NOTE: Some of the numbers and references in this may be a bit dated. I wrote this article over the course of a week and some games were played in the interim. If I were getting paid to do this I would go back and make corrections, but I am not so you'll get what you get haha. Thanks for reading!
It could be argued that the current crop of college basketball seniors are the class that is most thrown off by the extra year of eligibility due to COVID. These guys have some decisions to make. The freshmen and sophomores were just starting their college journeys when the extra year was added on and could plan accordingly. The super seniors basically had to make a snap decision. Most of the members of the current senior class presumably had a plan. Many were likely looking to inherit leadership roles from graduating seniors that didn’t come because those seniors stayed on. Many likely planned to graduate this year and move on with life. But now they have the opportunity to come back for a victory lap. What do you do? Some will likely stay the course, graduate this year, and move on with their lives. Some will stay at their institutions for another year in school and perhaps pursue and advanced degree. Others will take the opportunity to transfer and try out a new situation for their final season. It will be an interesting case study to see what this class of athletes decides to do.
This is part four of my five-part series looking at the top men’s basketball players in the MVC by class. We’ve reached the seniors that aren’t really seniors. Guys that are supposed to be done this year but aren’t necessarily. They can all come back for one more season. This is also where Belmont and Murray State live. You’ll see a lot of Bruins and Racers thrown into this list, as each has several key players that fit this category. Whether these guys return for next season or not will go a long ways to determining whether the new guys will be competitive in the league right away starting next season. If they can keep the rosters intact, both teams may even be league favorites going into next year.
Also, it was announced that UIC will be in the league next year during the time I was writing this. I went back and looked at what UIC players were missed on this list, and there really weren’t any that we need to focus on. Each of UIC’s top six players in terms of minutes played is either a senior or super senior. Their top freshman is Flip Skobalj who plays 20 minutes per game and averages 6.9 points and 4 boards. Jace Carter is a freshman who plays 19 minutes per game and has missed time for injury. He averages 5.7 points, 4 boards a game. Both of those guys figure to have big roles for UIC’s first MVC season, as they will graduate five super seniors, four of which are among UIC’s top six in minutes. The other two of the top six can be found on this list.
That said, here is my list of the top ten fourth-year players in the MVC this season, plus (more than) a few more that could be in the MVC next season. I’ll start with my honorable mentions.
Honorable Mentions: This will be the longest list of the series, as there are six Belmont/Murray/UIC players sprinkled into the top ten as well as several guys who were seriously considered for the list but didn’t make the cut. They’re listed below.
-Luke Smith- Belmont (9.1 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.3 APG, 24.8 MPG): Smith is a solid player for a very good Bruins team. He is fifth in minutes played and has started every game. He is fourth in scoring, fifth in rebounding, third in assists and third in steals. He is a solid and important player that Valley fans will get to know next year if he sticks around. He just hasn’t made enough of an impact to crack the top ten portion of this list.
-DJ Wilkins- Drake (9.5 PPG, 1.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 28.4 MPG): Wilkins is a starter and key contributor for one of the league’s best teams. One remarkable thing about DJ Wilkins is that he has started all 114 games he has played in his Drake career, and has averaged no less than 28 minutes a game in any season dating back to his freshman year of 2018-19. He is a key cog in the Bulldogs’ rotation, and actually leads the team in minutes played while sitting sixth in scoring and second in assists. He is clearly valued by his coach, evidenced by the fact he has spent more time on the floor than any other Bulldog. His stats just don’t quite jump out enough to get a spot on this very competitive top ten list.
-Ja’Shon Henry- Bradley (11.2 PPG, 5.2 RPG, .8 APG, 27.2 MPG): Henry likely would have found himself in the top ten on this list if he were healthy. The Canadian is third on Bradley in scoring and rebounding and has made a healthy contribution to his team when he has been on the floor. Unfortunately, Henry didn’t see any action for nearly a month after he suffered a head injury on December 18th. He finally got on the floor last Sunday against Illinois State for 11 minutes, contributing two points and three rebounds. That said, this list was just too competitive to include someone who hasn’t seen meaningful action in a month. If Henry can get back to 100%, though, you can bet he is one of the top seniors in the conference.
