What can Chris Lowery do for an encore? In his first season as the Salukis’ head coach, Lowery guided Southern Illinois to a 27–8 record, a fourth straight Valley championship and a fourth straight trip to the NCAA tournament. The Salukis made it to the second round before Oklahoma State ended their season with an 85–77 setback.
SIU might be hard-pressed to keep its title and NCAA tournament streaks alive this season with the loss of two-time conference Player of the Year Darren Brooks and three other players -- Stetson Hairston, Josh Warren and LaMar Owen -- who contributed mightily to last season’s success. Brooks and Hairston started together the past three seasons, and the loss of their experience leaves a gaping hole to fill.
But given the Salukis’ recent run of success and their ability to restock rather than rebuild, Southern Illinois once again should be a player in the MVC race. Leading the Salukis’ charge will be Jamaal Tatum, set for a breakout season now that Brooks and Hairston are gone, and Tony Young, the league’s 2005 Sixth Man of the Year. Tatum finished 10th in the league in scoring last season (12.3 ppg) and sixth in 3-point field goals made per game (2.03). Opposing teams can’t relax on either end of the floor against Young, one of the league’s top defenders.
Mike Dale gives Southern Illinois a big guard (6-foot-5, 220 pounds) who will cause matchup problems, but the Salukis’ early-season priority will be to develop an inside presence. Matt Shaw showed flashes while emerging as a starter at forward as a freshman, but SIU will need added production from 6-7 Randal Falker and 6-9 Jamal Foster.
If Salukis fans need any encouragement heading into the season, they need to think back just two seasons ago. The predictions for demise following the loss of star guard Kent Williams and forward Jermaine Dearman wound up faulty as SIU came within a loss in the final league game of going 18–0 in Valley play.
4. Missouri State (19–13, 10–8)
The faith Barry Hinson showed in his freshmen two seasons ago could pay huge dividends this season for the school formerly known as Southwest Missouri State. Now juniors, Blake Ahearn, Nate Bilyeu, Deven Mitchell and Tyler Chaney form the nucleus of a team that will be trying to build on last season’s strong finish.
After dropping to 7–8 in mid-January, the Bears went on a closing surge that saw them win nine of their final 12 regular-season games, then return to the championship game of the Valley Tournament for the second straight season. They couldn’t claim the league’s automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament but wound up returning to postseason play, where they went 1–1 in the NIT.
Chaney, Bilyeu and Deke Thompson are returning starters, while Ahearn and Mitchell are among the key reserves back. Ahearn is a sweet shooter, both from the floor and the line -- he’s led Division I in free throw percentage the past two seasons -- but he needs to pick up his defense to be considered one of the league’s premier players. Thompson made 45.4 percent of his 3-point attempts, Chaney is difficult (6-5, 205) to handle on the offensive end, and Bilyeu is a tireless worker who gets the most from his talent.
The big hole that needs filling is the one left by the departure of 6-7, 240-pound Tamarr Maclin, the Valley’s top rebounder last season. The leading candidates to replace Maclin are 6-10 Sky Frazier and 6-7 Drew Richards, but both were inconsistent as freshmen.
5. Bradley (13–15, 6–12)
Is this the season Jim Les goes from being Mr. Friday Night to Mr. Sunday Afternoon? A Bradley fan, discouraged by the Braves’ second straight appearance in the league tournament’s Friday play-in round, papered the Savvis Center in St. Louis with flyers proclaiming Les “Mr. Friday Night.” The coach, beginning his fourth season at his alma mater, has a team this season that not only should avoid the dreaded play-in game but could find itself around on Sunday, when the Valley plays its championship game.
Bradley did not have a senior last season, and the Braves return 95.9 percent of their scoring and 93.1 percent of their rebounding after the loss of a pair of role players. The last time Bradley came into a season fielding such an experienced team was in 1995-96, when the Braves returned 98.2 percent of their scoring and made it to the NCAA tournament.
Marcellus Sommerville is the league’s top professional prospect and has a chance to become Bradley’s first three-time All-Valley pick since Hersey Hawkins (1986-88). Sommerville finished third in the league in scoring (17.5 ppg) and rebounding (7.5) last season but needs to improve his defense to enhance his NBA stock.
Patrick O’Bryant also has pro potential, and the 7-0 sophomore showed signs of being the league’s most dominant big man in his freshman season. Jeremy Crouch, Daniel Ruffin and Tony Bennett also are returning starters.
6. Wichita State (22–10, 12–6)
The Shockers head into the season having to replace four-fifths of their starting lineup, and they might have faced a complete overhaul had center Paul Miller not broken his foot as a freshman. Miller was a part of the same recruiting class as Jamar Howard, Randy Burns and Rob Kampman but had to take a medical redshirt after suffering the injury. Howard, Kampman and Burns wound up starting for four seasons, as will Miller as he begins his fourth season as a regular.
He’ll try to achieve something that eluded the others in his recruiting class — getting the Shockers to the NCAA tournament. Wichita State has had to settle for three straight NIT trips, which gives the Shockers their longest string of postseason appearances since 1987-89.
The Shockers also lost point guard Adam Liberty after the sophomore decided to transfer. Wichita State will look to Marquette transfer Karon Bradley to take over for Liberty, while P.J. Couisnard, Sean Ogirri and Kyle Wilson will be counted on to play expanded roles this season. Couisnard, in particular, showed glimpses of impact ability as a freshman, while the 6-8 Wilson must provide Miller with some inside help.
