2021-22 Missouri Valley Conference Basketball Preview
Updated: Nov 6
CORRECTION: In my first edit of this article I implied that Ja'Shon Henry was suspended for the season last year due to his part in an off-the-court incident last year. That was incorrect. Henry was exonerated shortly after the initial suspensions and was added back to the roster. He missed the Arch Madness game because of injury. That is my error and I apologize to Ja'Shon and Bradley fans for the mistake.
After the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament two years ago and playing an unusual COVID season last year, I am pumped for some (relatively) normal Missouri Valley Conference basketball this season. The doubleheader scheduling mechanic (which was clutch last season) will go away, and most of the COVID restrictions that made last season so weird will disappear as well. Gone too are several of the stars from last year either via graduation/leaving the team (Krutwig, Childs) or transfer (Yesufu, Nolan, Horne, LaRavia, Curtis, Clay Kind Of). While many guys have left the conference, a much more significant number did not. Krutwig’s entire supporting cast at Loyola returns, as does the rest of Drake’s roster other than Yesufu. UNI and SIU didn’t lose any key players to transfer and will see the return of AJ Green and Marcus Domask. Mo State returns studs Mosley and Prim, and Indiana State will see the surprise return of Tyreke Key. Beyond that, the Valley might have gained more than it lost on the transfer front. You can’t swing a dead bale of wheat without hitting an incoming MVC transfer who is coming in from a power six school and/or carrying phat stats from his previous team.
It will also be a year of change for the league. With Belmont joining the league next year as the 11th member, this will be the final season of the ten-team Valley. Barring a loss of members or an adoption of a new format, the league will likely play an additional game (or more) on Thursday at Arch Madness. With eleven teams, a 20-game round robin scheduling model is likely. However, if they add a twelfth, we will probably see the end of the full round robin scheduling format. This will also be the first Valley season played under a new commissioner since 1988, as Jeff Jackson takes over for the legend Doug Elgin.
There is talk that this season may be the “year of the mid-major”. With schools retaining several of their players for an extra year, the model of recruiting players out of high school and building them up (as opposed to the more one-and-done approach of some of the bigger schools) may win the day this season. Loyola and Drake are outstanding examples of this concept. Both would have seen several of their top players graduate this year. Instead, they bring back teams with an obscene amount of experience. There are several MVC teams that have benefitted from this model and the league appears to be as loaded as it has been in many years.
That said, let’s get to it. This preview has been a fun one to write. As I worked on it, I was pleasantly surprised by some of the things I learned about what to expect from Valley schools this season. I’ll start with who I think will be at the bottom and work my way to the top.
10.) Illinois State Redbirds (2021: 7-18, 4-14, KenPom: 198) Postseason: 10-seed at Arch Madness, L in Opening Round to #7 UNI
The Valley looks loaded this year but Illinois State is not a big reason why. The Redbirds are just five years removed from an MVC title winning 17-1 season, and just four years removed from their second consecutive Arch Madness title game appearance. Since then, ISU has played in three straight play-in rounds in St. Louis. They have a combined overall record of 17-39 over the last two years. That sucks because the Valley is better when Illinois State is strong. ISU is the second biggest school in the league by enrollment and has a strong fanbase and good facilities. They should be perennially competitive. Coach Dan Muller has failed to make the big dance in nine seasons in Normal and it feels like he is further away now than when he started. For that reason, he is on the hot seat. His status as an ISU alum (who was a great player for the Redbirds) only gets him so much rope.
Not only has Illinois State come off two bad seasons, but they lost their leading scorer DJ Horne (15.1 PPG) and leading rebounder Dusan Mahorcic (9.9 PPG, 7.2 RPG) to transfer. Horne is moving on to Arizona State while Mahorcic will ply his trade at Utah. That leaves the supporting cast of a team that finished last. The ‘Birds will be substantially more experienced, as their very young team got a year older and they brought in some transfers with some credentials. Junior Antonio Reeves was rumored to be leaving ISU as well, but instead he is probably their most decorated returning player. He averaged 12.4 PPG and 3.3 RPG last season. Josiah Strong also returns after averaging 11.5 PPG and a team leading (along with Horne) 2.7 APG. Several other guys who were role players as freshmen last year will be looking to make a big jump in their second seasons to give this team a boost. Guys like Emon Washington, Howard Fleming, and Abdou Ndiaye will have the opportunity to make their mark. UMass transfer Sy Chatman will be back and have a chance to make a ruckus in the post. Still, relative to other teams in this league the cupboard is somewhat bare at Redbird Arena.
Like many Valley teams, ISU is bringing in some exciting transfers. The most decorated statistically is Mark Freeman from Tennessee State. The junior averaged 17.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG and 4.6 APG for the Tigers. Those numbers put him first, second and first on the team (respectively) amongst ISU’s returning players in those categories. He will likely start immediately and could become a team leader for ISU. A 6’ 10’’ big man, Liam McChesney comes from a solid Utah State program. He is unproven, but will have every opportunity to join the legions of solid big men in the Valley this year. The same can be said for 6’ 11’’ JUCO transfer Ryan Schmitt. Appalachian State transfer Kendall Lewis, who averaged 9.9 PPG and 4.1 RPG will get a shot in the post as well.
