2020-21 MVC BASKETBALL PREVIEW PART I: THE MEDIOCRE
Updated: Nov 26, 2020
When I set out to make my 2020-21 predictions to kick off this site, I had the idea in my head that I was going to debunk the theory that the Valley is going to be very strong this year. People say that about the league every season, and every season ends up pretty much the same. Also, the league lost two of its biggest returning stars via transfer, which really took a bite out of their respective teams’ prospects and the league’s depth. So, I wanted to drop some truth bombs about how good (or not good) the Valley would really be.
Now that I’ve done my research and taken a look around, I have to say that the Valley is looking like it should be really good this year! The thing that caught me off guard was that despite the loss of Javon Freeman-Liberty and Liam Robbins to power 6 leagues (the Valley turning into a farm league for the big schools will certainly be a subject of this blog in the future, by the way), there are a TON of incoming transfers on rosters as well. That brews uncertainty, and with it the potential for some special teams and players to come out of nowhere. It also means the league could have some surprising depth.
All of this makes the league difficult to predict. In fact, trying to predict the MVC any season is a fool’s errand, but especially this one. If you recall last year there was a lot of hype for Evansville to be one of the better teams in the league (they did not win a game), and more than a handful of people had UNI amongst the Thursday play-in teams (they won the league). I could say, as many have, that the only things that would surprise me come from the top and bottom. Loyola and UNI should be the two top teams and Evansville should be the worst……everything else is a crapshoot. But then you might recall that last year’s near-consensus top pick was Missouri State (who finished sixth), while SIU was pegged for the bottom two (they finished fifth). I ran the numbers on that, and it turns out fifth is actually better than sixth. On top of all that, this season is even less predictable with the specter of a pandemic hanging over the world. Expect unfinished schedules and teams playing with shorthanded rosters to be the norm for the coronavirus era in college basketball. In fact we have already seen it have a significant impact on the league schedule, with the new scheduling format of teams playing two games on back-to-back days at the same site.
My point is that trying to predict the Valley is a waste of time, which makes both reading and writing this post a waste of time. I’m going to do it anyway and I hope you do too. I’ll split the preview into three parts, starting with the squads I have in my bottom four Thursday teams for Arch Madness (assuming there even is a pandemic Arch Madness, and that it uses the standard format). We’ll start with the easiest choice on the list…….
10.) Evansville Purple Aces (2019-20 Results: 9-23 (0-18), BPI: 311): I would imagine it is not fun to be an Evansville Purple Aces fan. The current situation at UE makes your college basketball heart ache just a little bit. Despite its rich history at the small school level, and strong early history at the Division I level, to say the Aces have had a “rough go” of the 21st century would be an understatement. Since the start of the 2000-01 season (two years removed from their last league title and NCAA Tournament appearance), the Aces have gone 129-231 in MVC contests. Their overall Arch Madness record in that time is 7-20, and all but three of those wins came in the play-in round. In twenty seasons this century, UE has appeared in the play-in round twelve times, and their tournament run has ended in the play-in round eight times. They’ve qualified for the semifinals at Arch Madness exactly twice, once losing by 28 points to Creighton and once making it through to the Championship game ………where they lost on a heartbreaking last second shot that bounced high off the back of the rim and went in. This is a program that was a Division II dynasty in the 60s and 70s with five NCAA Titles, and went to the NCAA or NIT five times in seven seasons in the late 80s and early 90s. Now the best thing they can say is that they won the CIT once, although how many schools can say that? Eleven.
Through all that mediocrity, new head coach Walter McCarty emerged two years ago ready to take the Aces to the promised land. He had NBA experience, was well liked, he could coach, and boy howdy could he recruit. And UE Nation BOUGHT IN. UE ticket sales and attendance numbers jumped along with the talent level on the UE roster. By year two McCarty had the Aces picked among the top teams in the MVC. They backed up the hype UE in their second game, and knocked off top ranked Kentucky at Rupp Arena. This team was for real.
Then their stud player, Deandre Williams, got hurt. Then McCarty was suspended for undisclosed poor behavior. Then he was fired. Then the Aces lost, and lost and lost. They lost every…..single….MVC……game. When it was over, in the same season that started with record ticket sales, the best recruiting class in years and a win at Rupp Arena, Evansville had put together one of the worst seasons by any team in MVC history. But at least the women’s team…..also went 0-18.