-Darnell Brodie- Drake (7.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, .7 APG, 19 MPG): Darnell Brodie is another guy who we know plays an outsized role on his team, but the stats just don’t quite get him over the hump. The Seton Hall transfer only plays 19 minutes per game, but his size and rebounding prowess are crucial on Drake’s guard heavy roster. Brodie has never been a huge scorer, but his rebounding stats are down from a year ago. He is only fourth on the team in that category after finishing fourth in the entire league last year. Still, Brodie is a key cog for one of the league’s best teams and deserves mention.
-Thomas Kithier- Valparaiso (9.6 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.3 APG, 25.9 MPG): Michigan State transfer Thomas Kithier was the most difficult person to leave off the list. I went back-and-forth among three or four guys trying to decide who would be left off. Kithier ended up being the odd man out, but he has been a stellar player for Valpo this year. He averages nearly double-figures in scoring and is fourth in the league in rebounds while also putting up solid assist numbers and playing 26 minutes per game. The Michigan native isn’t as crucial to his team as some of the other guys on this list, as he is one of eight guys in their rotation playing between 19 and 33 minutes. That is what was the deciding factor that kept him out of the top ten for me. Still, he has been one of Valpo’s most consistent players this year.
And now the top ten.
X.) Zion Griffin- UIC (10.9 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.4 APG, 29.5 MPG): We’ll start off with a member of the league’s newest addition, UIC. The Flames have five super seniors on their roster, and they account for a substantial amount of UIC’s minutes. That is why it will be crucial for UIC to retain the services of their two fourth year guys, who are probably two of their three best players. The first is Zion Griffin, an Iowa State transfer from Chicago. Griffin is third on the team in minutes played and in scoring. He has started all but two of this games for UIC this year. He was a contributor for Iowa State two years ago as a sophomore, playing over ten minutes a game for the Cyclones. He has found a bigger role at UIC, and the team will be keen to keep him on the roster for one more season. The 6’ 6’’ guard shoots a solid 49% from the field and 37% from deep. Here’s hoping we see Zion Griffin in Valley gyms next year.
10.) Roman Penn- Drake (10.3 PPG, 3 RPG, 4.1 APG, 27 MPG): Statistically speaking, Roman Penn does not deserve to be on this list above a guy like Thomas Kithier. His scoring, rebounding and assist numbers are down relative to the last two seasons and he has missed over a third of his team’s games due to injury. However, I couldn’t keep him off this list. Even if his stats are down, it just feels like Roman Penn is still a vital component of Drake’s success. And that is because he absolutely is. His stats do not fully reflect that type of player that he is, and the role he plays for the Bulldogs. Penn missed a month of the season, from December 2nd to January 2nd, with an injury (and yes I know that was the exact reason I left Ja’Shon Henry off the list, but Penn has been back longer than Henry). In his return against Missouri State, he immediately played 25 minutes. He has averaged 26 minutes per game since his return and has contributed an average of 11 points and 3.5 assists per game. This after a month of inaction. Last season, Roman Penn averaged 5.5 assists per game, and 5.6 the year before that. He has started all 69 (nice) games he has played for Drake. Roman Penn is a crucial player on one of the league’s best teams and he deserves his spot on this list. If Drake is going to compete for a league title, Penn will likely need to be a big part of it.
9.) Josiah Strong- Illinois State (13.1 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 32.1 MPG): Coming into the season, many MVC fans saw Josiah Strong as the guy that was going to have to be the man for ISU to have any success. That hasn’t turned out to be the case, but for a very good reason from the perspective of Redbird fans. Antonio Reeves and Sy Chatman have stepped up to be leaders for the ‘Birds along with Strong, whose performance has been everything ISU fans could hope for. The result is that the team, picked to finish at or near the bottom of the league, has been substantially more competitive than expected. Strong has more-or-less emerged as the #3 guy among the trio, but is still second on the team in minutes, third in scoring, fifth in rebounds and second in assists. The Navy transfer (remember that?) takes a healthy portion of his shots from deep, and he shoots slightly better from behind the arc (48%) than he does inside it (47%). That is his role, and he is performing it well. Strong had a relatively slow start to the season but has been more consistent of late, scoring in double figures in six consecutive games. Reeves and Chatman have been bigger stories, but Strong’s influence on the team cannot be understated. The Redbirds are going to need all three of their studs to perform at a high level top get into the top 6.