For Illinois State, there isn’t a ton on paper to get excited about. That becomes even more true when you consider how loaded the Valley could be this year. There are a lot of unknowns on the roster, but when you are coming off two seasons like Illinois State has had unknowns aren’t necessarily a bad thing. They could turn out to be duds, but they also might be great. When you are coming from the cellar, you’ll roll that dice. The Redbirds were wildly inexperienced and relied on several freshmen last year. Those guys are now experienced sophomores, and you can expect big leaps from them. If guys like Washington, Fleming and Ndiaye make a jump, Strong and Reeves become leaders, and the transfers make big contributions the Redbirds could surprise. That is a lot of “ifs” but I have them picked last for a reason. The unknowns give them hope.
9.) Evansville Purple Aces (2021: 9-16, 7-11, KenPom: 204) Postseason: 5-seed at Arch Madness, L in Quarterfinals to #4 Indiana State
When compiling my list, I didn’t think Evansville would end up this low. After finishing in fifth place last year, is Todd Lickliter’s team really going to regress back to the bottom of the standings? Yes, probably. Evansville was an awesome story last year, but their 5th place finish came after finishing 7-11 overall. It was a bit of a statistical anomaly. No MVC team before last year’s Aces had ever finished in fifth place with a 7-11 league record. They were just three games out of the cellar. Do I think Evansville will be worse than they were last year? No, I don’t. However, the four teams that finished ahead of them didn’t fall back to them, and the teams behind them are simply going to be more improved than UE will be. Valpo added four Big Ten transfers, UNI gets AJ Green back, Bradley will regroup from their disaster season and SIU gets Marcus Domask back. I don’t think they improved enough relative to their peers to retain their top-half MVC status.
That isn’t to poo-poo what UE accomplished last season. Remember, the Aces were coming off an 0-18 campaign in 2019-20. They improved by seven games over what they did two years ago. Even if they tread water and go 7-11 again, they’ll still be on schedule in their rebuild. The Aces lost Samari Curtis to Bowling Green (the fifth school he has committed to in his career), who was a sparkplug off the bench at times. But his absence shouldn’t destroy the Aces. Nor should the loss of starter Jax Levitch who played 32 minutes a game but didn’t blow up the stat sheet. The Aces’ four best players were probably Jawaun Newton (13.5 PPG, 4.4 RPG), Shamar Givance (13.3 PPG, 4 RPG), Noah Frederking (10.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG), and Evan Kuhlman (9.3 PPF, 3.6 RPG). All will return and will be seniors, making this a very experienced team. In fact, if Iyen Enaruna (4.6 PG, 2.2 RPG) joins that quartet in the starting lineup, UE will have an all-senior starting five. That experience will likely be their strength. Unfortunately for UE, experience isn’t particularly unique in the MVC this year.
Depth will likely be a problem for Evansville. They’ll need some newcomers to step up, and none hail from the DI transfer ranks. A few little used role players return. None played more than ten minutes a game, and none played in more than 19 of the Aces 25 games. They’ll bring in two Juco transfers, and both will likely get a chance to contribute right away. Neither one is particularly highly touted. Nor are any of the trio of freshmen. Little is known about these guys, and UE will likely need at least a couple of them to have a Frank Schwindel-esque meteoric rise for the Aces to push into the top half of the league (obscure Cubs reference….check). If any of the Aces’ top guys go down, they might struggle to fill those minutes. Defense is a concern too. Evansville wasn’t one of the better defensive teams in the league last year, and they didn’t do much to improve that situation.
As I said, I think UE may be a better team than they were last year. If they can stay healthy, they’ll have a very experienced starting five and they’ll be playing with confidence after the jump they made from two years ago to last season. They didn’t do much to improve their roster, though, and they are basically playing with the same set of guys as last year minus a couple. They already had depth issues a year ago, and those could rear their head again. The unknowns of the newcomers make this roster a bit intriguing, but unless there are at least a couple big surprises hiding on the UE bench I don’t see the Aces competing for another top half finish in the this improved MVC.
8.) Bradley Braves (2021: 6-12, 12-16, KenPom: 146) Postseason: 8-seed at Arch Madness, L in Opening Round to #9 Southern Illinois
Last year all the super smart MVC prognostication articles like this one debated whether it would be UNI or Loyola that would win the Valley. If it wasn’t one of those two, we all said, it would certainly be Bradley. As it happened, the Ramblers won the regular and postseason titles over Drake, and neither UNI nor Bradley were even in their orbit. In fact, they both found themselves playing on Thursday at Arch Madness. The Panthers’ problems mostly stemmed from the injury to AJ Green. For Bradley it was substantially more complicated. BU battled with COVID and injuries for most of the season, yes, but the biggest blow was the indefinite suspension of three of their best players with 11 games remaining. Elijah Childs, Danya Kingsby, and Terry Nolan were lost for the remainder of the season (Ja'Shon Henry was also implicated but later exonerated). The difference was striking. On opening night, Sean East started for the Braves along with Childs, Nolan, Ari Boya and Kingsby. By the time Arch Madness rolled around only East remained of that group and he was joined in the starting five by Rienk Mast, Ville Tahvanainen, Kevin McAdoo and Darius Hannah (who didn’t even get to play on opening night). It is fair to say things did not go as planned.
The nature of the problem made preparing for this season a lot more complicated for Brian Wardle and the Braves. None of the group of suspended players return. Ja'Shon Henry is probably the best player on the team and will be looked upon to be a leader. Seven-footer Ari Boya (5.6 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 1.4 BPG) will also be back from injury for Bradley, and he’ll return to his rim protecting role that was sorely missed in his absence the second half of last season. Rienk Mast (8.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG), Ville Travanainen (8.6 PPG, 3.0 RPG) and Darius Hannah (3.8 PPG, 3.5 RPG) are also back for BU. The silver lining of last year’s situation is that these players got significantly more experience than they otherwise would have after the suspensions of their teammates forced them into larger roles. It should serve them well as they will be looked upon to take a big role this year.