If you’re an Aces fan, it has got to be tough to get yourself excited again. Todd Lickliter is a safe if uninspiring hire who, after coaching thirteen contests last year is still looking for his first win on the UE bench. He lost five players (only one to graduation), most of their key guys from last year among them (all five averaged 20+ minutes a game). This includes the recent defection of presumed go-to guy Sam Cunliffe who will be suiting up for his fourth school when/if he next takes the floor.
So where do you go from here? Well, up most likely. Its nearly* impossible to do worse than an 0-18 season (*Drake fans of the Kurt Kanaskie era know that it is possible, though). While the Aces were very bad for a plethora of reasons last year, they were actually pretty close in quite a few games they lost. Their biggest advantage in this season over last will be the stability of having one coach, and one system, you know like a normal team (although Lickliter’s half court system is about the opposite of the system McCarty, who recruited most of these guys, ran).
Unfortunately, they just lack talent. The guys they have returning were all roll players on a bad team. Noah Frederking averaged 24 minutes a game, Jawaun Newton 21,Evan Kuhlman 21 and Shamar Givance 20, but they averaged a total of 21.1 points and 10.3 boards combined in their 86 minutes. Transfers Samari Curtis (Nebraska) and Jax Levitch (UNC Asheville) didn’t do much for their previous schools, but are unknown dice rolls who could end up having upside and being solid contributors for them. Peace Ilegomah is a Pitt transfer who was terrible in his first season at UE, but could be a wildcard. Freshman Trey Hall will likely be looked upon for serious minutes.
At the end of the day for Evansville, anything other than last place should be considered a success in 2020-21. Lickliter has shown the ability to be successful at a mid-major Indiana school (he was National Coach of the Year at Butler when they were in the Horizon before crashing out hard at Iowa), but he will need some time to get Evansville competitive again. Other schools in the league just simply have more talent. I expect some of the role players to step up and be leaders, and the Aces won’t be as bad as they appear to be on paper. But I cannot come up with a reason why they should be picked anywhere other than DFL.
9.) Valparaiso (2019-20 Results: 19-16 (9-9), BPI: 178): Three days in March, 2020, cemented Valparaiso as a member of the MVC fraternity. Since joining the league for the 2017-18 season, the Crusaders had not made the impact on the standings they were hoping to. They arrived riding high off a ton of success in the Horizon League and Mid-Continent Conference (now Summit League) over the previous three decades. In the seven years prior to joining the Valley, Valpo had two NCAA appearances and three NIT appearances (including a run to the title game in 2016), and hadn’t missed the postseason entirely since 2010. However, as March 2020 rolled around, with the world not yet aware of the impending pandemic, the Crusaders on the cusp of a third consecutive lost MVC season. Years one and two had yielded tenth and ninth place finishes, and while a 9-9 record and a 7-seed at Arch Madness represented improvement, it was not where the brown and gold wanted to be. Especially after a season which saw them have many solid performances including close losses to the likes of Cincinnati, Arkansas, Loyola and…….Loyola.
The Crusaders came into Arch Madness bruised and broken, and with their best player Javon Freeman-Liberty still recovering from mono. Before the 2020 season only one play-in team in league history (and none this century) had ever qualified for the MVC semifinals, and none had ever made it to the championship game. Valparaiso squeaked by winless Evansville in the opener, before a shocking come-from-behind overtime win over second-seeded Loyola in the quarterfinals made history (despite getting just six points from Freeman-Liberty in the game). That game was one of the best this author has seen in seventeen years of attending Arch Madness, and it propelled Valpo into a unexpected semifinal group devoid of the top three seeds. JFL came to play the next day as Valpo cemented MVC history with an 89-82 win over Missouri State in the semifinals to become the first play-in team in league history to play in the MVC title game. The next day, despite holding a halftime lead, VU ran out of gas and lost the title game to Bradley. Despite this setback, their run was the first noteworthy thing Valpo did as a member of the league and I feel really cemented them as a part of the group. In light of this, let me be the first to say, “Welcome to the club, Crusaders. Here is your membership card. We meet on Wednesdays at the Casey’s General Store on Main to eat taco pizza and make fun of Gregg Marshall. Yes, I agree he is the worst. You’ll fit in just fine.” Valpo’s rich history precedes them, and at the end of the day I think they will become a great addition to the league. (Sidenote: People need to stop comparing them to Murray State. If you believe Murray State should be in the league (and I do), Valpo should not be the reason why. They are an MVC-caliber school. Except for the ARC. That place is terrible.)
