Matt Lottich coaching photo

Valparaiso basketball coach Matt Lottich said his school is excited about the opportunity to move into the Missouri Valley Conference. The Crusaders tied for the Horizon League regular-season title last season.

FILE PHOTO, PANTAGRAPH NEWS SERVICE

NORMAL — Losing your star is never easy. Yet Missouri Valley Conference basketball coaches believe the league can carry plenty of clout going forward.

Although still listed on the league's website, Wichita State officially leaves the Valley on July 1, headed for the American Athletic Conference. Valparaiso will take the Shockers' spot. 

"I don't want to talk about anyone we lost, but I would love to talk about someone we added. I'm really excited about Valpo," said Southern Illinois' Barry Hinson during Tuesday's MVC coaches summer teleconference.

"It could look like 'The Wild West' next year where everyone came into the summer thinking they could win a championship ... This could be one of the greatest Valley races we've had in a long time."

Valparaiso coach Matt Lottich said he grew up watching the Valley as a high school star at New Trier. Lottich said going from the Horizon League to the Valley is a step up for the Crusaders, who have gone to the NCAA Tournament nine times since 1996.

"The Valley, and I don't think it's a surprise to anyone, is something we aspired to as an institution and athletic program," he said. "For us making this transition and being a relatively young team, we have a lot of motivated young men who are dialed in and excited for a new challenge."

Valley coaches believe it's not just up to Valpo, which went 24-9 and shared the Horizon League regular-season title last season, to return the Valley to a multi-NCAA Tournament bid league.

Wichita State was the Valley's lone NCAA tourney squad last season after Illinois State, which shared the regular-season title with the Shockers, was among the last four teams left out.

"Adding Valpo is a great fit. But their program and everyone's has to elevate, whether it's facilities or budgets," said Indiana State coach Greg Lansing. "With the leadership of (commissioner) Doug Elgin and everyone helping us I think we'll be just fine. I have not noticed anything negative in recruiting."

Loyola coach Porter Moser echoed Lansing's comments.

"When we talk to coaches, student-athletes and families, the Missouri Valley still carries a ton of weight and respect in the recruiting process," he said.

The Valley has dropped to Nos. 13 and 12, respectively, among conferences the last two seasons in the RPI Ratings after peaking at No. 6 in 2006 (when it sent four teams to the NCAA Tournament) and 2007.

Bradley coach Brian Wardle said the Braves and other teams that have been in the Valley for a while need to improve. ISU and Wichita State finished eight games ahead of the third-place teams (SIU and Northern Iowa) in last year's standings.

"Then, hopefully, we have some programs invest even more in their men's basketball programs. It's investment," said Wardle. "Look at Wichita and how they invested financially in their program, whether facilities, salaries, travel, recruiting, whatever, they invested.

"You always say you have to spend money to make money. You saw Wichita State go that direction, and it really benefited them and it paid off. You need to show signs everything is moving in the right direction as a program."

Missouri State figures to be the preseason favorite to win the Valley. The Bears bring back several key players including the league's top returner in 6-foot-9 Alize Johnson, who averaged 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds last season.

"If we all have good seasons and we're all better, it will help our league and help our brand," said Bears' coach Paul Lusk.

Evans itching to go: Illinois State associate coach Luke Yaklich said junior guard Keyshawn Evans is still rehabbing after surgery in early April for a torn labrum in his right shoulder.

"No one wants to be out there more than Keyshawn. He loves the game and is a hard worker," said Yaklich. "He's in the process of following the doctors and (athletic trainer John) Munn's orders. It's kind of a wait-and-see process. When he's ready, he'll be back out on the court."

All the Redbird players are now on campus for the summer. ISU coach Dan Muller is in Colorado Springs, Colo., this week serving as a court coach for the USA Basketball Men's U19 World Cup Team training camp.

Recovery time from labrum surgery is usually four to six months. Evans, who averaged 5.8 points, 2.0 assists and 1.5 rebounds last season, might miss any contact during summer individual workouts before returning in the fall when practice officially begins. 

"He's been doing very well with his conditioning and making sure he's in shape so when he's ready to go full bore he's ready from a conditioning standpoint," said Yaklich.

​Follow Jim Benson on Twitter: @pg_benson

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Sports Writer for The Pantagraph.

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