The Braves added three transfers to their roster. Mikey Howell (6.9 PPG, 3.0 RPG, 6.0 APG) comes from UC San Diego, a squad making the transition from D2 to D1. Howell did not score much for the (checks notes) Tritons last year, but he was a solid distributor with 6 assists per game. The Braves two Juco transfers including the 6’ 10’’ Malevy Leons who was a national Juco player of the year. He’ll pair with Boya in the paint. His skills are more refined than Boya as he can score from the perimeter and drive to the basket. They also added Juco guard Terry Roberts and three freshmen.
When you look around the world wide web for people’s thoughts on Bradley, they tend to revolve around the Braves’ defensive potential. BU is long at nearly every position, anchored by the 7’ 1’’ Boya and 6’ 10’’ Leons. Wardle’s teams tend to be very good defensively and the tools are there to do it again. However, they might be raw around the basket and struggle to score some nights. Like the teams we’ve already seen on this list, there are simply a lot of unknowns. Childs, East and Nolan were the core of last year’s team, and their unceremonious exit puts this squad on shaky ground until the new players can prove themselves. A team like Bradley with a lot of new guys has the potential to come together nicely, gel, and be a very good team. Conversely, the possibility is there that it might fall flat. With the experience that most of the other squads in the league bring I just couldn’t put them any higher than this. But a strong Bradley is good for the league, and I hope they prove me wrong.
7.) Indiana State Sycamores (2021: 11-7, 15-10, KenPom: 119) Postseason: 4-seed at Arch Madness, W over #5 Evansville in Quarterfinals, L to #1 Loyola in Semifinals
There are tumultuous offseasons like the one Bradley had and there are tumultuous offeseasons like the one Indiana State had. After the completion of the COVID season, the ISU administration controversially fired head coach Greg Lansing after eleven years in Terre Haute. In all, Lansing was 181-164 at the helm of ISU with a 102-96 league record. He guided the Trees to the NCAAs once and the NIT twice but had been to neither in the last seven seasons. On one hand, Lansing did as well as anyone can hope for at a school that doesn’t have the same resources as several of its contemporaries. Perhaps the firing wasn’t fair in that sense. But on the other, a solid argument could be made that a change was the best thing for Indiana State. While ISU was coming off two winning seasons, they had a string of five straight losing campaigns before that. His 2019-20 team that finished 18-12 was the best ISU had been since Jake Odum’s final year of 2013-14. Still, the Sycamores were coming off arguably their best season in years and had started to build something interesting. Lansing did an admirable job. But an argument could certainly be made things had gotten a little stale in west-central Indiana.
Enter Josh Schertz. While all the talk of the coaching change has been about Lansing, not many people have been talking about just how dominant Schertz’ run was at Lincoln Memorial. He had a 337-69 (nice) overall record in his 13-year stint that included four thirty-win seasons and 10 NCAA D2 Tournament appearances. Whether or not that success can translate to an underfunded DI mid-major remains to be seen. But there is no argument that the man is a winner, and his preferred style is a face-paced attack that is practically unheard of in the Missouri Valley. If he is successful, the Sycamores could become one of the most unique and fun-to-watch teams in the MVC. The departure of Lansing saw the departure of several of Indiana State’s key guys including their second-best player in Jake LaRavia, starter Tre Williams and contributors Tobias Howard and Randy Miller. But you know who didn’t transfer? Tyreke Key.
Getting a two-time first-team all-league player to return is an outstanding place to start. Key contributed 17.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and two assists per game and will be the unquestioned leader in the ISU locker room this year. This is his team, and if they are going to go anywhere this year, they’ll need him to step up bigly. Starter Cooper Neese (9.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.3 APG) also returns for his redshirt senior season after being a reliable third option behind Key and LaRavia last year. Julian Larry is the only other contributor to return. He started almost every game last year although his stats weren’t outstanding. One must assume he is a “glue guy”. That is about it for Sycamore returnees.
They did bring in four transfers, though three are D2 guys who followed their coach from Lincoln Memorial (and the new coach at LMU has to be real happy about that). The lone DI transfer is Dearon Tucker from Oregon State. He is a 6’ 10’’ junior who didn’t fill up the stat box at OSU but will likely get immediate playing time at Indiana State. The Trees’ trio of D2 transfers is highlighted by Cameron Henry who averaged 15 points, 6 boards, 4 assists per game for LMU. Simon Wilbar will also be an interesting follow at 6’ 11’’, although his D2 stats are not impressive. Xavier Bledson, though, averaged 10.5 points per game while adding 4.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists. Beyond that, the Sycamores bring in four freshmen (one who is 6’ 10’’), two JUCO transfers and a senior JUCO who sat out last year due to injury. They will certainly need some of that group to step up and contribute as they won’t be able to play with six players the entire season, especially if they have injury issues.
This is going to be a VERY interesting team to follow this year. Key and Neese are proven MVC commodities, but this team’s fortunes will probably rise and fall with the success of the three D2 transfers. These guys won a lot at Lincoln Memorial and winning gives you confidence. I am fascinated to see if that same formula will translate to the Missouri Valley. Like each of the teams before them, there are a lot of unknown on ISU’s depth chart and if any of those guys can step up and make a big contribution, Indiana State’s prospects could change considerably. As it is, they’ll sink or swim with Key and the D2s. If those guys can step it up, ISU can be a mid-tier Valley team. But if they fall flat, this season has the potential to be a rebuilding year at the Hulman Center.