That said, I don’t know if Valpo’s accession to MVC greatness (or at least decency) that will start in 2020-21. Their outlook would likely have been different if it weren’t for the defection of their leader in scoring, rebounding, steals and (almost) assists, Larry Bird Trophy runner-up Javon Freeman-Liberty. JFL transferred to DePaul and also transferred Valpo’s outlook from “pretty good” to “meh” in the process. In addition to JFL, the Crusaders also lost their 2nd leading scorer Ryan Fazekas (although they played without him for about half the season) and steady contributor John Kiser.
On the flip side Valpo rolled deep last year and Fazekas and JFL were not always healthy, yet the Crusaders stayed competitive. They have six guys returning who averaged at least 18 minutes and 6 points last year. This includes a good core of guys who stepped up big in St. Louis last year including MVC all-freshman team member Donovan Clay, Daniel Sackey, Eron Gordon, Mileek McMillan and Ben Krikke (as well as senior Nick Robinson who was injured for the tournament). Each of those guys was a role player last year, but all showed flashes of leadership and any one of them could step up and become “the man” this season. If that happens, Valpo’s chances of avoiding the play-in round increase significantly. I look at Sackey and Clay in particular to be possible leaders for Valpo this year. There is a good mix of experience and youth on this team as well. Of the six returnees I mentioned above, three are seniors, one is a junior and two are sophomores. There are also four newcomers who you can bet will get a shot at contributing too. It isn’t a terribly celebrated incoming group, and I know little about them, but they will likely provide depth for the Crusaders this year.
I think Valpo has the potential to be better than where I have them this year. But based on what they have returning, on paper it is tough for me to put them any higher on this list. I think they have some guys who impressed me when I watched them this year, and if a few of them can elevate their game that would make Valpo a more consistent threat. But as it stands, it is a team without a leader. I think avoiding the bottom four (something they still haven’t done as an MVC member) would be an accomplishment worth celebrating this year for VU.
8.) Illinois State (2019-20 Results: 10-21 (5-13), BPI: 235): The 2019-20 season was not kind to the Illinois State Redbirds. ISU ended up with their first losing season since 2011 and their worst winning percentage since 2006, with a play-in round loss to cap off their ninth-place finish. That is not a spot Illinois State is used to being in, although it felt like had been brewing in Normal for a few years. This is a program with a fanbase that has a rightful expectation to be among the top MVC teams regularly, due to their significant support and resources by MVC standards. They’ve had a recent propensity to wilt under big expectations. Last year there were no big expectations, just wilting. Illinois State was picked in the bottom two and they finished there, despite some promising performances early on that included a season opening win over Belmont, a 2-point loss to UCF, a 1-point loss to Cincinnati and a conference season opening win over UNI. From that point on, however, Illinois State went a paltry 4-14 to end the year, concluding with a thumping at the hands of the Drake Bulldogs at the opening game of the tournament.
It seems crazy that there hasn’t been an NCAA Tournament squad at Illinois State since 1998, which you may recall as the year the Barenaked Ladies ruled the charts, Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire thrilled America with their race to 62 home runs and I learned how to make microwave popcorn. That is the single longest drought of any MVC team (yes, including Evansville). The streak hasn’t come from a lack of talent, and there has been quite a bit of bad luck involved as well. In the last 13 seasons, ISU has had six NIT teams, a conference regular season title, and six losses in the MVC title game (the NIT #s and conference title losses lead the league in that time…..I mean I didn’t look that up, but I feel pretty good about it). The Redbirds have certainly been excruciatingly close. If Evansville has been the Cleveland Browns of the MVC in the 20th century, the Redbirds have been the (pre 2016) Cubs in that they have been so close but have nothing to show for it but a bunch of near misses despite all the great players and teams of the last 15 years. It is a basketball tragedy for a team that has been as consistently good as Illinois State.
