Some people might think it’s the job of a fan site to be unrelentingly optimistic and positive. Some seasons, I might be persuaded to an extent by that argument, but not this year. So I guess I’m going to get some push-back and resentment this year because of my preview. So be it. This is the way I see MVC men’s basketball in 2019-20.
1. Missouri State — Yes, everyone is picking Missouri State under 2nd-year coach Dana Ford to win the MVC. And with pretty good reason– the Bears swept Loyola last season, and beginning with Loyola’s first meeting against MSU, the Bears finished the 2018-19 season going 8-5 while playing fierce defense. Most of the league had no answer for 6’8″ forward Tulio Da Silva, who averaged 14.3 points and 7.4 rebounds as a newcomer. Add returning players like Keandre Cook, Jared Ridder, and Kabir Mohammad, plus newcomers like graduate transfer Lamont West (W. Va.) and junior transfer Josh Hall (Nevada), and the Bears have probably the most talented, athletic, and experienced rosters in the league.
2. UNI — I am placing UNI here, because I think there’s great potential and good timing for the Panthers to pull things together this season. Coach Ben Jacobsen has by far the most wins among MVC coaches because he’s figured out how to build systems around singularly talented players. In this case, it’s 6’4″ sophomore point guard A.J. Green, who averaged 15 points, 3 rebounds, and 2.3 assists last season. The Panthers made the conference tournament final and gave Bradley all they could handle last year, and they lose only shooting guard Wyatt Lohaus this season. Northern Iowa will have the most experience of any team under the same coach, with the ability to field four seniors under sophomore first-teamer Green.
3. Bradley — The reigning MVC Champs are returning a formidable and experience lineup from a team that finished as the five seed in the 2019 Arch Madness tournament. The Braves will lose their defensive whiz and glue guy Dwayne Lautier-Ogunleye and reserve center Luuk van Bree. Expect the scoring core of the team, Darrell Brown, Elijah Childs, and Nate Kennell to be as tough as ever, but I have a feeling (perhaps more accurately a hope and expectation) that the Braves’ physical style of play will be under more scrutiny this year. I expect Bradley to have a great conference record at home again (8-1 or 7-2), but I think they might struggle on the road with a slightly higher floor to the league as opposed to last season.
4. Loyola — I am picking the Ramblers here, but I feel like there will be a noticeable gap between the top three and the 4-5-6 teams in the league. Loyola has won the regular season twice in a row, but after losing 4/5 of their Final Four starting lineup from two years ago, these young and banged-up Ramblers are going to struggle, especially away from home. The Ramblers will start four juniors and a freshman at the start of the year, but two players are newcomers, and the bench is thin because of injury and inexperience. Loyola has struggled with three point scoring in their exhibition game (which they lost to D-II Indianapolis) and has been susceptible to hacking and physical play when the referees let things go. Loyola has got to play tougher, hit their free throws, and find a way to score from outside to break into the top three this year.
5. Drake — Under first year head coach Darian DeVries, the Bulldogs were amazing last season against every team but the Ramblers. And they did it with a series of spirit-crushing injuries to key players along the way. The two top scorers, first-teamer Nick McGlynn and guard Brady Ellingson are gone, but the system and confidence of Coach DeVries remains. Second-year players Tremell Murphy and D.J. Wilkins promise to take a big step forward. Playmaker Noah Thomas continues to impress as he matures.
6. Evansville — The Purple Aces have a powerful home court advantage, a lot of enthusiasm, and some new players who promise to put their program on a path to the top half of the league. Deandre Williams, a 6’9″ top 100 prospect will likely be a force by the middle of the season. Leading returning scorer K.J. Riley is a sure bet for second team or above. The Aces should be in the mix for the mid-tier teams in the 4-6 range.
7. Illinois State — It’s hard to put one of the league’s most competitive teams over the past ten years in the Thursday tier, but the Redbirds finished here last season even with talent like Malik Yarbrough, Phil Fayne, Keyshawn Evans, and William Tinsley. Even if the newcomers to the team are phenomenal, they’re filling some big shoes that fell short.
8. Valparaiso — After last season, there was an exodus at Valpo, but some of the departing players (er, awkwardly, Javon Freeman) had a change of heart. Another player who stayed was forward Ryan Fazekas, who despite his early season-ending injury last year has been named to the MVC Preseason First Team. This year will be a real test for fourth-year Head Coach Matt Lottich, whose winning percentage has declined each year since winning the Horizon in 2017.
9. Indiana State — Dollar for dollar, no coach has done more in this league than Greg Lansing. With the league’s smallest budget by far year after year, Lansing has managed to keep ISUb in the top half of the league most seasons, including knocking at the door of the title a couple of times. But you can only do so much with so little for so long.
10. Southern Illinois — The cupboard was nearly bare for Loyola Associate Head Coach Bryan Mullins when he was named to head SIU’s men’s team. Mullins’ predecessor had never finished worse than 7th at SIU, but expect the former Loyola defensive guru and SIU star in the early 2000s to have a lot more latitude. Watch recruiting carefully for this team, because they could begin to establish a dynasty given their leadership and facilities.