ST. LOUIS — Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball coaches have learned to expect the unexpected.
In the two years since Creighton and Wichita State have been replaced by Loyola and Valparaiso, a blindfold and set of darts may have been a more accurate method of prognostication than the league’s preseason poll compiled by coaches, media and sports information directors.
Two years ago, the Missouri State and Northern Iowa squads picked to finish 1-2 ended up in the play-in round of the MVC tournament, while Loyola swept the regular season and conference tournament en route to a breakthrough Final Four run.
Last season, new coaches at Drake and Missouri State elevated their squads from ninth- and eighth-place preseason predictions to a share of the regular-season title and a tie for third, respectively. The league’s top seven teams were separated by three games with No. 5-seed Bradley defeating No. 6-seed UNI in the MVC tournament finale.
“I think it’s that thin of a margin for a lot of schools,” Drake coach Darian DeVries said, pressing his fingers together inside a Missouri Athletic Club ballroom during Tuesday’s MVC media day. “It’ll be an incredible race again. The 12-6 (league winner) like last year, I could see that very easily happening because I just don’t think there’s a clear-cut runaway. The league is just too good for somebody to come in and have a 16-2 year.”
Porter Moser, whose Loyola team has risen to the top of the standings the past two seasons, believes the large number of schools with transfers now active after sitting out last season adds to the uncertainty of the league race.
“Illinois State, Drake, Bradley, Evansville, Missouri State, us all had guys sitting out that are going to contribute,” Moser said. “That’s what is going to be interesting as this year unfolds. You don’t know how those guys are going to develop.”
MVC coaches have used a variety of different approaches when assembling their rosters.
Missouri State coach Dana Ford views graduate transfers as a one-and-done on the back end with experienced players seeking larger roles from Power 5 conferences. West Virginia grad transfer Lamont West joins last season’s impact first-team all-conference transfer Tulio Da Silva and Keandre Cook as talented players within a Bears team that may be among the preseason favorites when the poll is released on October 17.
Ford says he’d ideally have two grad transfers on his roster every season.
“Guys like Lamont, they’ve been through the rigors, the war,” Ford said. “They pretty much have the answers to the test. … We’re going to try to be in that market as long as it’s out there. I don’t think that’s going to go anywhere.”
A Bradley team that claimed the league’s lone NCAA Tournament bid a year ago has enhanced its roster with international players. Six different countries are represented on this year’s Braves roster that returns high-scoring point guard Darrell Brown and talented forward Elijah Childs.
“There’s great players throughout the world now,” Bradley coach Brian Wardle said. “It’s kind of been a trickle-down effect for us after year one when we had to go that route a little bit in the recruiting process. Now we’re just getting people calling us because our guys had a good experience at Bradley.”
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Similar to graduate transfers, junior college transfers offer a chance for teams to gain instant experience with athletes who are immediately eligible. Drake’s D.J. Wilkins, Tremell Murphy and Anthony Murphy each made an immediate impact in the league after transferring from Florida Southwestern State College.
“I think you have to leave all your options open from high schools to prep schools, junior college kids to fifth-year transfers,” DeVries said. “It’s what recruiting has become. I don’t think you can just pigeonhole into one. I think you’ve got to really diversify the way you recruit.”
UNI’s Ben Jacobson, the dean of MVC coaches, has mainly stayed true to the traditional route of recruiting and developing high school athletes. That approach could pay dividends this season within a cohesive Panther roster that graduated just one player who competed in last year’s MVC title game.
“I still love the way in which we’re going about it,” Jacobson said. “I still love being able to get to know these guys as they are coming through freshman year and in high school. Having them come to our camps and getting to know them and their families.
“Things have changed drastically around us, and in the big picture in terms of recruiting, because of the grad transfer. It’s something that we talk about as a staff, but I still love the way we’re going to about it and really enjoy working with these guys.”
SCHEDULING STRONG: MVC commissioner Doug Elgin has been working actively with similar leagues to help improve non-conference scheduling.
While the MVC-Mountain West challenge recently expired, seven new series were formed this season with MVC schools and other strong mid-major programs. This includes Davidson visiting Loyola, Marshall traveling to UNI and Bradley going to Saint Joseph’s.
“The last year we have spent a lot more time with Conference USA, the Atlantic 10, the West Coast Conference and the MAC,” Elgin said. “All of those leagues realize that the only way we’re going to get teams in position to be seriously considered for at-large opportunities is if we play each other, and particularly if we get our good teams to play each other.”
TREMELL MURPHY IN LIMBO: Drake’s Tremell Murphy, a key starter last season, was removed from all team activities until a university review is completed regarding an accidental off-campus shooting. Murphy was charged with false reports to law enforcement and discharging a firearm within city limits.
“Tremell is still in school attending classes,” DeVries said. “We’re waiting for the university review before we’re able to move further.”
RAMBLERS LEAN ON NEW BACKCOURT: The MVC’s last two Player of the Year award winners, Clayton Custer and Marques Townes, have graduated from Loyola’s backcourt. Moser will turn to a trio of newcomers in successful junior college transfers Keith Clemons, Jalon Pipkins and local Chicago recruit Marquise Kennedy to lead the Ramblers’ backcourt.
“I think our new guards are adding some speed,” Moser said. “I think we’re faster than we’ve ever been. There’s an excitement and enthusiasm with that.”