Among the newcomers are a pair of junior college transfers who should take little time in getting acquainted with each other. Ryan Martin and Jared Young have known each other since they were four years old and were high school teammates in Kansas City.
7. Drake (13–16, 7–11)
It’s taken Tom Davis two seasons, but the veteran coach finally has some reinforcements on the way that could move the Bulldogs forward. Davis, starting his 31st season as a Division I head coach and his third at Drake, assembled a recruiting class that was ranked first in the Valley and 83rd nationally by one service. If the recruits are as good as advertised, Drake could find itself challenging for a spot in the league’s first division.
Headlining the recruiting class are a pair of junior college transfers — 6-7 forward A.J. Calvin and 5-11 guard Al Stewart -- who could make an immediate impact. Calvin is expected to give the Bulldogs a big lift inside, while Stewart has long-time Drake observers comparing him to former Bulldog great Curt Smith.
The Bulldogs return starters in Chaun Brooks, Klayton Korver and Aliou Keita, and have six other players back who saw extensive action last season. It’s Keita, a 6-8 muscleman, who has provided some offseason excitement with his play in the summer leagues around Des Moines. This will be just his sixth year of organized basketball but it appears he’s on the brink of developing into one of the league’s elite players.
This will be Davis’ most athletic team in his three seasons at Drake, and one that might be able to avoid the close losses that turned a potential winning record into a losing one last season.
8. Indiana State (11–20, 5–13)
The Sycamores have one of the best players in the league in swingman David Moss and enough experienced players to raise hopes that a much-awaited turnaround is more reality than dream. Coach Royce Waltman led Indiana State to back-to-back NCAA tournament appearances in 2000 and ’01, but the Sycamores are 33–85 since and have finished no higher than eighth in the regular-season race.
Moss has been one of the Valley’s overlooked gems in his first three seasons at Terre Haute. He comes into this season ranked 16th on the school’s all-time scoring list with 1,214 points and presents opponents with plenty of headaches with his ability to score on the perimeter and slash to the basket.
Two other perimeter starters are back in Tyson Schnitker and Gabriel Moore, and the Sycamores’ most dependable non-starter is guard Eric Gray. Filling the spots up front held last season by Jerod Adler and Amani Daanish is a priority. And the Sycamores might have to look to newcomers Adam Arnold (6-6), Jay Tunnell (6-8) and Trent Wurtz (6-8) for immediate help as none of their returning big men have distinguished themselves to this point.
Another big key for ISU is staying healthy. The Sycamores did not play a single game in which Waltman had the full use of every player on his roster, and they used seven different starting lineups in 31 games.
9. Evansville (11–17, 5–13)
Evansville’s inability to win close games last season prevented the Purple Aces from taking a giant step forward. Evansville’s 11 wins were four more than it posted during the 2003-04 season, and the Purple Aces went 10–3 at home. Their 6–3 mark in non-conference play was the best in five seasons.
But a 2–8 record in games decided by five points or less kept Evansville at the bottom of the Valley. What it came down to was that the league’s worst defensive team (73.0 ppg) had difficulty getting stops when it needed them most.
To put the Purple Aces on the right side of that line, Steve Merfeld and his staff stressed adding size and strength in the offseason. Evansville also brought in seven new players, including three junior college transfers who could provide some quick fixes to the Purple Aces’ woes.
Merfeld’s most pressing issue is replacing guards Lucious Wagner and Andre Burton, the Aces’ most dependable scorers. They combined to average 26 points, nine rebounds and eight assists per game last season. The Purple Aces do return three juniors who have started the past two seasons in Matt Webster, Bradley Strickland and Kyle Anslinger.
Webster and Strickland give Evansville a solid inside presence as they combined to average more than 20 points and 10 rebounds last season. The streak-shooting Anslinger has shown he can be dangerous on the perimeter.
None of the returning reserves has demonstrated impact ability, which leaves Evansville looking for immediate contributions from newcomers Tory Robertson, Wacey Hall, Shy Ely, Maurice Blakey, Victor Gomez, Arturs Stalbergs and Jason Holsinger.
10. Illinois State (17–13, 8–10)
The unexpected loss of Lorenzo Gordon, the Valley’s Newcomer of the Year last season, hits especially hard considering the team was already scrambling to make up for the departure of three starters. Gordon, the fourth-leading scorer (16.3 ppg) and seventh-best rebounder (6.5) last season, ran into academic difficulties and was declared ineligible last spring.
His loss leaves Greg Dilligard as the Redbirds’ lone returning starter. Illinois State coach Porter Moser already faced a rebuilding job on the perimeter with the graduation of guards Vince Greene and Trey Guidry and swingman Gregg Alexander. Dilligard is a solid, 6-8 forward but hardly the type of player to build a team around.
Where will Moser turn to make up for the loss of 70 percent of his team’s scoring and 46 percent of its rebounding? Chances are he’ll seek immediate help from a pair of junior college transfers in Mark Kruse and Roberto Fortes. Kruse, a 6-7 forward, averaged 17.4 points per game for the North Dakota State College of Science. Fortes, a 6-8 guard, averaged 11.1 points and 4.0 rebounds for Daytona Beach (Fla.) Community College.
The Redbirds, with Gordon providing a giant lift, went from 10th in the league in Moser’s first season to sixth last season. Avoiding a slip back to the bottom might be too much to ask from what will be the league’s most inexperienced team this season.