8.) Garrett Sturtz- Drake (10.2 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.4 APG, 27.6 MPG): Garrett Sturtz, a former walk-on from the basketball hotbed of Newton, Iowa, has become an MVC fan favorite. It isn’t just Drake fans that appreciate his hard-nosed, all-out, leave-it-all-on-the-floor style of play. He has been getting praise from fans, media, and coaches from around the league. If every basketball player adopted the style of Garrett Sturtz, well, there would probably be a lot more injuries. You probably can’t have everyone playing like that. But every championship team needs one, and Drake probably has the best one around in Sturtz. Sturtz has always been a fun player to watch with good-but-not-great stats. But his stats are starting to catch up with his reputation, which puts him over the top on this list for me. He is currently averaging double figure scoring for the first time in his career, good for second on the team. He isn’t a regular starter but is fourth on the team in minutes played per game (less than a minute per game behind team leader DJ Wilkins). On a team with Shaq Hemphill, Darnell Brodie, and Tremell Murphy, Sturtz leads them all in rebounding by a wide margin and is third in the league (behind Gaige Prim and Rienk Mast) in the statistic. And, of course, he leads the team in steals. Sturtz has always been a guy whose motor and hustle has allowed him to compete at the highest level, but he has become more than just a fast motor. He is a legitimately talented player who has become one of the more reliable guys in the league.
7.) Kobe King- Valparaiso (14.7 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.2 APG, 31 MPG): King is a tough one to rank because he has only played in ten games this year after sitting out the first part of the season due to NCAA eligibility rules. His impact since his return has been huge for Valpo. He is second on the team in minutes played and first in average scoring. He is also second on the team in rebounds. With the instant impact he has made for Valpo, one could make a pretty good argument that he deserves to be higher on this list. However, I struggle to get over the hump on King because his presence hasn’t translated into a lot of success for the Beacons who are 2-5 in league play at the time of this writing. He has played in six league games, and only two of those were wins….both at home in overtime. King scored in double-figures in all but one of those games and is shooting 49% from the field (42% from behind the arc). With performances like that, you can’t really blame the losses on King, but I was so certain that the Beacons were about to turn the corner with an eligible King and a healthy Krikke. It hasn’t happened yet, although there is still time for Valpo’s hastily-assembled-but-talented team to gel before St. Louis. With more playing time, King will have every opportunity to move up this list throughout the year and into next……..if he continues to ply his trade at the ARC next season.
X.) Grayson Murphy- Belmont (7.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 5.8 APG): Belmont, Murray and UIC players are not officially on the list, because they do not play in the MVC (yet). But I am still including them in the spot they would be if they were in the league. In the COVID era, a super spreader is not typically a good thing, but if there is a basketball version of the term Grayson Murphy would be it. On a team with high volume scorers like Ben Sheppard, Nick Muszynski and Will Richard, Grayson Murphy is the guy that makes the offense go. It is a cliché in college basketball, but Grayson Murphy is truly the straw that stirs the drink. Murphy’s 6.1 assists per game would lead the Valley by nearly two over the current league leader, Braden Norris (sitting at 4.3). In fact, he is fifteenth in the entire country in the statistic. But Murphy isn’t just a John Stockton distributor, he is a Shaquille O’Neal rebounder. His 6.4 boards a game leads the team. The 6’ 3’’ guard outrebounds their all-league 6’ 11’’ center. If you still aren’t convinced, what if I told you that he leads the Bruins (and is 13th in the nation) in steals as well? If Murphy chooses to play his final year at Belmont, you can bet he will be wreaking havoc in the Valley next season.