6.) Valparaiso Beacons (2021: 7-11, 10-18, KenPom: 193) Postseason: 6-seed at Arch Madness, L to #3 Missouri State in Quarterfinals
Entering last season, the transfer bug hit Valpo hard. After their crazy, first-of-its-kind MVC Tournament run from the play-in games to the championship cemented them as a member of the Valley fraternity, Javon Freeman-Liberty took his talents to Lincoln Park to play for DePaul. Valpo basically had to start from square one yet again last year, and they made a pretty good go of it. They avoided the play-in game and developed some go-to guys in the absence of Liberty. Then they got hit with a wave of transfers again this year. Donovan Clay, their second-best player last year, transferred in-league to Missouri State. Starters Daniel Sackey and Mileek McMillan are gone as well. It is a tough way to build a program. Valpo has shown signs of life but has still failed to eclipse the .500 mark in five years in the Valley.
During the offseason, Valparaiso changed their name from “Crusaders” to “Beacons”. Perhaps they should have changed it to Badgers, because that is who it seems Matt Lottich is trying to emulate. I don’t mean that he is copying Wisconsin’s playing style or coaching strategy. He is literally taking their players. Three former Badgers join the Valpo bench this year along with a Michigan State Spartan and a stud D2 guy. The cream of the crop is Kobe King who averaged 10 points, 2.8 rebounds a game for the Badgers last year. It isn’t often an MVC squad gets a P6 transfer who was not a benchwarmer, but King was a bonafide Big Ten regular last year. He has the potential to become not just the Beacons’ best player, but one of the best players in the league if he gets to play. He will likely not be eligible until about the start of league play. Valpo will have to work him into a group that will likely be gelled by the time he is available. Trevor Anderson also comes over from Wisconsin, and reportedly was a big part of King’s landing in northwest Indiana. Anderson played a role for Bucky last year but wasn’t as big a cog for Wisconsin as King. Still, he will have a chance to compete for a starting spot day one and should play a large role for Valpo. The other Wisky transfer is the seven-footer Joe Hedstrom. He did not play a big part for Wisconsin last year, but his height instantly makes him an interesting add on an MVC roster. Valpo should have a lot of talent in the post, so Hedstrom will have to earn his minutes, but he gives them some solid depth. Thomas Kithier is a Michigan State transfer forward who can work in the post. He fell down the depth chart at MSU but will get every chance to shine for the Beacons. Coming from the other direction is Kevion Taylor, a transfer from Winona State. The 6’ 5’’ Taylor averaged 20.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG and 2.3 APG in the D2 ranks last year. D2 transfers up can be hit-or-miss, but Taylor is another guy that will give Lottich plenty of options. Five freshmen make Valpo’s incoming crop an even ten.
That isn’t to say there wasn’t anything left in the cupboard from last year. Ben Krikke was the Beacons’ best player, averaging 12.3 PPG and 4.2 RPG. He can play in the post but also has a nice set of ball skills that allow him to score from range and get to the basket. Eron Gordon (6.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.6 APG) is another returning starter while Connor Barrett (6.5 PPG, 2.5 RPG) and Sheldon Edwards (8.1 PPG, 2.9 RPG) were two of the better freshmen in the league last year. The idea that these two could make the big jump that you often see from rising sophomores is salivating. If they improve, and are added to the potential of the other returnees and big time transfers, the sky is the limit for Valparaiso.
There are a lot of unknowns with Valpo, perhaps more than any other school. But possibilities of adding a guy like King, three more Big Ten prospects, and a solid D2 to a decent returning core does get the Valley fan in me titillated. It is entirely possible this could be a disaster. Guys that are used to playing in Big Ten arenas every night might not take kindly to the ARC, but if Valpo is good that atmosphere can be as good as any in the league (or so I am told since it hasn’t happened yet in the MVC era). If Valpo had to pick four players that they didn’t want to transfer, Krikke, Barrett and Edwards might have been among them. It is an extremely fun mix of old and new. Like the teams behind them on this list it is all about potential, and Valpo’s potential is higher than the others. The possibility remains that this arrangement could completely fall flat, and the Beacons could be starting completely over yet again next season. However, at the positive end there is no reason Valpo couldn’t be closer to the top of the league than the bottom.
5.) Southern Illinois Salukis (2021: 12-14, 5-13, KenPom: 192) Postseason: 9-seed at Arch Madness, W in Opening Round Over #9 Bradley, L In Quarterfinals To #1 Loyola
As we cross into the top half of the league, we leave the land of hopes and dreams and enter the land of expectations. The teams we’ve already covered are dealing with a lot of unknowns. Those can be exciting, but they can also let you down. The teams that are coming up have a lot of experience returning and we have a better idea what to expect. They aren’t breaking in a bunch of newcomers. They are working with known commodities. A prime example is Southern Illinois who lost no one of consequence in the offseason and are bringing back everyone and then some. Before the Salukis were struck with the injury bug last season, they had something promising going. SIU started 7-0 including a win at Butler. Then COVID and injuries struck, most notably to stud Marcus Domask, and they finished 5-14 to end the season. They played in the play-in games and finished with a losing record. However, after a surprising fifth place finish in Bryan Mullins first year of 2019-20, momentum is still pushing in a positive direction in Carbondale. The Salukis remain talented and young. Expectations are high for this season.
