitely a thing. The Trees have been seeded all over the map from 3rd to 9th but have lost four straight Arch Madness games and seven out of eight.
Last year Indiana State pulled a mild surprise with its first winning season since Jake Odum’s senior year in 2014, finishing a respectable 18-12 and 11-7 which was good for the third seed at Arch Madness. They lost to sixth seeded Missouri State in perhaps the bloodiest quarterfinal in MVC history. It was a substantial opportunity missed, as when Indy State took the court for the final quarterfinal game on Friday night they were the top remaining seed in the field with UNI and Loyola having lost earlier in the day. They fumbled the chance and lost to Missouri State, who in turn lost to Valpo, who in turn lost to Bradley.
This year the Trees have high expectations due to what they return, but they did lose a few “key pieces” as sports executives tend to refer to human beings. Jordan Barnes is probably the biggest. He was third team all-league and the second leading scorer for Indiana State, as well as its leader in assists. They also lost Christian Williams and Bronson Kessinger who both played a role in the rotation but won’t be as sorely missed as Barnes.
The slate that is returning has tickled a few pickles. Tyreke Key, a first-team all-league selection last year, is….the key… which would technically be true even if it wasn’t true. He led the team in scoring and was second in rebounds while playing over 33 minutes a game last year. They also return guards Jake LaRavia, Cooper Neese and center Tre Williams, all of whom averaged more than 20 minutes a game and 7 points per game. That depth of experience is what has ISU blue high on a lot of MVC prognostication lists.
In addition, Indiana State will add Towson transfer Tobias Howard, a senior who averaged more than 10 points a game for the CAA outfit two years ago. He try to fill in the production lost by Barnes’ absence. Randy Miller is another senior grad transfer guard who averaged 14 points a game for North Carolina Central. The MVC will be a step up in play for him, but he could challenge for a starting spot as well. This will give Indiana State one of the most experienced starting fives in the MVC (although two of the candidates are sophomores in LaRavia and Williams). A trio of freshmen and a couple Juco transfers will give them depth.
Tyreke Key is a great place to start, and there are so many guys here who could make big contributions. If Tre Williams and Jake Laravia are both able to make the traditional freshman-to-sophomore jump, there is no reason why Indiana State can’t be one of the better teams in the league. If the supporting cast can step up, all the better. This will be an interesting team to watch as Greg Lansing continues to fight for his job. There is potential for a real strong squad that can challenge the top teams in the MVC here, but there is also the potential for a bottom four team as well. Yes, Indiana State is that team.
4.) Drake Bulldogs (2019 Results: 20-14, 8-10, BPI: 181): Looking back at Drake’s recent history, I feel like I may have been too harsh on Evansville. Really the only thing separating the two programs is that Drake had one great year in 2008. Without that, we’d probably be talking about the Bulldogs as the league’s 20th century doormat. In the 24 years since Arch Madness went to the 10-team format, Drake has played on Thursday (or the equivalent) nineteen times. They’ve done it fifteen out of the last twenty years (three more than Evansville). Drake has been such a fixture in the play-in rounds that my friends and I have taken to calling it “Drake Night” (to ourselves, we’d be too chicken to say it to an actual Drake fan’s face). Seems like, except for the 2008 team (and to a lesser extent the 2019 co-champs) the most noteworthy thing coming out of Des Moines has been the marketing. This includes the famous “D+” campaign, but I think the “Drake: Do Something” campaign is underrated in this regard. The signs printed said “Do Something” above “Drake” which read like “DO SOMETHING DRAKE!” to the reader. Drake basketball was quite on brand in that regard.
The 2000s started off with Kurt Kanaskie who, to put it mildly, had a rough go. Tom Davis was next and spent the twilight of his career making things better for the Bulldogs (but still not ideal). His son, Keno, took over in 2008 and will probably always be remembered for his lone year in Des Moines. Keno took over a team that had lost most starters from a 6-12 campaign the year before and just dominated the league, won Arch Madness, was ranked 14th at year’s end, and got heartbreakingly knocked out of the first round of the tournament as a five-seed. Keno immediately bolted for the sweet sweet pastures of Providence, and Mark Phelps followed for five mediocre seasons. He was followed by Ray Giacoletti for three plus really bad ones. Niko Medved made a pit stop in central Iowa before bolting for Colorado State, and the Bulldogs finally hired the guy they should have nabbed long ago, Darien Devries.
In Devries’ first year at the helm, Drake won an MVC co-championship, just their second league title since Maury John left in 1971. Last season they entered with decent expectations, and quite frankly really should have done better than their 8th place finish given the talent they had, especially considering how wildly Liam Robins exceeded expectations. They did upset top seed Northern Iowa in the Arch Madness quarterfinals, the first time in history a 1-seed lost in that round. They lost to eventual champion Bradley the next day. Liam Robbins was second team all-league as a sophomore post player while leading the team in points and rebounds.
I would probably have Drake in the 3-spot had Robbins stayed in Des Moines. Instead he took all the development and coaching Drake, one of the few schools that gave him a chance, gave him and took his talents to the Big Ten to play for Minnesota. That is a very rough loss for the Drake. Third leading scorer and rebounder Anthony Murphy is also gone to graduation. And just today, senior guard Noah Thomas opted out due to Covid.