6.) Shamar Givance- Evansville (14.7 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 3.7 APG, 31.4 MPG): Givance has been a significant contributor for all four seasons he has been at Evansville, but has really stepped it up the last two years. The Canadian improved his scoring output from 4-5 points a game his first two years to 13-15 points per game the last two seasons. He has upped his rebounding by about a board and a half and increased his assist numbers by a similar margin. Givance has been at UE for his entire career, and unfortunately for him it has not been the Aces’ strongest period. UE has gone 12-47 in MVC play during his time at the Ford Center, which is rough. You want talented, experienced players to stay in the league and I hope Givance returns to Evansville next year. That said, I wouldn’t blame the man if he wanted to use his final year of eligibility with another program. Givance leads the Aces in scoring, assists and steals, and is third in rebounding. His team’s issues certainly cannot be blamed on him. Shamar Givance is one of the better players in the MVC and he plays his butt off every night. While the Aces have been unable to establish themselves during his time with the program, Givance has been a highlight for the beleaguered fans at the Ford Center.
5.) Cameron Henry- Indiana State (14.4 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 2.9 APG, 28.9 MPG): I am not a basketball coach, but I gotta think that those that are appreciate a guy who can do a little bit of everything. Don’t get me wrong, teams need guys who play roles, but the flexibility offered by a guy who can score, rebound, and distribute must be nice. Cameron Henry is one of the guys who can do it all. The Chesterfield, Virginia, native was a star for three years at D2 Lincoln Memorial and his skills have translated well to the DI level at ISU. While Henry is only fifth on the team in minutes (one of five guys averaging at least 28 MPG), he is second in scoring behind Cooper Neese. ISU is a high-volume offensive team, and they have four guys who average double figures, Henry included. That is why it is good that he leads the team in rebounding and assists as well. The fact that ISU has a guard heavy lineup means the smaller guys have to step up and get boards, and the 6’ 6’’ Henry seems to have a nose for it. He is 9th in the league in rebounding and fourth among guards. Overall, it has been very impressive to see a guy who was playing at the D2 level just a year ago step up his game and become a quality DI player just one year later. Kudos to you, Mr. Henry. We hope to see you back in Terre Haute next year.
4.) Jawaun Newton- Evansville (14.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 1.4 APG, 33.5 MPG): Jawaun Newton and Shamar Givance are two names that give Aces fans hope. Evansville had a bit of a surge last year, finishing tied for 5th at 7-11 after going 0-18 the year before. With an experienced, senior laden team returning, a lot of Valley fans were hopeful that UE might show a pulse this year. Unfortunately, that hasn’t come to pass, at least not yet. Evansville is still without a league win, and their NET rating his dipped into the 300s. Things have not gone well. But Jawaun Newton is not the reason why. The leader in minutes played for Evansville (and one of the leaders in the entire league), Newton is second on the team in scoring just behind Shamar Givance. More impressive is the fact that the 6’ 3’’ Texan leads the team in rebounding by almost 1.6 per game over Noah Frederking. He is eighth in the league in that statistic and third among guards. Newton is also third on the team in assists and steals and second in blocks. If Evansville is going to regroup and be playing their best ball come Arch Madness, they’re going to need Newton and Givance to make it happen. To be fair to them, UE’s five league games so far have come against Loyola, Drake, SIU, UNI and Bradley, and they took Drake and SIU to the wire. The Aces still have a pair of games against Illinois State, Valpo and Indiana State on the docket. There is still time to claw their way out of the cellar.
