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What If EVERYONE Came Back?

We have reached the era of free transfers and NIL, and unfortunately that may be very bad news for fans of MVC teams. Each year, we’ll have to go into the offseason wondering what will be left of our rosters after some of the high-profile programs attempt to lure our best players with big money offers. No longer tethered by a required redshirt/sit-out year, a future where MVC programs become essentially junior colleges for the power programs is possible. Throw in the extra year that the players from the COVID era have gotten, and this season could be an all-out free-for-all. Yes, MVC schools can also get some players transferring “down” from the P5s, or up from even lower leagues, that is true. But overall, MVC fans are going to have to sweat out losing their stars every year moving forward. That is just the way it is. And overall, that is probably a good thing for the kids, but it isn’t good for our favorite teams.

But what if we could live in a world where money wasn’t an issue, and everyone stayed with the teams God gave them? What if we, as fans, didn’t have to worry about our best and favorite players transferring (nor, for the sake of this article, did we have to worry about whether the student-athlete’s best interests were being taken care of). I invite you to join me in a world where that is the case. Today, I’ll be taking a way-too-early look at what the MVC could look like next season if everyone came back. No transfers (in or out), no one graduating and “moving on with their life”, and for the sake of simplicity no incoming freshmen either. In this universe, every MVC team will have a roster made up entirely of players that were on the roster last year and did not exhaust their eligibility. What would that look like? Turns out pretty good. The only current MVC team that will truly be hit hard by eligibility-exhausting graduation is Loyola, and they won’t be in the league anymore next year. Everyone else looks pretty good on paper right now.

See below my ranking of each team if everyone with eligibility returned and no rosters changed. I used for my listings of players, so if I have one wrong blame them. I also used the class that each player would be next year based on their eligibility, because it is simply easier to track for me. I know people are still going to correct me on it, but there it is. OK, with all that out of the way, here we go!

1.) Northern Iowa Panthers (19-11)

Key Losses: Trae Berhow, Tywhon Pickford

Projected Starters:

-AJ Green (Sr): 18.8 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.4 APG, 36.4 MPG -Nate Heise (So): 9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.2 APG, 30.8 MPG -Bowen Born (So): 7.4 PPG, 1.2 RPG, 1.9 APG, 23.6 MPG -Noah Carter (Jr): 14.6 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.7 APG, 26.3 MPG -Austin Phyfe (Sr): 5.5 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 1.1 APG, 12.4 MPG

It is unlikely you’ll see this starting five for UNI next year, but if you do, the defending regular season champs will likely be the league favorites going into the season. While the loss of starters Trae Berhow and Tywhon Pickford will hurt, there would a lot of talent there to fill in if this scenario came to pass. They’d start with a two-time Larry Bird winner, add a guy coming off a 2nd-team all-league season, another who is a Freshman of the Year/6th Man of the Year, a different former member of the all-freshman team and, oh yeah, a guy who has been both a 1st teamer and a 2nd teamer in the past. The three big question marks here are Green, Carter and Phyfe. Green is pondering a pro career or possibly a transfer to Iowa State, a school that has sent several guards to the NBA draft and employs his dad as a coach. Carter, it is rumored, has P5 aspirations. For Phyfe, he would be entering his sixth year in college, and he has battled major health issues this season. He would, presumably, only return in the event he can get his health under control. With all three guys on the roster and healthy, the Panthers would be awesome. With even a couple of them they’d be very good. With none, you’d probably be looking at a mini rebuild. Bowen Born and Nate Heise are a great place to start, but the rest of the roster would be filled with young and inexperienced guys. They’d still be a competitive MVC team. But they’d be unlikely to compete for a championship. If they can get the band back together, though, watch out.