The silver lining of Marcus Domask’s absence was the space it gave Lance Jones to grow. Jones was the Pippen to Domask’s Jordan before the injury, and when MJD went down, Jones spread his wings. He ended up leading the team in PPG as their only double-digit scorer with an average of 13.4. He added 2.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, and 1.4 SPG as well. Jones started every game for SIU until his own injury took him out of the Arch Madness quarterfinal against Loyola. Beyond Jones, the Salukis have a stable of role players who have developed as well. Ben Harvey (9.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG), Trent Brown (6.9 PPG, 2 RPG), and Steven Verplancken (7 PPG, 2.6 RPG) (along with Jones and Domask) were a stable of sophomores who made big-time contributions to the team last year. They are now (kinda) juniors, and certainly more experienced. Kyler Filewich (6.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG) and Dalton Banks (6.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG) were two of the better freshmen in the league last year. Just about everyone on last year’s Salukis were underclassmen. Only Anthony D’Avanzo had much experience, and that was at the D2 level as he was a transfer from Lewis University. Mullins was a sophomore coach overseeing a team with almost no experience, during a pandemic, without the services of their best player. It is no wonder SIU struggled.
SIU has a couple newcomers, but the biggest “additions” to the roster are not newcomers at all. Marcus Domask, MVC Freshman of the Year in 2019-20, is healthy and finally ready to return. He avoided a sophomore slump and was killing it before his injury robbed him of the last 60% of last season. His presence instantly makes SIU significantly better, and he has the potential to be one of the best players in the Valley in his third year. SIU will also finally get contributions from highly touted Juco transfer JD Muila. He will likely anchor SIU’s frontcourt which will lessen Filewich and D’Avanzo’s roles. That will give SIU some solid depth on that part of the floor, especially if Muila lives up to the hype. The only transfer addition to the roster is Little Rock’s Ben Coupet (10.3 PPG, 3.6 RPG). A double-figure scorer for UALR, Coupet is the kind of guy who can play in both the backcourt and frontcourt giving Mullins some flexibility in his lineup choices. That one addition adds a nice dynamic to a team that didn’t necessarily need one but will take it all the same. Four freshmen round out the remainder of the Salukis’ newbies.
This Southern Illinois team would be among the favorites in several recent Valley preseasons, but the in the “Year of the Mid Major”, the league is poised to be as good as it has ever been. With a guy like Domask leading the way, and balance across the offense and defense there is no reason to think SIU can’t compete. Remember this team started 7-0 last year playing at full strength. If we get a more experienced and improved version of that team, the Valley better watch out. As it is, they are a couple pieces short of being on the same level as Loyola or Drake on paper. If the young guys continue to improve and Mullins can keep this roster together, SIU will be a squad we are talking about at the very top of MVC prognostication lists for the next several years and beyond.
4.) Northern Iowa Panthers (2021: 10-15, 7-11, KenPom: 163) Postseason: 7-seed at Arch Madness, W in Opening Round Over #10 Illinois State, Had Opportunity Ripped Away From Them In Quarterfinals Despite Doing Everything Right, #StillBitter
There aren’t many college athletic departments that had a rougher time (from a strictly wins and losses standpoint) during COVID than UNI. The football team was rated #2 in the nation in the fall preseason, but had its elite defense picked apart by transfers and opt-outs for NFL Draft prep. What was left of the team ended up finishing the spring season 3-4. The basketball team was picked to be one of the nation’s top mid-majors and the talk in Valley circles was whether Loyola or UNI would win the league title. Instead, reigning Larry Bird Trophy winner AJ Green missed the entire league season with an injury and Antwan Kimmons opted out to take care of his family. That left UNI starting two true freshmen at the guard positions, and while they technically finished in a tie for 5th place, they played in just the second Arch Madness play-in game of the Ben Jacobson era. Then as they were finally starting to put together a good run at the end of the season, the Panthers were booted from the MVC Tournament without losing after a positive COVID test among their players. UNI followed the league protocol for social distancing that should have allowed them to continue playing, but no one in the league office thought to ask the city if those protocols were kosher for the event. City of St. Louis officials gave UNI the boot and the Panthers lost their chance to return the favor to Drake, who beat top seeded UNI as a play-in team in 2020. In the offseason, Northern Iowa survived Noah Carter’s flirtation with the transfer portal and AJ Green’s dad leaving for Iowa State and kept the roster essentially intact. Now the Panthers will look to get back to the top of the Valley where they feel they should be.
The loss of Green and Kimmons hurt last year, but it will likely pay dividends this season. Jacobson had to dig deep to fill out his roster at times, and now those players will return to lesser roles and the Panthers will boast some of the best depth in the league. The absences allowed Bowen Born (11.2 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.3 APG) to be far-and-away the best freshman in the league last season. The Valley Freshman of the Year may-or-may-not be relegated to the bench this year, and that tells you just how good and deep UNI ought to be. Freshman Nate Heise (7.6 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.2 SPG) became a surprise starter in his first season. He was a member of the Valley all-freshmen team and showed flashes of offensive capability while playing outstanding defense. The absence of Green pushed the offensive onus onto big man Austin Phyfe and he had a good season statistically (12.4 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 2.5 APG), but he would likely be the first to tell you that he wasn’t as good as he wanted to be. Phyfe fell from first team all-MVC to third. Expect him to be more effective this year when opposing defenses can’t focus as much on him in the low post. Trae Berhow (13 PPG, 5 RPG, 3 APG) was also good but a bit down compared to expectations, but that can also likely be blamed on Green’s absence. Noah Carter (11.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG) advanced from a role player to a key guy, and after flirting with the transfer portal he will return. He gives the Panthers flexibility as he can play both inside and out. Tywhon Pickford (4.9 PPG, 4 RPG) is the Panthers most experienced player. He struggled at times last season but is a good defender and rebounder, and when he’s at his best he flourishes taking out the trash and cleaning up after his teammates. All those names and we haven’t even mentioned Ty Anderson (2.5 PPG), James Betz (3.8 PPG), Cole Henry (2.2 PPG) and Goanar Mar (1.6 PPG). Those guys averaged between 8-11 minutes per game and made six starts between them. All are talented, but some may struggle to see the floor this year.
