CARBONDALE — SIU's men's basketball team was picked third in the Missouri Valley Conference preseason poll, the league announced Thursday.
The Salukis, who return all five starters plus all-conference forward Thik Bol from a team that finished second last season, received four first-place votes and 362 points to finish behind Loyola and Illinois State. The Ramblers, who lost two starters and top reserve Aundre Jackson from last season's historic Final Four club, got 29 first-place votes and 410 points from league media, coaches and sports information directors. The Redbirds, who reached the MVC tournament final before losing to Loyola, got 10 first-place votes and 374 points.
Loyola returns senior guard Clayton Custer, the 2017 Valley player of the year who was voted the preseason player of the year. The Ramblers also return sophomore center Cameron Krutwig, the 2017 MVC freshman of the year, and senior guard Marques Townes.
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Bradley was fourth in the preseason poll, giving the top-four spots to Illinois schools. Northern Iowa was fifth, followed by Indiana State, Valparaiso, Missouri State, Drake and Evansville.
The three schools projected to finish in the bottom of the poll all have new coaches. Dana Ford took over for Paul Lusk in Missouri State, Darian DeVries took over for Niko Medved, and Walter McCarty was hired at Evansville after the Purple Aces fired Marty Simmons. Lusk is now an assistant coach at Creighton. Medved is now the head coach at Colorado State. Simmons is the assistant to the head coach at Clemson, Harrison (Indiana) High School graduate Brad Brownell.
League teams return 28 of 50 starters, led by the top-four picks in the preseason poll. Loyola returns three and Illinois State returns four. The Salukis are the only team in the Valley that returns all five starters. Bradley returns four.
SIU guard Armon Fletcher, one of six seniors on this year's team, was named to the preseason first team after leading the Salukis in scoring (14.1 points per game). Fletcher shot 48.6 percent from the field, 34.8 percent from the 3-point line and 73.1 percent at the free-throw line.
Indiana State guard Jordan Barnes, Illinois State forward Phil Fayne and Redbird guard Milik Yarbrough joined Fletcher and Custer on the first team. Saluki center Kavion Pippen, a third team all-conference pick last season, made the second team. Bradley guard Darrell Brown and Illinois State guard Keyshawn Evans joined Pippen, Krutwig and Townes on the second team.
On Twitter: @THefferman