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MVC's Top Ten Juniors/Third-Year Players

Alright folks, it is time for the third of my five-part series comparing the players in the MVC by class. Before we get into part 3 (juniors/third years) I have some housekeeping to do. For these lists, I have been trying to include players from Belmont in an effort introduce Valley fans to some of the guys they might see when the Bruins join the league next year. Now we’ve officially added Murray as a new member as well, so I will start to include them too. I was going to go back and look at some of the guys we have missed, but there isn’t much there for the Racers. Murray is one of those (like UNI and Indy State) that lists players by their eligibility remaining and not by their experience level. For example, someone who played last year is still listed as a freshman for UNI, ISU Blue and Murray. From what I can tell, the Racers have no “true” freshmen. That is, every freshman on the roster played last season. There seems to be only one 2nd year player getting any significant playing time, and even he is a true role player. Nicholas McMullan gets 12 minutes a game and averages 5.1 points, 2 rebounds and 0.2 assists per game. That would’ve barely put him in the honorable mentions in part two. So, it looks like we didn’t miss much with Murray’s late start. They are a veteran team.

That said, before we look at the top ten third year players in the Valley this year, here are some honorable mentions.

Honorable Mentions: The list gets significantly deeper starting with this group. A lot of guys who aren’t even in these honorable mentions would’ve been near the top of the freshmen and sophomore lists.

-DJ Burns- Murray State (6.8 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 1 APG, 24.9 MPG): The Southern transfer doesn’t quite have the stats to be put amongst the top ten, but he is fourth on the Racers in minutes and second in rebounding. He scored more and rebounded less in his two years at Southern. MVC fans can expect him to be a big part of what the Racers bring to the table when they join the league next year.

-Trae Hannibal- Murray State (9.7 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 19.9 MPG): Hannibal is a transfer from South Carolina where he played a significant role for the Gamecocks, averaging double-digit minutes each of his first two seasons. He hasn’t made a start for the Racers and is just sixth on the team in minutes but is 4th on the team in scoring and rebounding, 3rd in assists, and leads the team in steals. Valley fans will likely see a lot of him over the next couple seasons.

-Marquise Kennedy- Loyola (8 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 2.1 APG, 22.4 MPG): Kennedy’s stats don’t jump out at you, but Loyola is a team that really spreads the wealth around. His first year as a starter, Kennedy hasn’t been scoring a ton more than in previous seasons, but his rebounding and assist numbers are up. He plays a key role for the Ramblers, but his lack of stats kept him off the top ten.

-Ja’Monta Black – Missouri State (10.8 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 1.1 APG, 27.8 MPG): It takes a lot to make a mark on a team that includes Isiaih Mosley and Gaige Prim, but Ja’Monta Black has started 59 of his 73 career games as an MSU Bear (and all 17 this season). Black was one of the last ones cut for this list, and he deserves to be recognized. Prim and Mosley would not be able to do what they do without Ja’Monta Black, who gets his share of scoring, averaging double-figures. Black shoots 40% from deep and 80% from the free throw line. I expect him to be the Pippen to Mosley’s Jordan after Gaige Prim graduates.

-Donovan Clay- Missouri State (7.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.6 APG, 30.8 MPG): On a team with Mosley and Prim, guess who leads the Bears in minutes per game? If you’re using your context clues you can probably guess it is Donovan Clay. While his stats don’t jump off the page at you, Donovan Clay is one of the Valley’s ultimate “glue guys” doing all the little things for MSU. There is a reason why this man has started 76 of the 80 games he has played in an MVC uniform. Every championship team needs a guy like Donovan Clay that is willing to do the dirty work.

-Kendall Lewis- Illinois State (9.1 PPG, 5.6 RPG, .9 APG, 25 MPG): At Illinois State, Reeves, Strong and Chatman don’t leave a lot of room on the stat sheet for others. However, there are a couple guys who are filling huge roles for the ‘Birds. The first is Appalachian State transfer Kendall Lewis who falls just short of scoring in double-figures but is the team’s #2 rebounder behind Chatman. Lewis’ rebounding skills have been crucial, but he has been able to contribute in a myriad of different ways. He shoots nearly 50% from the field and plays stellar defense. Another guy who just missed this list, ISU red would not be doing as surprisingly well as they are without Lewis.