Even with the losses of Murphy, Robbins and Thomas I am still very high on Drake. Despite the losses, they have quite a bit returning. You can start with Roman Penn who was third-team all-league and a member of the all-newcomer team. Penn will be a junior and the likely leader of this team after averaging 10 points and nearly five and a half assists per game last season. DJ Wilkins, Garrett Sturtz, Jonah Jackson are all guys that played 18-29 minutes game last season and will be back. Throw in Tremell Murphy who was one of the best players on Drake’s 18-19 MVC Championship team before missing most of last season with an injury, and you have arguably one of the most experienced rosters in the Valley.
But that’s not all! Drake brings in ShanQuan Hemphill, a transfer from Green Bay who averaged 11.7 points and nearly six boards in his most recent season. They also have Seton Hall transfer Darnell Brodie, who is the tallest player on the roster at 6’ 9’’ (nice) and although he had little impact at Seton Hall he could be called upon to immediately start as a junior for Drake this year. Drake will also bring five freshmen (a mix of true and redshirt variety) into the fold as depth.
There is no question the Bulldogs will miss Robbins, but they are still a stellar, experienced squad without him. Roman Penn is a dark horse for first team all-league honors, and Drake has a ton of veteran leadership in seniors Jackson, Murphy, and Hemphill. If the two transfers can come in and contribute right away, this is a team that should be at or near the top of the Valley come season’s end.
3.) Bradley (11-7, 23-11, BPI: 110): With the departures of Creighton and Wichita State from the MVC, the Bradley Braves have emerged as the school with the biggest fanbase and most resources in the Valley. And so far they have taken advantage of the post Shocker and BJ era to the tune of two league titles. But those came at the end of two very good weekends for the Braves. In the long grind of the MVC season, Bradley hasn’t distinguished themselves as exceptional in many years.
Its been an up-and-down century for Bradley. They did have a Sweet 16 season in 2006 as a 13-seed that got an at-large, and finally claimed an Arch Madness title in 2019 (and again last year). They’ve been pretty mediocre otherwise. Despite their inherent advantages, the Braves have spent an inordinate amount of time in the play-in games. The Jim Les era was fairly good, as he stomped his way to the Sweet 16 and an NIT season (to go along with the odd distinction of back to back runner ups in the CBI and CIT). What followed was an unmitigated disaster. Bradley lost 65% of its games over the four-year Geno Ford era.
Brian Wardle inherited an empty cupboard and has grown a program that has improved in every one of his five years, culminating in two consecutive Arch Madness titles. But the BU faithful can’t deny the fact that the sea parted in many ways for them to get those two titles. Bradley defeated arguably the two worst teams in Arch Madness title game history, and last season defeated a 5-seed, an 8-seed and a 7-seed in their title run. That doesn’t take away from what they accomplished….you win the games that are put in front of you. But it makes an otherwise average couple of seasons look a lot better.
The fact remains that Bradley hasn’t entered Arch Madness higher than a 4-seed since 2001, and hasn’t won a regular season league title since 1996. Bradley’s 2019 Arch Madness run was their first tourney title since 1988 and their first title in St. Louis. While the last two years have been good to BU, they have not quite reached the upper echelon of the MVC quite yet. However, if they continue to show the year-over-year improvement they have shown the first five years under Wardle, this may be a sleeping giant that is about ready to wake up.
That said, I am not sure I am sold on this year’s BU team being closer to Loyola and UNI than they are to the pack behind them. The loss of second-team All-Valley performer Darrel Brown (who led the team in points and assists) may be tougher to overcome than many believe. He was the soul of this team. The Braves also lose third leading scorer Nate Kennell and leading rebounder Koch Bar.
However, the Bradley does not lose Elijah Childs, who was also a second-team all-league performer despite missing about half of the Valley season. The title of “heart and soul” of the team falls from Brown to Childs who will lead from the post rather than the backcourt like Brown did. Also back is junior JaShon Henry who averaged 9.5 points and 6 boards, as well as contributors Danya Kingsby, Ville Tahvanainen and Ari Boya who will provide experience for the Gargoyles.
The key to Bradley continuing their upward trajectory will be the contributions of the transfers. Sean East is a sophomore who averaged 9 points, 5 boards as a freshman at UMass. Terry Nolan averaged 10 points 5 boards as a sophomore at George Washington two years ago, while Kevin McAdoo contributed over 8 points a game for Eastern Michigan. All three will be looked upon to contribute in a big way, especially East and Nolan. Bradley will also have four freshman to provide depth if it is needed, although it may not be.
If Bradley is to continue its upward trajectory and compete with UNI and Loyola, it will need Elijah Childs to stay healthy and be a leader, it will need Ari Boya to stay out of foul trouble, it will need role players like Kingsby and Henry to step up and perhaps most importantly it will need the transfers to step in and gel right away. If all of those things happen, BU will be one of the better teams in the MVC and break their streak of 4th or worse seeding in 2021. If not, it is possible they could take a step back to the middle of the pack.
That is it for the middle part of this list. We’ll be back with the two teams I predict to be top of the league. See if you can guess who!