CARBONDALE — Missouri State was the clear favorite in the Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball preseason poll, but the amount of potential deficiencies with the Bears give a lot of teams hope they can win the first league race without Wichita State since 1945.
Missouri State, which is led by former Saluki guard Paul Lusk, received 30 of 40 first-place votes in the preseason poll by Valley media, sports information directors and other dignitaries. Northern Iowa got eight, and Loyola and Illinois State both got one.
"We don't shy away from it. We thin we've got a good team," said Lusk, who is 88-106 in six seasons with the Bears. "We have to have some other people emerge, though. I think if you've got a chance to win a league, you've gotta have a couple all-conference guys. It can't just be about one guy, but I like our group, and I think we should have a good year."
Missouri State's one guy on the preseason all-conference team, first or second, is the league's best. Senior forward Alize Johnson, last season's MVC newcomer of the year, led the league in rebounding (10.6 per game) and was tied for fifth place in scoring at 14.8 points per game. Johnson is a deadly two-way player, who last season shot 38.8 percent from the 3-point line, 48.8 percent from the field, and had 20 steals in 33 games.
Missouri State also brings back three other starters from last season's 17-16 squad: senior guard/forward Jarrid Rhodes (7 ppg., 3.5 rpg., 38.9 percent from 3-point line), junior forward Obediah Church (6.6 ppg., 5.8 rpg., 74 blocks in 31 games) and senior guard Ronnie Rousseau III, a double-digit scorer before he left the team for personal reasons after 14 games. Lusk welcomed him back earlier this year for his final season.
Church, Rhodes and junior guard Jarred Dixon, along with junior guard Ryan Kreklow, give the Bears an old nucleus that has been through the wars together. A stellar recruiting class that was one of the best in the Midwest added 7-2 center Tanveer Bhullar from New Mexico State, three junior college players and another double-digit-scoring guard in J.T. Miller from Howard University.
However, in a league long-dominated by fourth and fifth-year seniors, the Bears have none of either, and haven't finished higher than tied for fourth under Lusk. Church, although an outstanding defender and marked man off the offensive boards, shot under 49 percent at the free-throw line.
"When you look at our league, anybody can win it. There's no doubt about it," said Bradley coach Brian Wardle, who returns all five starters from a squad that ended the season with four wins in its last five games. "The preseason No. 1 team, according to our league, we tied with last year, and we return everyone back."
Northern Iowa, which many have picked to win the Valley, lost its best player from a 14-16 team, guard Jeremy Morgan, and is leaning heavily on two posts (Klint Carlson and Bennett Koch) who have never been all-conference selections to have major roles in a turnaround.
"We relied on Jeremy to do so many things, and he did all he could. We didn't have enough with him to be able to, for the entire year, to play at a high level," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. "And then Koch and Carlson have to follow up what came through (at media day). Those guys need to be all-conference guys, and I think they will. Wyatt (Lohaus) comes back and gives us some experience, and is a guy that can average 10-11 points per game."
Illinois State lost four starters, including the MVC player of the year, and has a lot of unknowns. Forward Phil Fayne, a 6-9, 200-pound junior forward, is now the Redbirds' top scoring option instead of the third or fourth, and injuries have knocked out center Daouda "David" Ndiaye and freshman guard Elijah Clarence until at least early December with stress fractures. Loyola, which could go about as deep as Missouri State, also lost an NBA-caliber guard in Milton Doyle, and comes off a fifth-place finish in the Valley.
SIU is down two starters until at least December, and is relying on junior college center Kavion Pippen for most of its low-post scoring.
The teams picked in the bottom half all have reasons to be excited, as well as worried. Valparaiso lost forward in Alec Peters, the player of the year in the Horizon League, and has several newcomers that will have to play major roles. Bradley is clearly on the rise but largely unproven. Indiana State has a deep set of posts and added freshman guard Tyreke Key, the all-time leading scorer in his class in Tennessee. Evansville could have one of the best backcourts in the league with Ryan Taylor, Duane Gibson and newcomer Marty Hill, good size, but could take some time to develop.
Only Drake, which is under first-year coach Niko Medved, appears to have a clear uphill battle to get into the upper half. Senior guard Reed Timmer, who could approach the Bulldogs' all-time scoring record, is a nice start, but they have five newcomers and new systems to work through. The Bulldogs also have to learn how to win again after ending the 2016-17 season with 10 straight losses.