Only half of the Missouri Valley Conference's top-10 scorers from last season are back in 2019-20.
The league's NET rating, 14th out of 32 conferences, was one of the worst in years. Not a single Valley team beat a top-25 team for the first time since 2009. But every team in the MVC added a promising newcomer, or two, or in SIU's case, 11, which adds to the league's mystery. Missouri State appears to be a clear favorite to win its first MVC regular-season championship since 2011, but the Bears did in 2018, too, and finished in the play-in games of the conference tournament.
The mystery of the upcoming season will make it one of the best in years. The MVC will release its preseason polls for the men's and women's races Thursday. As a beat writer for SIU, I get a vote. Here is my men's basketball ballot:
Preseason Order of Finish:
1. Missouri State — The Bears haven't reached the NCAA tournament since 1999, but second-year coach Dana Ford may have the troops to get there this season. Forward Tulio da Silva is a player of the candidate, Keandre Cook is one of the best shotmakers in the league, and MSU is the deepest team in the conference.
2. Bradley — Elijah Childs? Check. Darrell Brown? Check. Nate Kennell? Check. The Braves may not wait until the conference tournament to make a statement this season.
3. Loyola — The Ramblers have another player of the year candidate in Cameron Krutwig and some great additions in guards Keith Clemons, Jalon Pipkins and Indianapolis transfer Tate Hall. Yes, Loyola will be different without Donte Ingram, Ben Richardson and Clayton Custer for the first time in three years, but don't sleep on the defending champs.
4. Northern Iowa — The Panthers came a half from winning another trip to the NCAA tournament last season, and will be extremely motivated this season. Four starters are back from a 16-18 squad, including MVC Freshman of the Year A.J. Green.
5. Drake — I underestimated the Bulldogs because Nick McGlynn and two late junior college transfers didn't scare me. I was wrong. McGlynn nearly won the player of the year award, and Drake won more games (24) than anyone else in the Valley under new coach Darian DeVries. The Bulldogs are loaded for another run this season, and the only reason I didn't put them higher was because of the talent ahead of them.
6. Illinois State — The Redbirds finished in the opening round of the MVC tournament for the first time in coach Dan Muller's tenure last season. Don't count on a repeat performance, although Illinois State could be picked anywhere from fifth to last because of 11 newcomers. Understand three of them practiced with the team last season as they sat out, and one of them, junior forward Keith Fisher III, was a team captain.
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7. Indiana State — Jordan Barnes won't shoot 37.5% from the field and 33.3% from the 3-point line this season. Tyreke Key is a rising star, and Indiana State may be poised to end a stretch of five straight losing seasons. The Sycamores might finish even lower than eighth place, too, if they can't improve at the defensive end.
8. Southern Illinois — The Salukis will be picked low, but I have a feeling they'll be in the hunt to stay out of the play-in games at the end of the season. They'll be able to score, but can they defend in the post when Barret Benson goes out? Is Benson ready to be a star contributor? Too many questions to pick SIU any higher.
9. Evansville — The entire bottom half of the poll has some mystery, and few have more than the Purple Aces. Can Walter McCarty's pace-and-space offense work in the MVC, which is historically a defensive, half-court style? K.J. Riley will have a huge year, and DeAndre Williams will have a huge year. Can the other guys move Evansville up from last place?
10. Valparaiso — I like the Crusaders' roster, but I wonder what the effects will be of so many starters leaving on their own accord. Javon Freeman could be a first team all-conference player, and newcomers Eron Gordon, Ben Krikke and Zion Morgan give Valparaiso some firepower. If Ryan Fazekas picks up where he left off, look out.
Tulio da Silva, F, Missouri State (preseason player of the year)
Darrell Brown, G, Bradley
Elijah Childs, F, Bradley
A.J. Green, G, Northern Iowa
Cameron Krutwig, C, Loyola