2006-2007 Missouri Valley Conference Preview
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by Andy Force
PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:
The Missouri Valley Conference is coming off a banner year. Four teams received bids to the NCAA Tournament, three earned automatic bids, and two advanced to the Sweet 16.
The MVC coaches believe last season's excellence is the springboard to continued national success, rather than the aberration some in the media and BCS conferences would like it to be. A big key to the late-season respect for the Valley last year was its high RPI rating. For Valley teams, RPI is not a rating earned in January and February. Early season tournaments and non-conference road games factor in mightily.
In an effort to garner acknowledgment nationwide, the MVC teams are taking all comers. To be amongst the best, a team must beat teams deemed the best.
Who will be the best in the Valley itself this year? Let's take a look.
Superlatives are used exhaustively in reference to Funk's playing style. A coach's dream, he never slows down, and plays smart, technically sound basketball.
When Nate went down, help was needed from everyone on the floor for Creighton last year. Anthony Tolliver answered the call exceptionally. His ppg rose from 4.2 in 2005 to 13.2 in 2006. Assists, blocks, and steals all nearly doubled for the well-respected Student-Athlete. Accolades galore dotted Tolliver's résumé. As a senior tandem with loads of success behind them, Funk and Tolliver are the MVC's premiere inside-outside twosome.
There are others.
Expect solid play from two former MVC All-Freshman talents. Dane Watts earned the honor in 2005, while Josh Dotzler did last year. Dotzler, like Funk is coming back from off-season surgery. Funk should be more sure-footed early though, because Dotzler had the always-frightening knee surgery.
New blood infused into the constantly winning program includes Kansas-transfer Nick Bahe. If you don't recall the name, it is because he played just 103 minutes in two years for the Jayhawks.
At the end of the day, four starters return from a good team. Those four will all admit the most important returnee is virtual starter, redshirt superstar Nate Funk. Every year for the last eight years, Creighton has fielded a 20-win team. With Dana Altman at the helm, that MVC-record streak will not end anytime soon.
This year's edition of maroon shirts is loaded with talent. In the process of battling their way to a Valley Tournament Championship, SIU discovered the versatility and tenacity of forward Randal Falker. The tournament MVP possesses athleticism rarely seen at the PF slot in the MVC.
Senior leader Jamaal Tatum has a season-opening 3-game suspension to serve for being picked up at a traffic stop in early October. On a team that traditionally struggles offensively, his presence is critical during the stretch run. The quicker he can assimilate into the team concept upon his return the better.
The "dreadlock duo" of Falker and Tatum will lead the way on offense, but the defense is a team concept. Two time All-Defensive Team player Tony Young is a part of a bigger problem for opponents. Saluki players outwork enemies. The feet move side to side and the hands stay in your face all game long. The bench is strong, featuring 2006 MVC-Freshman of the Year Bryan Mullins and long-range shooter Wesley Clemmons.
In a program with hardly any weaknesses, road wins have to come more often this season. While amassing an astonishing run of home victories, Lowery's men are a problematic 23-17 in Road/Neutral contests in the last two years. The NCAA Men's Division I Selection Committee looks closely at this number.
SIU is a top two or three team in the Valley again. A dominating road performance in the Valley will be enough to give the Salukis something they have had just once, a "first round favorite" nametag come NCAA Tourney time.
The coach Ben Jacobson takes over for the departed Greg McDermott, who now leads the Iowa State Cyclones into battle. After assisting him last season, Jacobson faces fewer initial challenges than most first-year head coaches. The roster is not new to him. In fact he recruited the players that will be his pupils on the hardwood.
The entire mindset will change offensively this year. Between Jacobson (the player) and 6th man Eric Crawford, much of the scoring came through the backcourt whereas now the Panthers will be a top-heavy unit.
A pair of 240-pound forwards, Grant Stout at 6'8" and Eric Coleman at 6'6", forms an imposing frontline. Coleman can be extremely active in pursuit of baskets and rebounds. There will be games he wins on his own inside, as certain teams are not equipped to handle his powerful game.
Steady pointman Brooks McKowen is not flashy but he is dependable. Rarely will shots fall from the flick of his wrist.
The Valley returns 75% of its starters from its banner year in 2006, so UNI will have to unify quickly. A relatively weak non-conference slate will develop confidence. The concern is whether or not that confidence will prove justified during conference play.
