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Missouri Valley Conference Catchup: Who challenges Wichita State?

May 20, 2014, 9:45 AM EST

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The 2013-14 season was one of transition for the Missouri Valley Conference, with the league moving forward following the move of Creighton to the Big East. And while much was expected of current standard-bearer Wichita State in the aftermath of their trip to the Final Four, you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who expected Gregg Marshall’s Shockers to run through their regular season schedule in the manner that they did.

Wichita State ran the table, winning all 34 of their games before the NCAA tournament. And while there were critics who questioned Wichita State’s credentials for much of the season, their 78-76 loss to eventual national runner-up Kentucky in the Round of 32 resulted in many giving the Shockers the respect they felt they deserved all season long. With Fred Van Vleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton all returning, the Shockers will once again be the clear favorites to win the Valley despite the loss of Cleanthony Early.

RELATEDRead through all of our Conference Catchups here

But who will step forward to challenge Wichita State? That’s an important question for the conference to address, with regards to not just the 2014-15 season but also the campaigns that follow. As a whole the conference’s computer numbers weren’t at the level Valley fans had grown accustomed to, with non-conference play being a big reason why, and that will have to change. And there are some personnel losses that need to be addressed, most notably the aforementioned Early and Jake Odum at Indiana State. But the Valley welcomes some solid newcomers from both the high school and junior college ranks.

The one program that didn’t stock up on the recruiting trail is Northern Iowa, with head coach Ben Jacobson adding just one freshman in point guard Wyatt Lohaus. But that isn’t a major issue for the Panthers due to the fact that their top five scorers, led by forward Seth Tuttle, are back. Does that experience make UNI the biggest threat to Wichita State? That remains to be seen, and Missouri State, Illinois State and even Indiana State will factor into the equation as well.

The discussion of who makes a run at Wichita State is the “obvious” question with regards to the Valley, but it isn’t the most important one. Can the league use Wichita State’s run as the boost needed to take a step forward collectively in 2014-15? That needs to be the case.

THREE UP

Illinois State: Dan Muller’s Redbirds were one of three Valley teams to finish conference play with a 9-9 record, with their regular season ending with a loss to Missouri State in the quarterfinals of Arch Madness. But Illinois State did win two games in the CBI, and the return of leading scorers Daishon Knight (13.6 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 2.2 apg) and Bobby Hunter (10.5, 3.7, 2.4) will help as the Redbirds look to use that as a boost into 2014-15. In total Illinois State returns four of its top six scorers, and the addition of junior college transfer guard Devaughn Akoon-Purcell will help as well.

Evansville: A lot was placed upon the shoulders of prolific scoring guard D.J. Balentine last season and with good reason, as he averaged 22.8 points per game. But for Marty Simmons’ Purple Aces to make a move up the Valley pecking order they needed to find players capable of consistently helping Balentine with the scoring load, and the addition of junior college transfers Taylor Stafford (Eastern Arizona) and Willie Wiley (Vincennes) may be just what the doctor ordered. The 6-foot-1 Stafford averaged 25.0 points per game, and Wiley was a quality front court presence on a team that finished third in the NJCAA tournament. Add in center Egidijus Mockevicius (10.8 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg), and Evansville could take a step forward in 2014-15.

Northern Iowa: The Panthers have been a formidable program throughout Ben Jacobson’s tenure as head coach, and their 10-8 conference record was good enough for a third-place finish in 2013-14. But UNI finished 16-15 overall, meaning that the Panthers didn’t perform as well as they would have hoped for in non-conference play. With their top five scorers back, led by forward Seth Tuttle (15.4 ppg, 8.0 rpg) and guard Deon Mitchell (12.1, 2.3, 3.4 apg), UNI has experience on its side and could turn out to be the biggest threat to Wichita State. But the Panthers have to perform better in non-conference play than they did a season ago if they’re to play in a postseason event.

THREE DOWN

Indiana State: In addition to Odum the Sycamores also lost wing Manny Arop (10.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and guard Dawon Cummings (9.9, 2.7, 2.3 apg), meaning that head coach Greg Lansing has to account for the loss of three of his top five scorers. Forward Justin Gant and guard Khristian Smith are both double-digit scorers, but the most important player could turn out to be junior college transfer Charles Bennett III. A point guard who’s also capable of scoring (20.8 ppg), Bennett will have every opportunity to grab the reins. Point guard play is the biggest question for Indiana State at this time. But it should be noted that the program has finished in the bottom half of the Valley just once during Lansing’s tenure, so while the Sycamores may fall from its second-place finish of a season ago they may not fall too far down the standings.

