ST. LOUIS — There was one first-place vote that didn’t go to Wichita State in the Missouri Valley Conference basketball preseason poll.
Dan Muller wasn’t afraid to say it was his.
The Illinois State coach selected his team No. 1, with the other 45 first-place votes among league coaches, media and sports information directors going to the Shockers. ISU finished fifth in the balloting released Tuesday at the MVC Media Day. Northern Iowa was second, followed by Missouri State and Evansville.
“It’s because I have confidence in my team,” Muller said. “Wichita State deserves to be preseason No. 1 in our league and Northern Iowa deserves to be No. 2 preseason in our league. Don’t get me wrong, but I tried to rank teams as I saw them finishing in the end.”
Wichita State, which advanced to the 2013 Final Four, is coming off a historic season. The Shockers became the first Division I team to start the season with 35 wins before a two-point loss to Kentucky in an epic NCAA Tournament third-round game.
Last season, the Shockers also became the first team to go undefeated in Valley action in 28 years. Wichita State returns three starters and one of the nation’s best backcourts in senior Tekele Cotton and juniors Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet.
VanVleet won the Larry Bird Award as the Valley’s top player and was on the all-conference first team along with Baker. Cotton was an all-league second-team choice and the league’s Defensive Player of the Year.
However, Wichita State must replace its leading scorer and rebounder in versatile forward Cleanthony Early, who is now with the New York Knicks. With the other league teams returning 33 of 45 starters, going through the 18-game Valley grind unscathed again will be difficult for the Shockers.
“The league is going to be so much better because of the maturation of individual players and the fact coaches all remained in place,” said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. “There was not a lot of turnover and turmoil. I know we’ll have a very difficult time no matter who we’re playing or where.”
VanVleet, who was voted Preseason Player of the Year, said overconfidence won’t be a problem with the Shockers.
“We don’t view ourselves as the hunted. We’re still hunting and putting targets on whatever team we play,” said the point guard from Rockford. “We don’t feel that kind of pressure. We’re still staying hungry.”
UNI returns all five starters, led by senior center Seth Tuttle, and has added a potential impact transfer in 6-foot-6 junior guard Paul Jesperson from Virginia. Evansville also has all its starters back including junior guard D.J. Balentine, who was seventh in the country with a 22.8 scoring average last season.
The Redbirds return four starters and two key substitutes from an 18-16 squad that tied for fourth in the MVC with a 9-9 league mark last season. ISU also brings in two players who sat out last season, forwards Deontae “Teddy” Hawkins and MiKyle McIntosh, along with four junior college transfers.
“We’re in position right now to contend with our talent and personnel,” said Muller, whose team will have a closed scrimmage Saturday at Northwestern. “We have a way to go for that because we’re not experienced in a lot of ways. There are some really, really good teams this year, but I do like our personnel.”
The preseason all-conference team consisted of VanVleet, Baker, Cotton, Balentine and Tuttle. Southern Illinois junior guard Anthony Beane, a Normal Community High School graduate, was an honorable-mention selection.
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