ST. LOUIS — Many are lamenting the absence of Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference and pointing to the league's men's basketball decline without the Shockers, who have left for the American Athletic Conference.
Illinois State basketball coach Dan Muller offered a different take during Tuesday's MVC Media Day at the St. Louis City Center Hotel.
“They've been great in our league for whatever, the last five or six years,” said Muller of the Shockers. “And yet, in two of the last four years, someone tied with them for first. We'll miss what they brought. I do think they brought a ton to our league and everyone in our league has the obligation, as we have since we've been here, to pick it up.”
For the first time since 2009, a team other than Creighton (which moved to the Big East in 2013) or Wichita State was picked to win the MVC in the preseason poll of league coaches, media and sports information directors.
Missouri State, which features MVC Preseason Player of the Year Alize Johnson, earned the No. 1 spot for the first time since joining the league in 1990. The Bears gathered 30 of the 40 first-place votes for 381 points.
Northern Iowa was second with eight first-place votes and 337 points. Third-place Loyola (321) and ISU (256) each received one first-place vote. Southern Illinois was fifth, followed by Valparaiso, Bradley, Indiana State, Evansville and Drake.
Johnson, a 6-foot-9 senior forward who averaged 14.8 points and league-high 10.6 rebounds last year, was joined on the preseason all-league first team by Loyola's Donte Ingram and Aundre Jackson, Indiana State's Brenton Scott, UNI's Bennett Koch and Drake's Reed Timmer.
Illinois State junior forward Phil Fayne, the lone starter back from a team which tied Wichita State at 17-1 for last season's MVC regular-season title, was voted to the all-league second team. SIU's Thik Bol, Bradley's Darrell Brown, UNI's Klint Carlson, Evansville's Ryan Taylor and Valpo's Tevonn Walker completed the second team.
“Phil has got to be great,” said Muller, who was last season's MVC Coach of the Year. “He's going from the fourth or fifth option on the court most of the time to the first or second option on the court most of the time. He understands that.”
Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson predicted the best MVC race since the mid-2000s, involving multiple teams.
“I felt like the day Wichita went to the American Conference every coach met with their team the following morning and said we have a chance to win the Valley championship,” said Hinson. “I'll be blown way if on the last Saturday there's not two or three games taking place that's trying to figure out who will be the champion.”
Muller believes ISU, which has a closed scrimmage against Saint Louis on Saturday at Redbird Arena, could be in the mix on that last Saturday. Freshman point guard Elijah Clarance is sidelined with a stress fracture in his foot and it appears won't be ready for the Nov. 11 opener at Florida Gulf Coast.
“When we get Elijah back and if we remain healthy, I think once conference play comes we'll be right there,” said Muller. “Right now we are not ready to win our league, but I hope we get tougher and better and can grow.”
Valparaiso joined the Valley after Wichita State's departure. The Crusaders tied for the Horizon League regular-season championship last season, but standout Alec Peters graduated and is now with the NBA's Phoenix Suns.
League coaches were unanimous in declaring Valpo a great fit for the Valley. The feeling was mutual.
“Every program in here is used to winning. There's great tradition in this league,” said Crusaders coach Matt Lottich. “We feel we have great tradition. This is a new chapter in our story. I know as an institution and from athletic department standpoint, we're super excited to be here. We're coming in and will be ready to compete.”
Muller said Missouri State “clearly has the best team coming in … and they have a ton of talent, if they can stay healthy.” Johnson has missed the last four weeks of practice with a knee injury, but said he'll be fine.
According to Missouri State coach Paul Lusk, the Bears are just being “super cautious” with Johnson.
“We think we have a good team. We have other people who need to emerge,” said Lusk. “If you are going to have a chance to win the league you have to have a couple all-conference guys. It can't just be about one guy.”