2.) Murray State Racers (30-2)

Key Losses: Carter Collins, Jordan Skipper-Brown

Projected Starters:

-Justice Hill (Jr): 13.2 PPG, 2.2 RPG, 5 APG, 30.7 MPG -Tevin Brown (Sr): 16.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3 APG, 35 MPG -Trae Hannibal (Jr): 8.9 PPG, 5 RPG, 2.6 APG, 21.6 MPG -KJ Williams (Sr): 18.2 PPG, 8.6 RPG, .7 APG, 28.6 MPG -DJ Burns (Jr): 5.0 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 0.9 APG, 21.5 MPG

The Racers finished the regular season 30-2 and ranked in the top 25. In this scenario, they would be returning four of five starters, and their top five scorers from that team. Trae Hannibal would be a more-than-able replacement for Carter Collins in the starting five. While they would lose some of their depth with the departures of Collins and Skipper-Brown, the starting five would be as good as any in the league. Unfortunately, the talk out of the Murray State camp seems to indicate that the Racers aren’t expected to enter the league fully intact. First, coach Matt McMahon is going to be a hot commodity in the offseason and his departure could open up the floodgates for guys to look elsewhere if they don’t find the new coach to their liking. Tevin Brown and KJ Williams, the Racers’ two top scorers, are traditional seniors and may be rumored to be ready to move on regardless of what McMahon does. If they bring everyone else back besides those two, they’ll still be a solid MVC team next year. But, like UNI, if they can keep Williams and Brown, they’d probably be the favorites in the MVC right out of the gates in year one (especially if UNI is unable to retain their guys). No matter what happens I expect Murray to enter the MVC with a bang. PS-Fun fact, Ja Morant is still listed (grayed out) on Murray’s Verbal Commits site because he would still have had eligibility this year (21-22) if he had stayed. Wow.

3.) Drake Bulldogs (24-10)

Key Losses: Tremell Murphy, Tank Hemphill, Ayo Akinwole

Projected Starters:

-Roman Penn (Sr): 11.3 PPG, 3.1 RPG, 3.9 APG, 29.5 MPG -DJ Wilkins (Sr): 10.3 PPG, 1.3 RPG, 1.9 APG, 28.6 MPG -Garrett Sturtz (Sr): 10.9 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.4 APG, 30.3 MPG -Tucker Devries (So): 13.9 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 2 APG, 29.9 MPG -Darnell Brodie (Sr): 5.9 PPG, 4.5 RPG, .5 APG, 18.2 MPG

Drake is hit a bit harder than UNI and Murray by guys losing eligibility with impact players Tremell Murphy and Tank Hemphill exiting along with role player Ayo Akinwole. However, the Bulldogs still retain plenty of talent and are more likely to actually keep their guys in the projected starting lineup on campus than the teams above them on this list. Tucker Devries isn’t going anywhere unless his dad is lured away by another program. That is a possibility, but I don’t think that will happen. You can expect him to make a big jump from his freshman to sophomore season and become one of the elite players in the MVC and possibly even a Larry Bird trophy contender. Second teamer Garrett Sturtz is almost certain to return as well, and there is no reason to think Roman Penn will go anywhere either (unless he chooses to graduate and move on with his life). The same could be said for DJ Wilkins and Darnell Brodie. It is possible they could leave or graduate, but so far there is no reason to think they will. So while UNI and Murray fans are wishin’ and hopin’ and prayin’, Drake fans are feeling pretty confident about how their team will look next season. Of course, all that goes out the window if Coach Devries takes another job. I just don’t think that happens. At least not this year. I think the most likely real-world scenario is that UNI and Murray lose some guys and Drake enters the 2022-23 season as the favorites in the MVC.