Drake: With leading scorers Richard Carter (guard) and Aaron Hawley (guard/forward) out of eligibility, Ray Giacoletti will need to account for the 26.9 points per game those two combined to average in 2013-14. The good news for Drake is that guard Jordan Daniels (10.2 ppg) will be back, and the same can be said for redshirt senior guard Gary Ricks Jr. Ricks played in just eight games before breaking a bone in his foot, and he was averaging 12.2 ppg at the time of the injury. The concern for Drake is their inexperience/lack of depth in the front court, meaning that of their five incoming freshmen power forwards Casey Schlatter and Kory Kuenstling will be important additions. That may lead to lowered expectations from the outside, but Drake finished in a tie for eighth after being picked to finish last in the Valley in the preseason poll.

Southern Illinois: Barry Hinson’s Salukis may have finished the season with an overall record of 14-19, but they managed to finish 9-9 in conference play with wing Desmar Jackson (18.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.1 apg) leading the way. Now that Jackson’s gone even more will be asked of guard Anthony Beane Jr., who averaged 14.7 points per game last season. But with Beane being SIU’s lone returning double-digit scorer, who steps forward? The Salukis add a five-member freshman class led by high-scoring guard Deion Lavender, and Illinois transfer Ibby Djimde gives them some size inside. But SIU doesn’t have much depth in the post, and the question regarding scoring options could be a big one if they struggle to address it.

FIVE NEW FACES

Josh Cunningham, Bradley: There were some raised eyebrows when the Morgan Park HS (Chicago, Ill.) product announced his decision to join Geno Ford’s program in late-April, picking Bradley while holding offers from programs such as Creighton, Indiana and St. John’s. A very athletic four-star prospect, Cunningham was also a member of the Mac Irvin Fire grassroots program, playing with the likes of Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander. And with leading rebounder Tyshon Pickett having departed, the opportunity to earn significant playing time will be there for Cunningham.

Tevin Glass, Wichita State: Wichita State’s success with junior college prospects is well-documented, with front court players such as Carl Hall and Cleanthony Early enjoying success during Gregg Marshall’s tenure. And with Early having moved on, the arrival of Tevin Glass is an important one for the Shockers. At Northwest Florida State the 6-foot-7 forward averaged 12.0 points and 5.8 rebounds per game in 2013-14, shooting 55.1% from the field.

Marcus Marshall, Missouri State*: No Marshall isn’t a new face, as he played in 12 games (11 starts) last season. But the 2013 MVC Freshman of the Year was lost in January to a torn meniscus in his right knee, and Marshall’s return is big for Missouri State given the fact that leading scorer Jamar Gulley is out of eligibility. In those 12 games Marshall averaged 14.3 points per game, shooting 42.6% from the field and 39.6% from three. He’ll likely be asked to lead the way for a team that finished the 2013-14 with a 20-13 record (9-9 MVC).

Charles Bennett III, Indiana State: The now-departed Jake Odum was a first-team All-MVC selection in each of his final two seasons at Indiana State, and he left the school ranked in the top five all-time in scoring (fifth), assists (second), steals (fourth), made free throws (first) and free throw attempts (first). So how will the Sycamores go about accounting for the loss of their outstanding point guard? Enter Bennett, who was an NJCAA Honorable Mention All-American at Lamar State College-Port Arthur last season. Bennett averaged 20.8 points and 2.6 assists per game, and with the Sycamores losing three of their top five scores he’ll need to display that scoring ability as well.

Devaughn Akoon-Purcell, Illinois State: Bennett isn’t the only NJCAA Honorable Mention All-American joining the Valley, with Akoon-Purcell making the trek from Eastern Oklahoma State CC to Illinois State. Last season the 6-foot-4 Akoon-Purcell posted averages of 20.9 points and 5.5 rebounds per game, shooting 55.5% from the field and 40.6% from three. The Redbirds return two of their top three scorers in guards Daishon Knight and Bobby Hunter, and the arrival of Akoon-Purcell gives Muller another offensive option to work with on the perimeter.

Way Too Early Power Rankings

1. Wichita State
2. Northern Iowa
3. Illinois State
4. Missouri State
5. Indiana State
6. Evansville
7. Bradley
8. Southern Illinois
9. Loyola
10. Drake