The additions to UNI’s roster consist of four freshmen, none of whom will likely make a significant (if any) contribution. But UNI will still be making a couple big adds. AJ Green and Antwan Kimmons will return. You all know about AJ Green. He is likely the best player in the Valley, and he won Valley Freshman of the Year in 2019 and the Larry Bird trophy in 2020. His absence last season was the obvious primary reason for UNI’s struggles. Guys like Phyfe and Berhow didn’t get worse, it is just that AJ Green makes everyone around him better. Defenses are forced to focus on him, and that will open up his teammates’ ability to score. Green’s health is UNI’s primary concern, and right now all signs out of Cedar Falls are positive. Most reports say that not only is Green 100% healthy, but he has improved in his absence from the floor. That is great news for UNI and the MVC, but bad news for everyone else’s title hopes. It is too bad Antwan Kimmons wasn’t able to play for UNI last year because he could have thrived in Green’s absence. He plays Green’s position, and I have to wonder if UNI might have fared better with Kimmons at the point instead of Trae Berhow (playing out of position) and Bowen Born (a true freshman). His return is, in my opinion, an underrated element of this Valley season. Whether he starts the year on the bench or in the starting five I expect him to make an immediate and solid impact for UNI. He is a troublemaker, and a firestarter who just makes things happen.
I probably have UNI lower than most prognosticators and that is mostly because I am a trigger shy UNI alum. I boldly predicted that UNI would win the league last year in one of my first articles on this site. I also picked UNI football as a national championship contender in the spring. Both of those things ended up…..not happening. So, yeah, I am a little worried about doing it again. If AJ Green, Austin Phyfe and Trae Berhow stay healthy and the young guys like Born, Carter and Heise improve there is no reason UNI can’t be the type of team that contends for an MVC title and is in the mix for an at-large bid. Most seasons, this team would be far-and-away the favorite in the league. This year they are one of several, but I have never been more hyped for a Valley season. I have them fourth, but make no mistake, this squad is an MVC title and NCAA Tournament contender.
3.) Missouri State Bears (2021: 17-7, 12-6, KenPom: 88) Postseason: 3-seed at Arch Madness, W In Quarterfinals Over #6 Valpo, Loss in Semifinals To #2 Drake
Last year’s Bears could be labeled a rock-solid, consistent team, and a pleasant surprise. Isiaih Mosley’s emergence as a star was one of the biggest surprises of the Valley season as he averaged 19.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG and 3.1 APG ‘en route to a first team All-MVC selection and a third-place finish in Larry Bird Trophy voting. His pace early on was incredible, and while he slowed down a bit later in the year he continued to score at a blistering pace while also finishing second on the team in rebounding and assists. Missouri State was remarkably consistent in that they beat the teams you’d expect them to beat and lost to the teams above them almost without fail. Their only MVC losses to teams below them were an early season loss at UNI and an L at Evansville on the final day in which the Aces were playing for a lot and the Bears were resting up for Arch Madness. The fact that they went a tidy 0-5 against Drake and Loyola (including an exciting Arch Madness semifinal loss to the Bulldogs) is probably why their 17-7 and 12-6 mark was not good enough for the NIT. This despite the fact last year’s edition of the event was basically a mid-major invitational. Missouri State was deemed not good enough and the Valley wasn’t invited to the party. The offseason was quite smooth for MSU as the only defection of note was Jared Ridder who left via transfer. It is a loss the Bears can certainly absorb.
When I look at the 21-22 Missouri State Bears, I think of the 1999 Houston Rockets and the 2004 LA Lakers. The Rockets had Hakeem Olajuwon and Charles Barkley already, then they added Scottie Pippen in the wake of the breakup of the Bulls’ dynasty. They added talent to talent to become a super team! After much hype, they ended up finishing in the middle of the pack and lost in the first round of the playoffs. The 2004 Lakers already had Kobe Bryant and Shaq, and then they added Gary Payton and Karl Malone to become a SUPER TEAM. That squad made it to the NBA Finals, although it was Bryant and O’Neal carrying them there with Malone and Payton along for the ride. Dana Ford has amassed a pile of talent over in Springfield, adding two impressive names to a group that is returning most of their talent from last year’s successful season. The question is whether the new talent will mesh with the two stars and supporting cast they already have. If not, it may become a “too many cooks in the kitchen” situation in the Ozarks. We already talked about the emergence of Isiaih Mosley (19.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 3.1 APG…..I know I already laid out those stats but they bear repeating) as a star in the MVC. He has become one of the best players in the league. But he wasn’t the only first-teamer the Bears had last year. Gaige Prim (16.7 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 3 APG) returns as well after establishing himself as one of the best bigs in the league. With Cameron Krutwig gone from Loyola, he may be the best in the Valley this year. While the team depended largely on those two guys, a stellar supporting cast had emerged by the end of the year. Demarcus Sharp (8.2 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.7 APG) carved out a solid role as a scorer and distributor. Keaton Hervey (7.4 PPG, 4.6 RPG) became a solid player by year’s end and Ja’Monta Black (9.6 PPG, 3.3 RPG) could also score for the Bears. There were several other guys who played various roles as well, and most all of them return besides Ridder. There is a list of seven additional guys who could emerge from the crowd and contribute to this team’s success this year.