4.) Missouri State Bears (23-10)

Key Losses: Gaige Prim, Jaylen Minnett

Projected Starters:

-Demarcus Sharp (Sr): 5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 4 APG, 21.8 MPG -Isiaih Mosley (Jr): 20.1 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.4 APG, 31.5 MPG -Ja’Monta Black (Jr): 8.7 PPG, 3.2 RPG, .9 APG, 28.3 MPG -Donovan Clay (Jr): 8.5 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 32.4 MPG -Dawson Carper (Sr): 1.6 PPG, 1.4 RPG, 0.2 APG, 5.9 MPG

Missouri State takes perhaps the biggest hit of anyone in the league from an individual eligibility exhaustion standpoint as Gaige Prim has played his final ball of his career for the Bears. Throw in Jaylen Minnett’s graduation and MSU has some holes to fill no matter what happens with the guys listed above. Obviously, you can’t simply replace Gaige Prim and there is no one currently on MSU’s roster who comes close. I have Dawson Carper as the starter down low for MSU, but if that comes to pass, they are going to have a lot of growing pains as he adjusts to a larger role. More likely, I can see Dana Ford trying to fill that role via transfer. All that said, the key here for MSU is obviously Isiaih Mosley. There have been rumors that the MSU community has put together a nice little NIL deal for Mosley to keep him in Springfield for next season. If he returns and AJ Green does not (and maybe even if he does), he’ll enter the season as the Preseason MVC Player of the Year. Either way, he will be one of the elite players in the league. You take Mosley off this roster, and it falls down more than a couple notches. His presence would also make it easier to recruit a solid post player to fill the shoes of Gaige Prim. He is the absolute lynchpin to MSU’s success next year. If he does return, the Bears should be among the favorites in the league. If not, they might be looking at a bit of a rebuild.

5.) Belmont Bruins (25-7)

Key Losses: None

Projected Starters:

-Grayson Murphy (Sr): 7.6 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 5.8 APG, 30.9 MPG -Ben Sheppard (Jr): 16.4 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 1.6 APG, 31.3 MPG -Luke Smith (Sr): 8.1 PPG, 2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 24.5 MPG -Will Richard (So): 11.8 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 27.3 MPG -Nick Muszynski (Sr): 15.9 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 31.3 MPG

Belmont was very good this year and earned an NIT at-large bid which isn’t easy to do as an OVC team. None of their current roster is out of eligibility and if they all return, Belmont could be one of the better teams in the league and even be competitive for a league title. Grayson Murphy is an assists machine and a fan favorite who would be a fun watch for MVC fans. Nick Muszynski is a four-year starter who would enter the league as one of its best big-men from the drop. Unfortunately, word out of Belmont is that it has been implied none of their three seniors will be back next season. If that comes to pass, Belmont will likely enter the MVC as a middle-of-the-pack team. Ben Sheppard is an outstanding player and will be the one to build around as the Bruins make their transition to the region’s premiere mid-major conference. He will be one of the better student-athletes in the league on day one. Will Richard is another good player who will be counted on to perform well for Belmont. Those two plus other guys like Jacobi Wood will keep BU from falling too far in any instance. But if the Bruins want to make a serious push in the Valley right from the start, they need to find a way to keep their guys on campus for one more year.

6.) Bradley Braves (17-14)

Key Losses: Mikey Howell

Projected Starters:

-Terry Roberts (Jr): 14.5 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 4.1 APG, 28.8 MPG -Connor Hickman (So): 6.8 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1.1 APG, 23.3 MPG -Ja’Shon Henry (Sr): 9.5 PPG, 4.5 RPG, .7 APG, 24.9 MPG -Malevy Leons (Jr): 9.9 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 1.4 APG, 29.5 MPG -Rienk Mast (So): 11.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 1.4 APG, 27.5 MPG

Bradley are many fans’ favorites to win the MVC next year. In a world where everyone comes back, they’d be in the upper echelon of the league for sure but probably not the favorites. In the real world in which we live, where UNI, Murray, and Belmont are possibly going to lose their top talent, and MSU and Drake also have questions marks, Bradley looks like a good horse to back. As it stands, there is no reason to believe the Braves will be unable to retain any of their key players. The biggest question mark was Ja’Shon Henry, who has already declared his intention to return next year in a tweet that (to me) felt like a full-on Arrested Development style misdirection. Anything is possible, but there is no reason to believe Terry Roberts, Rienk Mast and the rest of the BU crew won’t be suiting up next season in Peoria. This squad would be competitive in a fully loaded MVC, but in the MVC that we are most likely to see in the real world they will be among the favorites. I expect both Mast and Roberts to be among the best players in the league next season. At the end of the day, among the top six teams, Bradley fans have the least to worry about when it comes to whether they’ll retain their roster. They can sleep easy and know that they’re going to be a solid team unless something completely surprising happens. They can just sit back and watch the teams around them possibly collapse on themselves like a dying star.

