ST. LOUIS — Without Wichita State for the first time since 1945, everyone in the Missouri Valley Conference felt like contenders even after the results of the preseason poll put Missouri State in the favorite's chair Tuesday.

The Bears return four starters from last season's 17-16 squad which tied for sixth place in the league, including preseason player of the year Alize Johnson, and were picked as the preseason favorite for the first time since the poll began in 1985. Johnson averaged 14.8 points and a Valley-best 10.6 rebounds per game. Missouri State received 30 of 40 first-place votes to outdistance Northern Iowa, which got eight first-place votes.

Loyola was third, followed by Illinois State, SIU, league newcomer Valparaiso, Bradley, Indiana State, Evansville and Drake. The Redbirds lost four starters off last season's squad that tied Wichita State for the regular-season championship. Loyola and Illinois State both got one first-place vote, giving the Valley four teams with at least one for the first time in seven years.

SIU coach Barry Hinson, the longest-tenured active coach in the league with 14 seasons in the Valley, called the race the "wild, wild, west" earlier this month. Tuesday, it was tough to argue with him.

"I think we're actually looking at one of the most exciting league races that we've seen since the mid-2000s. Since I've been at SIU, there hasn't been a year that I've felt like, that the day Wichita State went to the American Conference, every coach met with their team the following morning and said 'We got a chance to win the Valley championship," Hinson told the media. "I think you guys are getting ready to cover one of the most exciting races we've ever seen."

The Salukis return three starters off last season's 17-16 squad that tied Northern Iowa for third place in the league at 9-9. Senior forward Thik Bol, one of those returning starters, was named to the preseason all-conference second team. Bol averaged 9.1 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. The 6-foot-8 forward blocked 76 shots in 33 games, the third-most in school history for one season.

Junior guards Armon Fletcher (11.1 points per game last season) and Sean Lloyd (7.6) are SIU's other returning starters.

Johnson joined Loyola guard/forward Donte Ingram, Indiana State guard Brenton Scott, Northern Iowa center Bennett Koch, Drake guard Reed Timmer and Ramblers forward Aundre Jackson on the preseason first team. Two players tied for the final spot on the six-man squad that is usually only five players.

Bol joined Bradley point guard Darrell Brown, Northern Iowa foward Klint Carlson, Illinois State forward Phil Fayne, Evansville guard Ryan Taylor and Valparaiso guard Tevonn Walker on the second team, which also had six players.

Pollsters have correctly predicted the regular-season champion five straight years, but only 17 times out of 32 since 1985-86. Wichita State, which was picked to win the Valley the last four years, and won or tied for it all four years, is now in the American Athletic Conference. The Shockers were picked second in the American behind Cincinnati.

Missouri State last won the regular-season championship in 2011, when they were picked second behind Wichita State. The 2010-11 season was one of the best in recent memory for the league, in terms of postseason play. The Bears lost to third seed Indiana State in the MVC tournament championship and played in the NIT, while the Sycamores advanced to their first NCAA Tournament in 10 years. Missouri State beat Murray State in the NIT but then lost at Miami (Florida). Wichita State won the NIT with five victories by an average of 15 points per game, topping Nebraska, Virginia Tech, Charleston, Washington State and Alabama 66-57 for the title.

Creighton and Evansville, which finished fourth and sixth in the Valley that year, respectively, competed in the College Basketball Invitational (CBI). Evansville went 1-1, while the Bluejays advanced to the best-of-three championship series, where it lost to Oregon. Northern Iowa, which tied Creighton for fourth place in the Valley, went 1-1 in the Collegeinsider.com tournament (CIT).

Five games separated first-place Missouri State from fourth-place Creighton and Northern Iowa.

Without the Shockers, many feel like the Valley title is there for the taking. Seven of the league's 10 teams return three or more starters, and newcomer Valparaiso, which is not one of those seven, comes off three straight regular-season crowns in the Horizon League and seven straight postseason appearances.

"There's no doubt other basketball programs have to step up, and emerge," Lusk said. "As you look across the board, I think everyone is going to be better. If you look at teams that, maybe, finished in the bottom half, they're gonna be better. It's gonna be a good league. I really think programs will step up."

todd.hefferman@thesouthern.com

618-351-5087

On Twitter: @THefferman

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Sports reporter

Todd Hefferman has covered SIU athletics since 2008. A University of Iowa grad, he is a member of the U.S. Basketball Writers Association and a Heisman Trophy voter.

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