3.) Cooper Neese- Indiana State (15.3 PPG, 4 RPG, 1.8 APG, 33.9 MPG): There was a lot of change at Indiana State this year. Gone was head coach Greg Lansing after a decade in Terre Haute. Gone too were several transfers including star Jake LaRavia. In came new coach Josh Schertz and with him a new system and several transfers from the D2 ranks. Schertz was able to retain ISU’s best player, Tyreke Key, and hope was high that the Trees would have a good season. But, uh-oh, Key was declared out for the season before ISU even played its first game. The biggest constant in all this? Cooper Neese. The 6’ 4’’ Indiana native has weathered the storm of change and emerged as ISU’s best player. After serving in the role of “useful role player” for several seasons, Neese has stepped up and filled the gap left by the loss of Key and LaRavia. Neese is ISU’s leading scorer and is fourth on the team in rebounding and assists. Perhaps just as importantly, Neese has provided crucial continuity. He is the link between the old and the new, holding the eras together. And while I am not in the ISU locker room and have no idea what leadership dynamics are playing out in Terre Haute, I have to imagine he has provided leadership for Coach Schertz’s team. Even if he isn’t the classic vocal leader, he has certainly led by example on the court. They Key-less Trees have been a pleasant surprise this year. The performance of the D2 transfers is a big reason why, but the presence and improvement of Cooper Neese might be the most important factor.
X.) KJ Williams- Murray State (15.9 PPG, 8 RPG, .8 APG, 27 MPG): You’re going to see a big OVC/Horizon League presence on this part of the list. As I’ve said before, if the Racers and Bruins can keep their super seniors together going into next season, they’ll be among the favorites in the league right away. A big man standing 6’ 10’’, KJ Williams is one of a trio of high-volume scorers on Murray State. He has played 107 games at Murray in his career and started 73 of them, including all 43 over the last two seasons. Williams logs 27 minutes per game, good for third on the team. He is second in scoring and leads the team with eight boards a game. That is just a smidge behind MVC league leaders Gaige Prim and Rienk Mast. If Williams remains at Murray State for his final year of eligibility, he will enter the league as a candidate to be its best big man (along with another possible MVC newcomer we’ve yet to see on this list). His return would be key for the Racers, as it appears the dropoff on the MSU roster in the post is big. DJ Burns can rebound but he isn’t a scorer. Here’s hoping Williams makes an appearance in gyms across the MVC next season.
X.) Damaria Franklin- UIC (17 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.1 APG, 30.1 MPG): Damaria Franklin is UIC’s best player, and he is playing his first season at UIC after spending his first three college basketball seasons at two different institutions. The Chicago native spent his first two seasons at State Fair Community College in Missouri. He then transferred to Tennessee Tech for last season before transferring again, back home to Chicago this year. Franklin’s numbers have improved across the board relative to last season in Tennessee. His scoring is up nearly four points per game and his rebounding and assist numbers are markedly improved as well. The 6’ 3’’ guard is by far the Flames’ leading scorer and plays the second most minutes on the team. He is also by far the team’s leading rebounder, which is particularly impressive when you consider the fact that he is 6’ 3’’. He also leads the team in steals and is third in assists. While he isn’t particularly good from long range (27%), he shoots a respectable 44% from the floor overall. If the Flames want to have a pulse in their first Valley season next year, step one is ensuring that they retain the services of Damaria Franklin.
2.) Sy Chatman- Illinois State (15.3 PPG, 6.3 RPG, .7 APG, 26.3 MPG): Sy Chatman has always been a guy with big potential. It has taken him four years and two schools to finally realize that potential, but Illinois State is finally reaping the benefits. Perhaps the favorite for the league’s Most Improved Player, Chatman had played just 11 games over the previous two seasons at UMass and Illinois State, putting up mediocre numbers when he was able to get on the floor. Expectations were not high for the Minnesota native going into this season, but Chatman has become one of the better players in the MVC. He is tenth in the league in scoring (2nd on Illinois State), and fifth in rebounding (1st on Illinois State). He is also the Redbirds’ team leader in blocked shots. Chatman is third on the team in minutes played and sometimes struggles to stay on the floor and avoid foul problems. He was only able to log 13 minutes in the Redbirds’ recent lost to Missouri State while fouling out with just four points. When he is on the floor, though, he has become a gamechanger as evidenced by his back-to-back 20+ point performances against Wisconsin and Valpo in which he played a total of 73 minutes. Chatman converts at a solid 54.6% clip, although he is not comfortable away from the basket (shooting a gentlemen’s 6% from deep). On a team with a couple great scorers in Antonio Reeves and Josiah Strong, Chatman fits in nicely in his role as interior scorer and rebounder. If he can continue to make strides into next season, he has the potential to be the league’s best big.