-Mark Freeman- Illinois State (9.5 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 3.9 APG, 26.6 MPG): The very last cut from this list, Mark Freeman plays a crucial distributor role on a team with three studs. The Tennessee State transfer, a starter in all but one of his games this year, leads Illinois State in assists by a wide margin. He is also fourth on the team in scoring and is second in steals. Freeman is the straw that stirs the drink and allows Reeves, Chatman and Strong to do what they’ve been doing. Without Freeman, I suspect you’d see a dropoff in those three’s production. He can also score a bit himself, too.

And now for the top ten.

10.) Malevy Leons- Bradley (10.9 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 1.3 APG, 29.1 MPG): Malevy Leons, a 6’ 9’’ forward from Bradley, leads things off. Leons was named the JUCO Player of the Year last season while playing for Mineral Area College. He has jumped right in as a leader for the Braves, leading the team in minutes. He is third on the team in scoring, second in rebounding, and leads the squad in blocks. The big man can score inside and out, shooting 53% overall this season and 45% from deep. Coach Wardle has leaned on the Netherlands native even stronger in the month of January. He played 33, 36, and 40 minutes in three close Braves losses to open the month, before logging just 28 in a recent blowout win over Evansville. Leons is one of a pair of newcomers that are leading the Braves. He and Terry Roberts have helped the program move on from the rough ending of last season and should have BU challenging for a top six spot this year. You would expect the Braves to continue to improve as these talented players continue to gel with the rest of the squad.

9.) Noah Carter- Northern Iowa (13 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.1 APG, 21.6 MPG): Noah Carter has been a crucial part of Northern Iowa’s recent resurgence. After a win over Evansville in which the 6’ 6’’ combo forward scored 15 points off the bench, Coach Ben Jacobson declared “Noah Carter is a starter”. He technically wasn’t at the time, but he has been since. Carter, like his team, got off to a relatively slow start this season. But the Iowa native has become UNI’s second most consistent scorer, netting double-figures in six straight games and nine out of UNI’s last ten. Carter has scored no fewer than 14 points in UNI’s last four games, and it isn’t a coincidence that the Panthers have won all four. Carter has been starting at the 5 most for UNI, replacing the ailing Austin Phyfe who is still recovering from COVID. Carter’s size and ability to score both inside and out has been tough for opposing big men to deal with. I expect Noah Carter to move up this list as the season continues. It feels like the sky is the limit for him.

8.) Braden Norris- Loyola (9.7 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 4.4 APG, 31.5 MPG): Braden Norris is probably going to leave Loyola with an already established active law practice or something. This is his fourth year on a college basketball roster, but he retains two more years of eligibility. That is because he played his freshman year at Oakland, transferred to Loyola and sat out a year (remember that?), played last year’s COVID season that didn’t count, and how is using his second year of eligibility during his fourth season. Norris brings probably the least eye-popping numbers to the table of anyone on this list so far, but make no mistake, he is crucial to Loyola’s success. There is a reason why, on a team with Lucas Williamson, he leads the team in minutes played and is on the floor nearly 80% of the time. He stirs the drink. His 4.4 assists per game lead the league, and he is third on the team in scoring and second in steals. He makes the offense go, plays great defense, and appears to be a leader. That isn’t a bad place to start when you’re building a team that wants to compete for league titles and NCAA Tournament wins. He’ll be a crucial carry-over when the Ramblers start in the A-10 next season.

X.) Justice Hill- Murray State (12.9 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 4.6 APG, 27.9 MPG): Hill is unranked because he isn’t actually in the Valley (yet), but if he were ranked, this is where he would fall. In only his second year with the program (his first collegiate year was at Salt Lake Community College), Hill has become a full-time starter for the Racers. He is second on the team in minutes, third in scoring and first in assists. In fact, his 4.6 assists per game would put him first in the MVC….if he were in the MVC. Hill can shoot (45% from deep), distribute, and defend. He is one of three Racers that average double-figures, and all have eligibility remaining for their first year in the Valley. The other two you will likely see on the next list. If they can keep all three together for next season, they should be competing near the top of the league right away in 2022-23.