What makes this team like the Rockets and Lakers of old are the two additions to the roster (other than freshman Isaac Haney). Jaylen Minnett (16.4 PPG, 2.1 RPG, 2.9 APG) comes over from IUPUI while Donovan Clay (10.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.3 APG) makes the rare in-league transfer from Valpo. Both will look to make big contributions right away. Minnett was a star in the Horizon League and will look to bring his shooting talents to the Valley. He can fill the bucket and could really make it rain when opposing defenses need to pay close attention to Prim and Mosley. Donovan Clay was a part of Valpo’s surprising (albeit moderate) success last year. He isn’t as exciting an add as Minnett but may be more important as he could be the glue guy this team of individuals needs.
On paper Missouri State is as good as anyone in the league. It is fair to say that no one in the league has as solid a returning 1-2 punch as the Bears’ Mosley and Prim (at least if you base it on last year’s stats). The next step for MSU will be to become a team. Loyola, Drake, UNI and SIU all appear to be more of a cohesive unit than the Bears. That may be nonsense, but that is what it seems to the untrained eye. If Missouri State can develop the kind of chemistry that the other league contenders possess, they could compete for a league title right along with the favorites. If not, you can expect their talent to take them far anyway. I hope that MSU is in the at-large discussion this year because that means the league is in a great place. Either way, they should be a big part of how the Valley shakes out this year.
2.) Drake Bulldogs (2021: 26-5, 15-3, KenPom: 55) Postseason: 2-seed at Arch Madness, W in Semifinals over #3 Missouri State, L in Championship to #1 Loyola - 11-seed in NCAA Tournament, W in First Four over #11 Wichita State, L in First Round to #6 USC
Everyone knows that Drake was the surprise of the Valley last season. Two years removed from a league title, and one year removed from an 8th place finish, the Bulldogs came seemingly out of nowhere to finish just one game short of both the MVC regular and postseason championships. They started very hot and claimed the league’s first at-large bid since 2016, winning a game at the NCAA Tournament over Wichita flippin State. No matter what your rooting interest, if you were an MVC fan you took pleasure in the Bulldogs come-from-behind First Four victory over the Shockers. My most popular Tweet of all-time pointed out that Wichita State left the Valley for a “better” league and won that league, only to get put into the First Four and matched up with the Valley’s runner up. And lost. The Shockers are currently experiencing some buyer’s remorse for their move to the AAC, but Drake has no such remorse for the hiring of their coach Darian DeVries. For years Drake was a coaching wasteland, but DeVries has found the magic formula for success at the Knapp Center. He is a miracle worker, keeping the team pointed in the right direction and winning games despite seemingly every significant player going down to injury (for the second time in three years). The emergence of Joseph Yesufu was a big part of that run, and he parlayed his incredible month into a spot on the roster at Kansas. But he was the only significant Bulldog to leave the program. Drake is a prime example of why this year could be the “Year of the Mid Major”. All their studs are back, including the ones who should be out of eligibility. This is a talented, loaded team and they are looking to finish what they started last year and win a league title.
Usually when a mid-major squad loses a guy like Yesufu, it leaves a hole in their lineup and creates uncertainty for next season. That is not the case for Drake. When healthy, Drake can run out an entire starting lineup of seniors (COVID or otherwise) as well as a few senior benchwarmers. It starts with Roman Penn (11.2 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 5.5 APG) a first-team all-league player and last year’s Larry Bird Trophy runner up. With Cam Krutwig gone, some might say Penn is the incumbent best player in the league. He is the guy who makes this offense tick. He can score and distribute and is a stellar defender for the blue and white. If post players are more your thing, Drake can trot out second-teamer ShanQuan “Tank” Hemphill (13.2 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.2 SPG) who is known for his rim rattling presence. He was one of the best bigs in the league last year and could be the best this year if he improves on his already gaudy numbers. Tremell Murphy (10.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.3 APG) is another one of five double figures scoring seniors. He can also rebound and defend for DU and has seemingly been around forever. Darnell Brodie (7.7 PPG, 7.3 RPG) isn’t as versatile as Hemphill in the post, but he is a big body and is Drake’s primary rebounder (but not their only one). DJ Wilkins (10.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.1 APG) also returns to help stabilize the guards. Garrett Sturtz (8.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.3 APG), a former walk-on, continues to be a steady presence. Jonah Jackson (2.6 PPG) will also be back. Fun fact. Every single one of those guys I just named are seniors. Some are in their bonus COVID year, and some still have a year of eligibility remaining because of COVID. But all are seniors. That is absolutely insane. The younger players will, eventually, get their chance but it won’t likely be this year.
And guess what? That isn’t even it for Bulldog seniors. They’re adding Ayo Akinwole who put up 13 PPG, adding 3.6 boards and 2.9 assists in the Summit League playing for Omaha last year. He is a great shooter who only adds to Drake’s embarrassment of riches. The prize addition of the year, though, is Tucker Devries. The coach’s son is a three-star recruit who could find his way into this rotation to contribute right away. He’s got a great opportunity to be one of the best players in the Valley by the time he is done, although if he wants playing time on this team he is certainly going to have to earn it. If he is good enough to contribute this year, he is going to be lethal by the time he is done. Drake’s only other addition is a freshman who is unlikely to contribute this year.