Devoid of an established prototypical post scorer, the Shockers will have to become a more varied offensive team. Senior Kyle Wilson is perhaps the most difficult matchup in the Valley. Standing 6'8", Wilson was often guarded by the opposition's power forward. His mobility coupled with the demanded focus on the center Miller allowed him to knock down 42 three-point shots. As a dual threat scorer Wilson is perfectly capable of dropping 20 on any given night. Since interior scoring is a question mark, Wilson or newcomers will have to establish a consistent threat putting up points in the paint.
An integral player to the Shocker success is straight-jacket defender P.J. Couisnard. No one defends better in the conference. Whether it is a vibrant guard or dominant forward, "Cous" shuts them all down. He also fills up any statistical column.
A deep postseason run is just as likely this year as last. The chemistry is excellent as the team is filled with strong, tough-minded players who reflect the hard-nosed mentality of Mark Turgeon. Look for good players to play great as they buy in to the team concept Turgeon sells hard.
His senior classmates, Tyler Chaney and Nathan Bilyeu, are undoubtedly steaming about their glaring omission from the 2006 NCAA Tournament. Neither the team nor the coach will lack for motivation during the current campaign. The residual feeling of coming up short of their goals haunts them to this day.
The players are important, but Coach Barry Hinson's system carries the day. Speed, speed, and more speed. Turnovers start so many of the Bears' possessions.
With a fast team, a fast, efficient yet instinctive point guard is supremely important. The heir apparent is Mizzou transfer Spencer Laurie. His high school career was played in Springfield, Missouri where it seems his college career will conclude in the next two years. His younger brother Shane is also on the team.
What MoState gains in speed and transition, they lack in half-court defense and rebounding. The size up front hurts them at times. The 21st century MVC forward is bulkier and more powerful. Defending this mighty warrior insufficiently will be the culprit for several tight losses.
Missouri State has a tougher out of conference schedule this year. Beating a team like Wisconsin, SLU, or Oklahoma State would be a nice power conference scalp for their tournament résumé. Regardless the Bears will play fast and free. The only thing freer than their flow is a Blake Ahearn throw from 13 feet.
Ofttimes upperclassmen are considered failures since they have yet to jump to the pro ranks. In the Valley, seniors are well-respected and wear their leadership responsibilities as a badge of honor. The four seniors are joined by four relevant juniors. Two of those juniors, Klayton Korver and Armel Traore Dit Nignan, redshirted last season. Younger brother of Creighton-grad Kyle, Klayton fits exquisitely into Coach Tom Davis' style where forwards get plenty of outside shots.
The style implemented by Davis and his coaching staff speeds up games. The Bulldogs will attempt to capitalize on mistakes their defense causes. Paramount for Bulldog success will be allowing their opponents no more than one shot per possession. Defensive rebounding will be key to Drake finishing above .500 in conference play.
The schedule for Drake was the most difficult of any Missouri Valley Conference team last season according to Basketball Times magazine. With entry in the Top of World Classic and the Sun Bowl Tournament, the quickly maturing unit has another yearlong challenge on its hands. With impressive depth and obvious experience, look for Drake to finish right around .500 in league play and snatch a NIT berth in this increasingly respected conference.
Drake and Evansville are the two bottom half teams from 2006 that might ascend with older players. Neither has a recent track record for success, but both feature moderately talented players and balance. The depth of Drake will make the difference and raise them to NIT qualifier.
The core is gone from last year. Heck, the mantle is gone, leaving just the crust. Wins will come just perhaps more sparingly than before. Daniel Ruffin, the point guard, is reliable with the ball and an excellent free throw shooter. The Braves will gladly entrust Ruffin with close game decisions and late-game free throws.
With Ruffin and senior Will Franklin, Jim Les' team has capable guard play. Neither is much of a scorer though and the onus is on the frontcourt to carry the scoring load. Zach Andrews should improve tremendously. The quick-leaping center played just 16.2 minutes per game and still managed to record nearly five rebounds a night. His minutes should double along with his rebound tally. If Andrews can score with any regularity Bradley will be an upper division team in the Valley.