7.) Southern Illinois Salukis (16-15)

Key Losses: Ben Coupet Jr, Anthony D’Avanzo

Projected Starters:

-Dalton Banks (So): 4.6 PPG, 2 RPG, 2.3 APG, 23.4 MPG -Lance Jones (Jr): 14.7 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 1.9 APG, 30.2 MPG -Steve Verplancken Jr (Jr): 6.6 PPG, 2.3 RPG, 1 APG, 27.6 MPG -Marcus Domask (Jr): 15.1 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 3.9 APG, 35.7 MPG -JD Muila (Sr): 3.1 PPG, 4.1 RPG, .3 APG, 14.9 MPG

Southern Illinois has a lot of guys returning, and no reason to think that their key guys wont be back. However, they’re still going to need to find that third scoring option. Marcus Domask and Lance Jones will continue to be studs and the Saluki defense will always be there. But Domask and Jones aren’t enough to carry a Division I offense all on their own. SIU finished the regular season strong, and one of the reasons why was the emergence of Ben Coupet as a legitimate third scoring option for Bryan Mullins’ team. Coupet is now out of eligibility, and it will be imperative for SIU to find another guy to serve in that role. I have every reason to believe Bryan Mullins will pull it off in the recruiting trail via transfer or just by coaching one of his younger players up. As it is for this article’s purpose, that person is missing from the mix which leaves SIU in the middle of the pack. There is no reason to expect Jones and Domask to leave. As long as Mullins can secure their services again, the Salukis will go into next season as an upper middle tier team. Their defensive philosophy is starting to really take hold and they’re starting to impose their will on the floor. A return to Floorburn U is not far off. That will travel well no matter how skilled they are offensively. But if they are going to really break out next year, they simply need to score more points.

8.) Illinois State Redbirds (13-20)

Key Losses: None

Projected Starters:

-Mark Freeman (Jr): 8.8 PPG, 2.6 RPG, 3.5 APG, 22.1 MPG -Antonio Reeves (Jr): 20.1 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.8 APG, 24.8 MPG -Josiah Strong (Sr): 11.5 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 2.2 APG, 32.5 MPG -Kendall Lewis (Jr): 9.3 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1 APG, 27.6 MPG -Sy Chatman (Sr): 13.5 PPG, 6.1 RPG, .6 APG, 24.8 MPG

When a new coach is brought into a program, sometimes a team can fall back into a rebuilding cycle. Other times, it can breathe immediate new life into the team. With Illinois State, for the purposes of this article, I am going to go with the latter as they are losing no one and bringing back several talented players. Obviously, the key here for new coach Ryan Pedron will be to retain his stars. Objective number one will be to keep Antonio Reeves, who is already listed as having left to the pros on verbalcommits, but I couldn’t find any media sources that backed that up. One of the league’s best scorers last year, Reeves is the kind of player a program can build around and would thrive in the offense Pedron will want to run. I have no intel on whether he is considering leaving ISU, but those types of things can generally happen when a new coach comes into town. A return of a healthy Sy Chatman would be a huge coup as well. It seems unlikely that Chatman, who has already transferred from UMass to ISU, would make a second transfer. It seems likely he would return. Another player to watch is Josiah Strong. With Reeves on the roster, Strong protects Reeves as a solid second option that can keep opposing defenses occupied. Without Reeves, Strong becomes their best scorer. If coach Pedron is able to get his guys to buy in, and keep the roster mostly intact, there is enough talent here for Illinois State to be right in the middle of the MVC in his first year. Especially of some of the other teams’ rosters take a bigger hit.