Cracks have been starting to show the last few years, though. After winning 40 MVC games in three seasons between 2015 and 2017, the Redbirds fell to 18-15, 10-8 in 2017-18 (despite a title game appearance, which they lost….obviously). The next year ISU was tied for first at 7-3 just after the midpoint of the league season and ended up 9-9 and playing on Thursday at Arch Madness (ultimately losing in the quarterfinals to Drake) with just a 17-16 overall record. Finally, last year the bottom fell out for Dan Muller’s team who likely would have finished last had it not been for the historic suckitude of Evansville. Is Dan Muller on the hot seat? Normally I would say the seat is getting lukewarm, but I doubt Illinois State would make a coaching change during the plague. #SilverLining
Illinois State has too much cache to remain this bad for an extended period, but there aren’t a ton of reasons to be hopeful this will be the season they break the streak. Gone are leading scorer and assister Zach Copeland, as well as Jaycee Hillsman and Ricky Torres who were both among the top six in minutes on the squad. Then earlier this fall, senior big man Keith Fisher, the team’s second leading scorer, leading rebounder and presumed senior leader this year, opted out of the season due to COVID concerns. They also lost non-senior contributors Matt Chastain (injury), Rey Idowu (transfer to Tulsa) and Taylor Bruninga (injury).
But for a team as bad as the Redbirds were last year, sometimes a clean slate isn’t the worst thing. That’s not to say that they don’t have anything coming back. DJ Horne played extremely well as a freshman (and landed on the all-freshman team for his efforts) and if he can make a jump into a bigger role this year, that would help the ‘Birds tremendously. He becomes the de-facto leader of this young team. Sophomores Antonio Reeves (who was playing a big role by the end of last season) and Abdou Ndiaye (who was starting at the post last year but wasn’t getting a ton of minutes) are also candidates to make the jump as sophomores with a full season already under their belts. Junior guard Dedric Boyd, who only played 15 minutes a game last year, becomes the old man of the group and appears to be taking that seriously. Beyond those guys is a bevy of new faces, led by JUCO transfer Josiah Strong, who will likely become an immediate starter and a focal point of the offense in Normal. Four more freshmen, two more JUCOs (including two 6’ 10’’ guys) and UMass transfer Sy Chatman who recently got a waiver to play this season, will be asked to provide depth for the birds.
At the end of the day, there are a lot of unknowns with this team. For the Redbirds to be competitive the sophomore class will need to take a pretty big step forward, and a few of the new faces will need to make big contributions. On paper right now they fall short of most of the rest of the league, but if they can put together a decent season (avoiding Thursday would be a great accomplishment), it will be a big building block for this team (which wont have any seniors playing). That will be the goal, to move towards getting back into the upper echelons of the Valley sooner rather than later.
7.) Southern Illinois (2019-20 Results: 16-16 (10-8), BPI: 194): SIU has one of the proudest traditions in the MVC, especially in the last twenty years. From the 2001-02 season until the 2006-07 season SIU made the NCAA Tournament six consecutive times. They won five games in the dance and made two Sweet 16s. They were seeded as high as 4th and ranked as high as 11th in the nation. In the early part of the 20th century, SIU was a legitimate NCAA power player. “Floorburn U” was known for its extremely stingy defense and tough play. As an opposing fan, they were extremely frustrating to play against. The author of this piece spent many a night complaining that “SIU was allowed to get away with fouling that other teams weren’t allowed because ‘that’s their style’”. On an related note, I must have been an extremely annoying Valley fan when I was in college, a fact confirmed looking back at old message board posts. Most of that success came under current K-State head coach Bruce Weber and current Purdue coach Matt Painter.
Then, almost overnight, SIU wasn’t good anymore (a trend that was, unfortunately for them, mirrored by their football team). Chris Lowry was the next man up and after a few decent years, things fell off VERY quickly. One year SIU was in the Sweet 16, two years later they suffered the first of seven consecutive non-winning seasons. The team that was once the class of the MVC had very quickly become an also-ran. How did this happen? Nobody can say for sure (that it is Chris Lowry’s fault). We may never know (that it is Chris Lowry’s fault).
