The Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball race should be the best it's been in years after Wichita State's departure to the American Athletic Conference, but if there's a team that can run away with it, it's Missouri State.
The Bears return three starters, and get another one back in guard Ronnie Rousseau III, who left the team in mid-season because of what the team has described as personal issues. Rousseau started all 14 games he played in last season and was the team's third-leading scorer at 11.6 points per game. Missouri State also returns likely preseason player of the year Alize Johnson, who led the league in rebounding last season at 10.6 per game, as well as juniors Obediah Church (74 blocks, 71 offensive rebounds, 6.6 ppg.), Jarred Dixon (8.6 ppg., 2.5 rpg.) and Ryan Kreklow (41.6 percent from 3-point line, nine starts in 33 games).
Senior forward Jarrid Rhodes started 27 of 33 games for the 17-16 squad, and gives the Bears six of their top-seven scorers from last season. Missouri State added the best crop of newcomers in the league, if not the Midwest, with Hampton University transfer J.T. Miller (14.7 ppg. last season), 7-2 graduate transfer Tanveer Bhullar of New Mexico State, and two junior college forwards, 6-7, 207-pound sophomore Abdul-Hakim Fofana from Dakota College and 6-5, 213-pound junior Reggie Scurry out of Northern Oklahoma Tonkawa. Fofana averaged 15.4 points and 11.8 rebounds for the NJCAA Division II Lumberjacks, who went 19-12. Fofana's 21 double-doubles were a school record.
Scurry blocked 86 shots in 33 games, and averaged 15.7 points and 10.2 rebounds a game.
Coach Paul Lusk and his staff also signed Darian Scott, a 6-11 freshman center from Las Vegas, 6-foot freshman guard Mstafa Lawrence, who averaged 28.9 points per game for three-time state champ Essex County Vo-Tech (New Jersey) in 2015-16 and played at Forest Trail Prep School in North Carolina last season. The Bears also recently added junior James Byrd, a 6-1 point guard from Metropolitan Community College-Penn Valley in Kansas City that was a second team NJCAA Division II All-American. Byrd averaged 19.4 points per game with 142 assists, and shot 42.3 percent from the 3-point line.
Missouri State is loaded, but is largely depending on three guys that haven't played at an all-conference level yet - Dixon, Church and Kreklow - to take a step up in their third years. Johnson, who was the MVP of an adidas camp earlier this year that had other NBA prospects, has improved his 3-point shot, according to Lusk, and has a tremendous cast around him.
Here's a quick look at my preseason ballot:
1. Missouri State - Bears are loaded from 1-5, and have the best player in the league in forward Alize Johnson.
2. Northern Iowa - Panthers get guard Wyatt Lohaus back from injury, but need posts Bennett Koch, Ted Friedman and Klint Carlson to be more consistent.
3. Southern Illinois - The Salukis were last in the league in 3-point shooting percentage (31.6 percent), but return guards Tyler Smithpeters and Armon Fletcher and added two threats in Saint Louis transfer Marcus Bartley and junior college star Eric McGill. SIU finally has the defensive length title contenders feature, but has to replace do-everything forward Sean O'Brien.
4. Illinois State - Redbirds lost one of their top recruits, high-scoring guard Zach Copeland, to grades, but returns one of the league's top forwards in Phil Fayne. Defense won't be as good, so the offense must find a way to fill in the gaps of player of the year Paris Lee, Deontae Hawkins MiKyle McIntosh and Tony Wills.
5. Loyola - One of many teams that could contend for the title this year, the Ramblers lost an NBA guard in Milton Doyle but return Donte Ingram, Aundre Jackson inside, two pretty good shooters in Clayton Custer and Ben Richardson, and have great size. Coach Porter Moser is high on freshmen Cameron Krutwig (6-9 center), Christian Negron (6-7 forward) and Lucas Williamson, a 6-4 guard from Whitney Young High School that was a first team all-state pick for the Class 4A state champs.
6. Valparaiso - Crusaders feature Valley's only 7-foot duo in Jaume Sorolla and Derrik Smits, and have great size at the guard spot with Tevonn Walker and Max Joseph. Valparaiso will be young without star Alec Peters, but are much more talented than Loyola team that came into the league in 2013-14.
7. Bradley - Braves haven't learned how to win yet, but don't sleep on this deep and talented roster. Bradley has been building for years, and finally has more juniors and seniors than freshmen and sophomores.
8. Indiana State - Sycamores return all-conference guard Brenton Scott and have a deep, big and talented frontcourt.
9. Evansville - It's up to Ryan Taylor (14.1 ppg. last season), or, possibly, Duane Gibson (7.1 ppg.), to give the Purple Aces their fifth straight MVC scoring leader. Evansville will need big years from Blake Simmons and junior college guard Marty Hill to compete this season.
10. Drake - Bulldogs have lost 20 or more games three straight seasons, and look headed for a fourth in coach Niko Medved's first year. Drake has great experience, some size, and four pretty good senior guards in Reed Timmer, DeAntae McMurray, Ore Arogundade and Graham Woodward, but not many frontcourt stars.