9.) Valparaiso Beacons (14-18)

Key Losses: Kevion Taylor, Trevor Anderson, Eron Gordon

Projected Starters:

-Kobe King (Sr): 14 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.3 APG, 32.3 MPG -Sheldon Edwards (So): 11.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.3 APG, 25.7 MPG -Preston Ruedinger (So): 3.3 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 19.9 MPG -Ben Krikke (Jr): 14.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, 29.3 MPG -Tomas Kithier (Sr): 10.1 PPG, 6.6 PRG, 2.2 APG, 25.4 MPG

Valpo is an interesting one, because they are taking a bigger hit from graduation than most of the squads on the bottom half of this list. Kevion Taylor played the most minutes on the team and was third among the Beacons in scoring. Trevor Anderson played the fourth most minutes per game and did a little bit of everything for VU. Eron Gordon was also a regular contributor. That said, the folks they do have (theoretically) returning are very talented. That starting lineup should be as good as anyone in the middle-of-the-pack in the Valley if not better. However, there are a couple problems. First, that was true this year too and it did not pan out. King and Kithier (as well as Anderson) were Big Ten transfers who played decent sized to large roles on Wisconsin and Michigan State. Krikke and Edwards were two of the most celebrated returners in the MVC after having solid seasons in 2020-21. That should have added up to a very good Valley team, but Valpo finished with a losing record overall and played on Thursday. What has happened to make anyone think that is going to change next year? Secondly, Valpo can’t seem to keep a roster together. There is no reason to believe any of the Beacons will be transferring, but it seems to keep happening to them anyway. Mileek McMillan, Daniel Sackey, JFL, Donovan Clay, et all have exited the ARC in recent years. It is hard to imagine this team that is built of transfers is going to be the one that will stay together. Still, if they do, and they can add a few pieces in recruiting, there is no reason why (from a talent perspective at least) this cannot be a team that challenges for the top half if not top third of the league.

10.) Indiana State Sycamores (11-20)

Key Losses: None

Projected Starters:

-Xavier Bledson (Jr): 9.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG, 3.7 APG, 25.3 MPG -Cooper Neese (Sr): 15 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 1.8 APG, 35.6 MPG -Cam Henry (Sr): 14.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 2.9 APG, 30 MPG -Julian Larry (So): 5.7 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 2 APG, 29.7 MPG -Kailex Stephens (Sr): 9.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, .9 APG, 26.9 MPG

Indiana State is not losing anyone to graduation, and there is little reason to think that any of their key players are looking to transfer. The biggest question is, is that a good thing? While they showed some flashes of brilliance, the Sycamores ultimately finished in 9th place in coach Josh Schertz’s first season at the helm in Terre Haute. They lost nearly two thirds of their games overall and were only able to compile four conference victories. Sometimes in that situation you’re better off with a lot of turnover and the opportunity to bring in new blood. Sometimes, though, the experience serves as an educational and motivational tool for young players. ISU was certainly an inexperienced team, and much of their squad consisted of Division II transfers from Schertz’ previous school, Lincoln Memorial. Have the D2 kids topped out their talent and done all they can at the DI level, or are they just getting started? That is the question that will face them next year, should they keep their roster intact. I think there was a lot of adversity facing this team this year. They lost their best and most experienced player on the eve of the season. They were transitioning to a new coach and a new style. Several players were moving up from a lower level of hoops, and the ones that remained from last season were transitioning up into new roles. They played shorthanded several times as they dealt with several bouts of COVID. With all that change and upheaval, you could argue that it was impressive they did as well as they did. This will likely be a group that is, if nothing else, quite experienced next season. They’ll also likely be more gelled. It remains to be seen if that will translate into wins, or another mediocre year.