7.) Xavier Bledson- Indiana State (11.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.7 APG, 31.8 MPG): With significant scoring, rebounding and assist numbers, Xavier Bledson has done a little bit of everything for ISU this season. Bledson has been a bit of a surprise for ISU, as his stats for the Trees are as good or better than his stats were for DII Lincoln Memorial last year. The Georgia native played fewer than 20 minutes a game for the lower-division school last year, and averaged 10 points, 5 assists and 4 boards a game. This year’s numbers have nearly matched that, and he has carved out a role at ISU that is bigger than the one he had last year at LMU. Bledson is second behind only Cooper Neese in average minutes played, and fourth among a quartet of double-figures scoring Trees. Bledson is second in rebounds, first in assists, and second in steals. He is a distributor and a glue guy. This is also his fourth year as a college basketball player, but he retains two more years of eligibility after this. He will be a big part of ISU’s plans both this season and into the future. Not bad for a guy whose coach urged him not to transfer to Indiana State, saying he didn’t have what it takes to compete at the DI level.

6.) Lance Jones- Southern Illinois (14.1 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 1.5 APG, 28.3 MPG): Last year SIU lost star Marcus Domask for most of the league season. That is not ideal for anyone, and SIU struggled to a bottom-four finish. However, it forced Lance Jones to be “the man” and both he and SIU are better for it in the long run. Jones’ scoring, rebounds and steals have improved with the return of Domask and he has evolved into one of the league’s best players with two years of eligibility remaining after this season. Jones is second on the team in scoring, third in rebounding, and third in assists (all behind Domask). He does lead the team in steals, making him an even better complimentary player than he already was. A #2 offensive guy who can play great defense? Yeah, I’d say sign me up. And while he shares the scoring load with teammate Domask, he is still 11th in the league in that category. SIU has a chance to have their best season in years, and if the do, Jones will be a crucial part of it.

X.) Ben Sheppard- Belmont (16 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1.8 APG, 30.3 MPG): The Bruins’ top minutes eater and #2 scorer would come in at about this spot on the list if he were in the MVC. Sheppard doesn’t do a ton of rebounding or create a lot of baskets for others, but he can score. He is second on the team in that statistic, just a half point behind center Nick Muszynski and well ahead of third place Will Richard. Sheppard’s 50% shooting percentage is very good, especially for a guard, and he hits a respectable 38% from long range. He is a consistent scorer, as he has hit double-figures in all but one of Belmont’s games this year. He will likely be a big name in the MVC for the next couple years once Belmont wraps up their OVC run this year.

5.) Ben Krikke- Valparasio (14.1 PPG, 3.6 RPG, 1 APG, 25 MPG): Ben Krikke has been a rare constant on a team that has been forced to reinvent itself nearly every season it has played in the MVC. Year one he was a contributor on a team that featured Javon Freeman-Liberty and nearly made an unprecedented four-day run to the Arch Madness title. Last year, he was a leader on a post JFL Valpo squad that finished in the middle of the pack. This season, a bevy of transfers have joined a team that hasn’t even retained the same nickname. Throughout it all there has been Krikke, and hopefully for Matt Lottich and the Beacons’ sake, there will still be Krikke for two more years after this. Ben Krikke is one of six double-figure scorers that are getting the bulk of the minutes for Valpo at this time, and he is second on the team in scoring behind Kobe King. He is also one of just two guys out of those six that were on the team last year (along with sophomore Sheldon Edwards). Krikke’s stats don’t jump out at you as much as some of the guys who are still to come on this list, and he has been dealing with some health issues. But from my vantage point, while they have a lot of talented players, Krikke and Edwards are the heart and soul of the team. I would go so far as to say he is the Beacons’ most important player.