X.) Nick Muszynski- Belmont (15.3 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.6 APG, 26.4 MPG): If I was being completely fair, a Racer or a Bruin would probably top this list. But I can’t allow that to happen, not yet, so the best those teams have to offer will be squeezed between the #2 and #1 spots. I haven’t seen Belmont play a ton, but you only have to see them play for a few minutes before it becomes obvious that Nick Muszynski is a special player. A 6’ 11’’ big man with a knack for rebounding and a soft touch around the basket is a rare find in college basketball, especially at the mid-major level. In the little I’ve seen, it appears Muszynski plays with a finesse that suits him well and is difficult to defend. That soft touch is backed up by a 75% free throw percentage and 55% shooting percentage. Muszynski has been a star since day one, starting 109 of 110 career games. He was in the lineup as a freshman in 2019 when Belmont picked up an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament and got their first ever DI NCAA Tournament win over Temple in the First Four. They went on to nearly knock off Maryland in the next round. This is the type of guy who will get a lot of interest if he decides to look elsewhere for his extra year of eligibility. I have no idea if that is in his head, but hopefully it isn’t. It would be a joy to watch him ply his trade in the MVC next year.
X.) Tevin Brown- Murray State (18.5 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 3.5 APG, 33.8 MPG): I would say Tevin Brown is probably Murray State’s best player, although an argument could be made for KJ Williams or even Justice Hill. It is hard for me to say, because I haven’t seen a lot of Murray’s games this year. What I can say is that Brown has been a star for the Racers since the day he stepped on campus. A starter in all 109 of the games he has played in his four-year MSU career, Tevin Brown has averaged double figures each and every season he has played in southwest Kentucky. Brown is not only the Racers leading scorer, he is by far the leading scorer for the entire OVC. He is also third on the team in rebounds, second in assists and second in steals. I have absolutely no idea where Tevin Brown’s head is at when it comes to next season. He is the type of player that would certainly draw interest from power conference teams if he wanted to play his senior season in a new place. I don’t know if that is on his radar or not. If he is still a Racer next year, he’ll enter the MVC as one of the league’s best players right from the jump.
1.) AJ Green- Northern Iowa (17.8 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 2.1 APG, 35.4 MPG): AJ Green is a former Larry Bird Trophy winner who led UNI to the MVC regular season championship and a place on the NCAA bubble in the 2019-20 season. He may or may not win the trophy again this year (that is looking like it will go to Isiaih Mosley at the moment), but make no mistake, AJ Green is one of the elite players in the MVC. The Cedar Falls native followed up his Larry Bird Trophy campaign with a lost season, sitting out the bulk of 2020-21 campaign after having hip surgery. He is back this year, and while he has not been terribly consistent, he has still been very good. The high-volume scorer is third in the league in that category behind Antonio Reeves and Isiaih Mosley. He is not a huge rebounder, but is tied for the team lead in assists, which is impressive considering he is usually the one taking the shots for the Panthers. Green is possibly the single most important player to his team in the MVC, playing an eye-popping 35.4 minutes per game which is the highest MPG in the league as far as I can tell. UNI went from preseason favorites to 7th place playing without Green a season ago, and it will be interesting to see where the team gets their points next season when he is likely gone. That is the unfortunate thing about Green for UNI. He has indicated that he will most likely be graduating and moving onto playing professional basketball next season. Due to his injury last year and COVID issues this year, Green has only played in 85 career games as a Panther and would require an extended postseason run to reach 100 career games. Despite this, he is still rewriting the record book for UNI. This Panther alum would love nothing more to see him give it one more go next year. Whatever he does, though, I will say he has been a blast to watch.
And that is all he wrote for part four! Just one more section to go. Check back soon for my rankings of the top ten super seniors in the MVC. Spoiler alert: there are a lot of Ramblers and Bulldogs. There’s a reason why those are two of the best teams in the league. Until then, GO VALLEY!