11.) Evansville Purple Aces (6-24)

Key Losses: Noah Frederking, Evan Kuhlman

Projected Starters:

-Shamar Givance (Sr): 13.7 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 3.9 APG, 31.8 MPG -Jawaun Newton (Sr): 12.7 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.2 APG, 31.9 MPG -Blaise Beauchamp (So): 8 PPG, 1.6 RPG, .8 APG, 20.9 MPG -Blake Sisley (So): 6 PPG, 1.5 RPG, .3 APG, 17 MPG Preston Phillips (So): 2.3 PPG, 4 RPG, 1.1 APG, 21.8 MPG

Noah Frederking and Evan Kuhlman are Purple Aces, through and through. They both played five seasons in Evansville and have played 287 games in a UE uniform total between them, 174 of which were starts. Their exits will certainly leave a hole on the UE depth chart. However, when you are a team that has won just nine MVC games total in the last three years (and averaged 4.2 wins per game over the last five), getting some new blood in the system may not be the worst thing in the world. The key to Evansville’s hope for positive improvement next year lies with Shamar Givance and Jawaun Newton. The pair were by far UE’s best players last year, and both have one year of eligibility remaining. If UE wants to move forward next year, instead dealing with another year of a full-on rebuild, they probably need at least one (if not both) of those guys to return. Another big question mark is Todd Lickliter. With a new AD coming into the fold soon, what will Lickliter’s status be? Will he stay for a new regime, or will he be run out? UE does have a handful of young players with potential including the trio of Blaise Beauchamp, Blake Sisley, and Preston Phillips listed above. If a new coach comes, it might not be the worst thing to get a clean break and start over with a young squad next year. They’d get killed next year, but they would also lay the foundation for possible future success in the Ford Center. Still, they’ll absolutely take Newton and Givance if they can get them. And if they do, UE could be competitive in the lower part of the MVC, maybe even moving into the middle third. There are a lot of possibilities for the Aces next year, and none of them look great for 22-23. The biggest question is what will set them up best for a return to competitiveness long-term?

12.) UIC Flames (14-16)

Key Losses: Kevin Johnson, Jalen Warren, Jamie Ahale, Michael Diggins, Brandon Battle

Projected Starters:

-Damaria Franklin (Sr): 17.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 2.5 APG, 31.5 MPG -Jace Carter (So): 8.1 PPG, 5.4 RPG, .6 APG, 25.1 MPG -Jalen Johnson (Sr): 2.1 PPG, .8 RPG, .5 APG, 6.4 MPG -Zion Griffin (Sr): 11.1 PPG, 4 RPG, 1.1 APG, 27.4 MPG -Filip Skobalj (So): 6.2 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 1.3 APG, 20.2 MPG

The Flames are perhaps the single squad most impacted by eligibility exhaustion on this list. Already a mediocre team (they finished 8th in the Horizon last year but were playing well at the end of the season), UIC is guaranteed to lose four of their top seven players in terms of average minutes played. Two of the remaining three, Damaria Franklin and Zion Griffin, are both fifth year seniors with a decision to make. Franklin has already transferred once, so it seems unlikely he would try and do it again. He is a stellar player who would likely have several suitors if he did try and transfer, but a move to try and go pro in Europe is a more likely way the Flames could lose him. Griffin, like Franklin, is a Chicago native who previously transferred (from Iowa State), so there is a decent chance the Flames will retain him as well. All that said, you can likely expect UIC to make their MVC debut next season with several new faces on the roster, and I would expect several to come from the transfer ranks. As it is the roster has a couple of exciting players but lacks depth. It could be a bumpy start to the MVC era for the Flames, but I do expect them to utilize their new status as members of one of the best mid-major leagues in the country to propel the program into at least mid-level MVC territory in the not-too-distant future. If they can keep Damaria Franklin and Zion Griffin for year one, they can at least hope to hold their own somewhat and not completely embarrass themselves.

As I said before, it is highly unlikely that most of these rosters will look like this come tipoff for 22-23. Some will look better, and some will look worse. But this is our starting point, and that starting point looks dang good. Good luck to everyone still playing and GO VALLEY!

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