Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Missouri Valley Conference Preview


The Missouri Valley Conference was one of the deepest mid-major conference in terms of NCAA Tournament caliber-teams. They had four teams in contention for a bid to the Big Dance heading into Championship Week. Southern Illinois and Northern Iowa received at-large bids, while Creighton won the automatic bid with a victory over Southwest Missouri State (now known as Missouri State), while Wichita State faltered down the stretch and was left out. In the NCAA Tournament, Southern Illinois beat St. Mary's and took Oklahoma State to the wire before losing in the second round. Northern Iowa gave Wisconsin a game before falling, while Creighton played one of the best first-round games against West Virginia, but also lost. Three bids could again come from the Missouri Valley.

Favorites: Northern Iowa may be the best mid-major team in the country (Gonzaga doesn't count). They return all five starters from an NCAA Tournament team a year ago. Ben Jacobson is one of the top shooting guards in the nation, and is certainly one of the best shooters overall. In addition, he is one of the better competitors around. He is one of two leading candidates for the conference players of the year. On the other wing, Erik Crawford is an excellent scorer but an even better defender. Inside, Grant Stout and Eric Coleman form the best post duo in the MVC. Stout could be all-conference this season with another big year, while Coleman should be recovered from a summer league injury he suffered. Brooks McKowen rounds out the lineup. John Little and Atila Santos provide depth in the backcourt and frontcourt, respectively. Creighton returns four starters from a team that made the NCAA Tournament a year ago. Nate Funk leads the way. One of the top shooters in the country, Funk can carry the Blue Jays. He can go to the basket or bomb from outside. He is also the leading rebounder for Creighton, as well as a solid passer and defender. Johnny Mathies likes to play on the wing better than at the point, and he produced extremely well a season ago. Freshman Josh Dotzler might step in at the point. Up front, a quarter of post players should handle the load. Dane Watts and Anthony Tolliver will start, but Jeffrey Day and perimeter threat Jimmy Motz will see ample time.

Contenders: Southern Illinois loses three starters from the regular season champs of a season ago, including two-time player of the year Darren Brooks. Jamaal Tatum will need to take over the leadership role for the Salukis. He is a candidate for all-conference honors. Sixth Man award winner Tony Young and role player Mike Dale will join him on the perimeter. Both should see their numbers go up with more playing time. Matt Shaw returns as a starter at one forward spot, while Randal Falker should get the nod at the other inside spot. Missouri State returns three starters from an NIT team. The perimeter trio of Deke Thompson, Tyler Chaney, and Blake Ahearn is one of the more balanced and talented backcourts in the league. Ahearn led the NCAA in free throw percentage the last two seasons. In the frontcourt, returning starter Nathan Bilyeu and athletic Deven Mitchell will play major roles. Sky Frazer and Drew Richards will fight for the starting center spot. Kellen Easley provides excellent depth on the perimeter. Bradley returns five starters and nearly all their production from a season ago. Marcellus Sommerville is one of the best players in the conference, and a two-time first team selection. He can dominate a game. His partner on the inside is another all-conference candidate, 7-footer Patrick O'Bryant. O'Bryant might develop into a star in this league. Sixth man Lawrence Wright, a double-figure scorer, also returns in the frontcourt, while freshman Zach Andrews might compete for a starting forward spot. The perimeter trio of Tony Bennett, Daniel Ruffin, Jeremy Crouch provides excellent balance to the potentially dominant frontcourt. Bennett is a very good scorer; Ruffin averaged almost five assists per game; and Crouch is a solid all-around player.

Sleepers: Wichita State was in the thick of an NCAA bid last season before falling off the map down the stretch. They lose four starters from that team. The lone returning starter is center Paul Miller, who could be an all-conference player now that he is the go-to-guy. Forward Kyle Wilson is a very solid forward and will form a nice frontcourt duo with Miller. On the perimeter, P.J. Couisnard is expected to become a star after coming off the bench last season, while Sean Ogirri will also move into the starting lineup. Marquette transfer Karon Bradley will make an impact at the point immediately. Drake returns several players that made solid contributions a season ago. Klayton Korver and Aliou Keita form a very good frontcourt duo. Keita has loads of potential, while Korver is an inside-outside threat. The backcourt returns Chaun Brooks, Chris Bryant, and Nick Grant are three good guards that provide decent production. However, it is the recruiting class, the best in the MVC, that will make or break the Bulldogs. Al Stewart will step in at the point, while Ajay Calvin will make an impact up front.

Rounding Out the Pack: Indiana State loses both frontcourt starters, but returns a very good perimeter troika, including David Moss. Moss is one of the best players in the conference, and is very tough to stop offensively. Returning starters Tysen Schnitker and Gabriel Moore are very good shooter who will join him in the backcourt, while Eric Gray was a double-figure scorer off the bench. In the frontcourt, players are going to have to step up. Returnees Darron Evans, Brandon Ray, Mich Yelovich and newcomer Trent Wurtz need to provide a solid inside presence for the Sycamores. Evansville loses their two leading scorers from a ninth place team, and will have to find a way to move up in the standings. Kyle Anslinger is a tough competitor and a decent all-around player in the backcourt, while newcomer Maurice Blakey is expected to start at the point. Up front, Matt Webster and Bradley Strickland comprise a good inside duo, while Justin Petty will start at the remaining forward spot. Illinois State returns one starter from what was a solid Sycamore club from a year ago. Greg Dilligard produced average numbers and was the fifth option on offense. He needs to step up. Neil Plank is a solid swingman, while Nedu Onyeuku is a decent guard. Roberto Fortes and other newcomers will need to make a huge impact in order to make some noise in the league.

Prediction: Northern Iowa and Creighton are going to fight for the regular season title all season long, with NIU coming out in the end thanks to their multitude of options and balance on offense. Ben Jacobson and Nate Funk are also going to be in a tug of war in the Player of the Year race. I would say that the winner of the league will have the league's player of the year, but it could change this season. This is a very tough league from top to bottom, and the winner could come from as deep as fifth place, which would be Bradley. Expect an exciting season, with plenty of talk about bubble teams from this conference late in the season, in the MVC.

Player of the Year: Nate Funk, Creighton

All-Conference Team:
G- Nate Funk, Creighton
G- Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa
G- Jamaal Tatum, Southern Illinois
F- David Moss, Indiana State
F- Marcellus Sommerville, Bradley

Second Team:
G- Erik Crawford, Northern Iowa
G- Blake Ahearn, Missouri State
F- Grant Stout, Northern Iowa
C- Paul Miller, Wichita State
C- Patrick O'Bryant, Bradley

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