At the end of the day, the Bulldogs are simply loaded. They are loaded with talent and experience. Remember, Yesufu wasn’t a huge contributor to this team’s 18-0 start last year. He was the story in the postseason when the nation was watching, but that was only because of the injuries to guys like Roman Penn and Tank Hemphill. This team is more-or-less the same as it was when the ‘Dogs were high flying their way through the Valley early on last year, except they have even more depth and experience. They have a tougher non-conference schedule, too, which should serve them well in a quest for an at-large. If they perform well, they are a squad that has a great shot at an at-large bid should they need it. This is a team that would be the no-brainer favorite just about any other season in the MVC. But this is the year of the mid-major. Drake has as good a chance as anyone to win the league, get to the NCAA Tournament and do some damage. I see them as a top 25 caliber club.
1.) Loyola Ramblers (2021: 26-5, 16-2, KenPom: 10) Postseason: 1-seed at Arch Madness, W in Quarterfinals over #9 SIU, W in Semifinals over #4 Indiana State, W in Championship over #1 Drake - 8-seed in NCAA Tournament, W in First Round over #9 Georgia Tech, W in Second Round over #1 Illinois, L in Sweet 16 to #12 Oregon State
No matter what schools come and go, no matter who is coaching on the sidelines, and no matter who populates the rosters, the same themes keep emerging in the Missouri Valley Conference. The league continually cranks out teams that are experienced, strong, solid, unafraid, and underrated. How many times now has an under-seeded Valley team knocked out a highly ranked squad at the NCAA Tournament? It keeps happening over and over, and yet nothing really seems to change. The Ramblers finished the regular season 24-4, were loved by the metrics, won the MVC outright and won Arch Madness. They did all this while being just three years removed from a Final Four appearance. The Ramblers are no fluke. Still, they were seeded eighth at the dance which lined them up with top seeded Illinois in the second round. Like clockwork, Loyola dismantled the top-seeded squad (that is too afraid to play them in the regular season) and advanced to the Sweet 16. Unfortunately, they had a dud in the next round and lost to 12th seeded Oregon State. It leaves us wondering what might have been. But still, it was another statement made by a member of the Missouri Valley Conference. Loyola should have been decimated by graduation, but they aren’t because the COVID eligibility rules gave all their seniors a chance at another season. All but one, Cam Krutwig, chose to take it. Losing the Larry Bird Trophy winner is never ideal, but when you return his entire supporting cast (most of whom are on their fifth year) it softens the blow. The Ramblers also lost their coach, Porter Moser, to Oklahoma. But top assistant Drew Valentine will step in and look to keep the momentum going.
It is tough to be a first-year head coach with expectations, but Valentine’s lack of experience in the big chair should be supplemented by the egregious amount of experience he’ll have on the floor. It is hard to believe, but a contributing member of the Final Four team remains on the Loyola roster. Lucas Williamson (8.8 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 2.1 APG) won’t win the Larry Bird trophy but if he did, he’d be the fourth member of the Rambers’ Final Four team to do so. He has a chance to play for three Rambler NCAA Tournament teams and win four conference titles if they can do it again this year. Keith Clemons (7.5 PPG, 1.5 RPG), Tate Hall (6.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG), and Aher Uguak (7.3 PPG, 3.9 RPG) are all names that Valley fans know. They will return to Rogers Park for their senior seasons as well. Marquise Kennedy (7.2 PPG, 3.6 RPG), Braden Norris (8.5 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 3.2 APG) and Tom Welch (4.9 PPG, 1.9 RPG) are also familiar names who are back for their junior seasons. The thing you notice when looking at all these guys is that they are all very experienced and talented, but none of the stats really jump out at you. As good as they were, Loyola struggled for stretches last year and really leaned on Cam Krutwig offensively at times. While I am confident they will build a new identity this year, that is one item of concern for this squad. Which one of these guys is going to step up and be the go-to guy on offense when they need one? Williamson would be the top candidate if I had to pick one, but just about any one of the guys mentioned could emerge.
Or it could be one of Loyola’s six newcomers. Yes, a team this loaded with experience is also bringing in reinforcements. Four of the newbies are freshmen and not likely to see much PT. The other two are Ivy League transfers with gaudy stats who will be playing their extra year with Loyola. Chris Knight (14.8 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 2 APG, 1.2 BPG) has a chance to be Krutwig’s replacement in the post. He can score, rebound, and defend and did so at an elite level in the Ivy League for Dartmouth. Whether he can do it at the Missouri Valley level is another question. Princeton transfer Ryan Schwieger (10.7 PPG, 3 RPG, 2.6 APG) can score and distribute as well and should become a productive member of the Loyola rotation.
We can look at the offensive stats until we are blue in the face, but Loyola has built its success on being a strong defensive team. Cam Krutwig was a huge part of that, so that leads us to the million-dollar question for Loyola. Can they continue their defensive dominance without the big man in the middle? It is fair to expect at least a little regression in the post-Krutwig era. But if they can continue to play tough defense near the level we are used to seeing, there is no reason this veteran team can’t compete for another league title and return to the NCAA Tournament. I struggled to pick a #1 team for this article. You could make an argument for Drake, UNI and even Missouri State. But Loyola has been the class of this league for four years. To me, they’re the team to beat until proven otherwise. We all know who these guys are and who/where they want to be. Time to prove they can do it without the big guy.
And that is everybody. The constant theme of this preview has been how loaded the league is this year. If you’re reading this, you’re probably a Valley fan and already know that. If the Valley is a one-bid league this year I would consider that a huge disappointment. I think season could be the league’s strongest since the mid-2000s and a three-bid Valley is not crazy. Here’s hoping that the league lives up to the hype and it is an extremely fun season/Arch Madness this year. It could be the “year of the mid-major” and if it is, it’ll be great to be a Valley fan. Until next time, GO VALLEY!