4.) Terry Roberts- Bradley (15.9 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 4.2 APG, 28.4 MPG): JUCO transfer Terry Roberts has been an outstanding pickup for the Braves. The New York native leads the team in points, assists, and steals in his rookie DI season. The latter distinction shouldn’t be too surprising, as he left his JUCO (Florida Southwestern State College) as the school’s all-time steals leader. Roberts is one of those guys who can really do it all. The 6’ 3’’ guard shoots 47% and 37% from deep. His 4.9 rebounds a game, while just 4th on the team, are 16th in the league. And while he is the team’s leading scorer, he is also the best at creating scoring opportunities for his teammates with 4.2 assists per game, good for 3rd in the league. Oh, and he is an outstanding defender who is second in the league in steals. It isn’t crazy to say that Terry Roberts has been the most important element to Bradley’s quick recovery from a rough end to 2020-21 and is right up there with AJ Green and Marcus Domask on the list of guys whose teams might crumble if they missed significant time with an injury. You could make a compelling argument that he should be higher on this list, but I just couldn’t quite put him ahead of the three really big names above him. Still, he is one of the best and most important players in the league, and a candidate for Newcomer of the Year.

3.) Marcus Domask- Southern Illinois (16 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 4.4 APG, 36.1 MPG): Take all the things that Terry Roberts does well for Bradley, make them just a little bit better, and you’ve got Marcus Domask. Domask is in his third year in the SIU program and has more-or-less been its best player the entire time he has been with the team. A starter since day one, Domask was the Valley’s Freshman of the Year two years ago before an injury shortened his season last year. The Salukis struggled in his absence, falling into the bottom two of the Valley and playing in the play-in rounds of the MVC Tournament. Domask is the heart and soul of the Salukis, leading the team in points, rebounds, assists and blocks, and is on the floor 90% of the time for SIU. He is fifth in league in scoring, and first in the league in assists, a combination that is quite incredible, especially when you consider that SIU is not a particularly high scoring team. Domask has turned it up even more recently, scoring no fewer than 20 points in each of SIU’s last three games. If Marcus Domask is on the floor, Southern Illinois has a chance to win any game they play in the MVC. If the Salukis make the move back into the upper echelon, Domask (more than anyone else) is the one that will need make it happen.

2.) Antonio Reeves- Illinois State (20.8 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 2 APG, 33.7 MPG): The Missouri Valley Conference’s leading scorer comes in at #2 on this list. Antonio Reeves isn’t as versatile as a couple of the guys below him. He isn’t a huge rebounder (although he holds his own) and he doesn’t rack up a bunch of assists. What he does do, and has done all year, is score. He is the Valley’s leading scorer by a point and a half over Isiaih Mosley and is almost three points clear of #3 AJ Green. Reeves is one of three Redbirds (along with Josiah Strong and Sy Chatman) who have really stepped up their games this season and kept ISU from being as bad as most projected. His scoring has steadily improved throughout his career, from an average of 7.2 PPG his freshman season, to 12.4 last year to 20.8 this year. If he continues at this pace, he’ll be the National Player of the Year by the time he is done. Reeves has been very consistent this year, never once dipping below 12 points in any one contest. He shoots 47% from the floor and 43% from deep, which is certainly good enough. Reeves knows his role, and that is to fill it up for ISU. If he continues to do so, and his teammates continue to fill their roles, the Redbirds will be in the fight for the top 6.

1.) Isiaih Mosley- Missouri State (19.3 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.1 APG, 29.1 MPG): Isiaih Mosley is one the best players in the conference. An argument could certainly be made that he is the best player in the conference. Not only is he the league’s second leading scorer, but he is also seemingly getting better as the season continues. He made perhaps the biggest shot of the MVC season so far when he hit a game winning buzzer beater at Bradley, and followed that with a 43-point performance (albeit in a losing effort) a few days later against UNI. He followed that up with a 33-point performance later in the week in a win against SIU. Although he got off to a relatively slow start to league play, the game winner seems to have jump-started his scoring and if he continues at the pace he has gone the last two games he’ll be making a serious run at the Larry Bird Trophy. Mosley already has ten 20+ point performances this year, and he leads a team with quite a few options for scoring and rebounding. Gaige Prim, Jaylen Minnett, Ja’Monta Black, Donovan Clay and Lu’Cye Patterson are all very good players, and they all have their role. But Mosley is the person that brings it all together. You can call it recency bias, but Mosley was doing similar things for most of the season last year too. We’ll see if he can keep up this pace and stay in the running for the Larry. Either way, MSU will enjoy having his services for two more years (hopefully).

And that is that. The list took a big step up in quality for this class. It might be the deepest class, although the Valley does have some stellar seniors. I’ll work on that list soon, but for now, GO VALLEY!

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