The ball-handling, poise, and experienced winning habits will be a definite aid to the rebuilding team. In an ordinary MVC season Bradley could finish middle of the pack. The field is outstanding now and middle of the pack will take some serious scoring punch the Braves just don't possess. Maybe the glory of last year will have a two-year aftertaste. Maybe.
Two things that weigh heavily in Evansville's favor are team chemistry and a variety of scoring avenues.
The Aces are built like a winning team with balanced options. Mix in a little of this, add a dash of that. Two players really stretch the defense for UE. Sophomore Jason Holsinger, the starting 5'11" point guard, dropped 2.38 triples per contest. The team is in good hands with Holsinger manning the point.
He appears to be a shooting guard with handles as opposed to a point guard that can shoot, as he was second on the team in scoring as a freshman. Holsinger is the most important player to Evansville due to their reliance on him to score and set up other players.
The other outside threat is Kyle Anslinger, an absolute deadeye spot-up shooter. At nearly 40% for his career, he even managed a 9-10 night from behind the arc at Drake last season.
Interior scoring comes from two above average players, Bradley Strickland and Matt Webster. Strickland is lean and agile, while Webster is stocky and bullish. Think Tyson Chandler and Corliss Williamson. Their differences suit each other, serving Valley defenses with contrasting looks in the post.
Evansville coach Steve Merfeld (yes THAT Steve Merfeld, he of CBS Highlight/Hampton fame) knows there are several conference elite teams this season and his team is not one of them. Regardless, Evansville can make the NIT and create serious problems for NCAA-hopefuls along the way. The two MVC Tournament wins in the last three years could be equaled in one go in March.
The roster is anything but familiar as it was nearly a complete overhaul in Normal over the summer. Seven lettermen have moved on and will be replaced by six newcomers. Four of the newbies are JuCo transfers. Coffeyville Community College donated the two best JuCo recruits, Boo Richardson and Anthony Slack. Each could feasibly start right away with another newcomer, freshman Osiris Eldridge, joining them in starting five.
Five current 'Birds came to Illinois State from the junior college ranks. It seems to be a source of both strength and over-reliance for Moser. With an occasional two-year player teams can succeed, but rosters filled with half-term ballplayers will never develop the necessary cohesion to win in an annually senior-laden MVC.
State featured an excellent defensive team last year, but certainly lacked offensive threats from every point on the floor. Not a single Redbird averaged double figures in scoring. Repeating that statistical impotence does appear irrational.
There is a legitimate point guard this year, which will help immeasurably. Neil Plank spent his senior season shoving his 2-guard game into the PG role. Between him and dart Khalif Ford the non-productive position was in constant flux.
Richardson makes a difference immediately by sliding in at the 1. Boo's quickness can be downright scary. With the ability to penetrate zone or man defenses, his passes are flashy and predominately on target. Senior Greg Dilligard is an All-Conference performer on each end, but must stay out of foul trouble, as the Redbirds are once again thin up front.
With such a big roster turnover a marked improvement is possible but unlikely. An NIT berth would be a victory with this team, especially in this conference this year.
Starting ahead will be nice, but unfortunately the pack will catch the Sycamores shortly. ISU just lost too much from a team that finished last year on a long slide, after starting it so promisingly with an upset of in-state MegaRival Indiana. David Moss was the rare talent that elevated the level of play of everyone around him. Aside from being exceptionally athletic, the small forward Moss was comfortably efficient with the ball.
Replacing Moss is impossible, but replacing point guard transfer Tyson Schnitker will be downright frustrating. The gritty leader departed after three zealous years, leaving the squad bereft of leadership.
In the now, Trent Wurtz and Jay Tunnell are the pertinent bigs who must become dependable scorers. The sophomore Tunnell averaged 7.7 points per game as a freshman, while Wurtz hauled down a team high 5.9 rebounds per outing. Tunnell appears more likely to dramatically improve given he is in his second season, where growth is common.
Seven new players enter the program. Of that bunch the most important player this year will be Todd McCoy. With junior eligibility, McCoy will attempt to be the dynamic scorer David Moss was. He was 2nd team NJCAA (JuCo) All-American a year ago.
Early practices will be most assuredly be heated as the incoming guards vie for coveted playing time. No backcourt position is nailed down despite Gabriel Moore's respectable sophomore campaign. It is hard to peg a transitory team, but Indiana State welcomes no prized recruits while losing two quality gamers.