When basketball junkies talk about the Missouri Valley Conference, one phrase usually keeps coming back:
This is a guard’s league.
Backcourt players seem to have dominated the Valley in recent years. Never mind that the league’s top player is handed an honor named after a 6-foot-9 guy, the Larry Bird MVC Player of the Year Award.
Eight of the last 10 recipients have been perimeter players, although “Larry Legend” wasn’t your typical power post player with his uncanny outside shooting and passing abilities.
While the Valley still has its share of perimeter standouts, the trend this season seems to be swinging the other way.
The Big Man on Campus has returned in full force.
“It ought to be very interesting to see the big guys’ matchups,” said Drake coach Mark Phelps.
The Valley Preseason Player of the Year nod went to Creighton’s 6-9 Kenny Lawson Jr., who averaged 13.1 points and 6.8 rebounds last season. Yet Lawson might not even be the Bluejays’ best post player when 6-9, 270-pound Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique becomes eligible in mid-December.
“The combination of he and Kenny will give us something I haven’t had on the same team very often in my 17 years I’ve been a (head) coach,” said first-year Creighton coach Greg McDermott. “That’s going to be a fun dynamic to coach.”
Lawson and Echenique are just part of a class of big men that could help the Valley return to multiple NCAA Tournament bids after three straight years of being a one-bid league.
League favorite Wichita State is counting on five players 6-8 or taller, led by 7-footer Garrett Stutz. Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin believes 6-11 junior Caleb Patterson will be much improved after a year in the Valley. Illinois State lost all-Valley first teamer Dinma Odiakosa in the middle, but returns 6-9 sophomore Jackie Carmichael, who might be the most athletic big guy in the league.
Drake’s 6-11 Seth VanDeest started every game last season as a freshman. Gene Teague, a 6-9, 285-pound sophomore hulk from Southern Illinois, came on strong late last season and averaged 9.9 points and 6.7 rebounds in the final 15 games.
Indiana State might have found its inside presence in the mold of Teague, Echenique and Wichita State’s Gabe Blair in 6-8, 250-pound junior college transfer Myles Walker.
It was no coincidence that Northern Iowa blossomed into a Sweet Sixteen squad last season with the rapid development of 7-1 Jordan Eglseder, who led the Panthers with 11.9 points and 7.2 rebounds and formed a potent inside duo with Valley Player of the Year Adam Koch.
Eglseder and Koch have graduated, leaving UNI with a hole in the middle it hopes two sophomores — 6-10, 245-pound Austin Pehl and Koch’s brother, Jake — can help fill.
“Part of the fun comes from the development of big guys,” said UNI coach Ben Jacobson. “A lot of times their maturity and development comes later. You’re going to get some guards from time to time who come in as freshmen and are ready to play. From a maturity standpoint they’re already there.
“Eglseder was a full year younger than his grade. He had a lot of development and maturity left. It was fun to be part of the process.”
When Bradley made its Sweet Sixteen run in 2006, the Braves had 7-footer Patrick O’Bryant anchoring the middle. Wichita State also went to the final 16 that year with 6-10 Paul Miller, who was the Valley Player of the Year.
“That has the chance to propel a league,” said Bradley coach Jim Les of quality big men. “The league has mostly good guards, but a big guy is a difference maker like they (UNI) had last year. That does (speak) well for our whole league on a national level.”
SIU coach Chris Lowery said having four Valley schools reach the Sweet 16 in the last five seasons attracts the attention of post players.
“You can sell a big kid that you can develop faster at our place than at a BCS school,” he said. “That’s why we’re seeing a lot of bigger kids coming to our league.”
Sometimes it takes good fortune to sign a big guy, too.
ISU was able to get Carmichael mainly because he and Jankovich shared the same hometown of Manhattan, Kan., and went to the same high school. They developed a connection from that in the recruiting process. The Redbirds also had an “in” this past year while signing 6-10 Jordan Threloff of DeKalb, who attended ISU assistant coach Rob Judson’s camps when Judson was Northern Illinois’ coach.
“It’s much easier to get good guards only because there’s a lot more people in our country under 6-5 than over 6-5,” said Jankovich. “Certainly the top players are going to be well recruited. Any time you’re fortunate enough to land a guy who is ready made, which is pretty rare, or you see outstanding potential, which is not so rare, it’s an absolute plus.”
Carmichael had an advantage last season in practicing every day against Odiakosa, who was the league’s best interior defender and finished second in Player of the Year voting. Jankovich also hopes Carmichael learned from watching Odiakosa’s exemplary practice regimen and habits.
“There are definitely a lot of really good big guys in the Valley,” said Carmichael. “It’s going to be a battle day in and day out.”
While every team seeks that quality player in the post, it’s only part of the puzzle.
“In order for big guys to have success you have to be surrounded by good guards,” said McDermott. “You can stop a big guy because you know where he is. So you have to have guards.”