The next coach was Barry Hinson. I love Barry Hinson. I loved him in Springfield when he coached Missouri State and I loved him in Carbondale. The fans of Southern Illinois do not share my feelings about Barry Hinson. At all. And I get it. SIU never made the NCAAs or the NIT in Barry’s seven seasons and were never better than average under him. And he tended to put his foot in his mouth with the media, which is a characteristic that is more entertaining/forgivable when it comes from someone else’s coach. But he inherited a dumpster fire and had winning seasons each of his last four years at SIU, finishing with 11, 9, 11, and 10 league wins in his final four seasons. That is solidly slightly above average. Barry retired during an emotional press conference after an Arch Madness loss in 2019, and SIU made the popular choice by hiring Bryan Mullins. Now the prodigal son has returned. A former point guard from the “Floorburn U” days and still closer to 30 than 40, Mullins has SIU fans pumped for the future for good reason.
Last year one of the certainties of MVC predictions was that SIU, while headed in the right direction, was due for a very rough season. Those predictions locked in even more when the Salukis got off to a 4-7 start and their star, Aaron Cook, was lost for the season. After losing their Valley opener and starting 2-3 in league play, SIU reeled off seven straight wins to get to 9-3 in the league, good for a tie for second place and within just a game of the league title. Southern Illinois were legit contenders again. Unfortunately, they sort of sputtered out from there, losing five of their last six to finish with the 5-seed and losing to Bradley in the Arch Madness quarterfinals. Still, an it was an outstanding season for this squad.
Most folks have the Salukis finishing higher than I do. There are a lot of reasons to like SIU. However, I put them at seventh for a couple reasons. The first is what they lost. Aaron Cook transferred to Gonzaga after getting a redshirt year due to his injury. He would have been a huge piece for this team in 20-21. Second leading scorer Eric McGill, third leading scorer and leading rebounder Barrett Benson and another starter in Ronnie Suggs all depart (along with contributor Harwin Francois). Secondly, and this is just a personal thing with no statistical justification to back it up, I am banking on a sophomore slump. It is one thing to play with house money and overachieve like the Salukis did last year. It is another to have expectations, which SIU does this year, and live up to them. How often have you seen a team overachieve under a new coach initially only to come back down to Earth the next season? Can the young guys continue to move this program forward after the big leap we saw last season? I think you started to see them fade under the weight of expectation at the end of last season. My prediction is based on some growing pains as they transition from scrappy underdogs to favorites.
You can make some solid arguments that I am idiot, though. The biggest one is Marcus Domask, who led SIU in scoring, was second in rebounds, third in assists and the leader in minutes for SIU as a true freshman last year. His efforts won him “Freshman of the Year” and second team all-league honors in the MVC. If his game takes a step forward, as often happens between the freshman and sophomore years, he will be one of the best players in the league and a huge weapon for SIU this year. Another is Lance Jones who started off slowly but was killing it for SIU at the end of the year also playing as a true freshman. They are an outstanding starting point, no doubt, but they are also the only two truly key guys from last year’s team that SIU returns (although Trent Brown who played 20 minutes per game last year is also back). SIU brings transfers from Southern Utah (Jakolby Long), and Eastern Illinois (Ben Harvey) as well. The latter is a sophomore who averaged double figures his freshman year at EIU in 18-19. Beyond that, SIU has a JUCO and a D2 transfer that will man the post and four relatively unheralded newcomers who will provide depth.
If Domask and Jones take a step forward and the transfers settle in, and SIU can find a good option in the post they could make this prediction look bad. They’re picked higher in most prognostications for a reason. I just can’t shake that feeling of a sophomore slump as several key senior leaders from last season are now gone. It will be on Domask to step up and be the man, and Jones to continue the torrid play he had down the stretch last season to make me look dumb.
And that is it for the first article on this site. These will be the four worst teams in the MVC, you can take it to the bank! Next, I’ll tackle the teams I have in spots six through three. Until then, SIU fans can leave their angry comments below.