“The Valley” is enjoying life on the mountaintop. The Missouri Valley Conference’s RPI was better than the Big 12’s last year, proving that a historically basketball-oriented non-BCS conference can outperform a historically football-oriented BCS conference.
Southern Illinois was awarded a four seed in the 2007 NCAA tournament, the highest seed bestowed on a Valley team in 23 years. The Salukis did the MVC proud, making top-seed Kansas sweat until the final minute of a three-point Jayhawk win in the Sweet 16. Indeed, the conference is now esteemed to the point where all the hype may be the worst enemy of the Valley's teams, as the MVC's most successful coaches continue to cycle through to more prestigious positions, heading in particular to the Big 12 (Mark Turgeon, Greg McDermott) and Big Ten (Matt Painter, Bruce Weber).
True to form, this season again finds many new hires with the title of "Head Coach." No fewer than five fresh arrivals will prowl the sidelines this year in the MVC. (There would be six new faces this season, of course, if Creighton’s Dana Altman hadn’t pulled a Billy Donovan 24 hours after accepting the job at Arkansas.) The coaches won’t be the only newcomers. The Valley is undergoing an unusual amount of turnover on the court as well as on the sidelines. Among high-major and BCS conferences, only the Mountain West and the WAC return fewer of their players’ minutes this year than does the Valley.
What happens to a conference’s style of play when half the coaches and many of the players are brand new? Probably not much. Watch for more of the same this year, though from a somewhat different cast of characters. At 64 possessions per 40 minutes, Valley games are notably slow. Not quite as slow as Big Ten games (62), to be sure, but leisurely nonetheless. As in the Big East last year with Georgetown, the slowest team in the conference also happened to be the best team in the conference. Southern Illinois came in right at 60 possessions per conference game while posting a stellar 15-3 mark in league play. Don’t be fooled, though, by the profile that’s emerging here. Yes, this is a conference with slow games in which the best team is a defensive juggernaut. Speed, more particularly a lack thereof, can be deceiving. Valley games might be slow, but there were some excellent offenses in this league last year. Creighton, obviously, but also Missouri State and the otherwise unassuming Bradley Braves all scored efficiently. Even perpetually unheralded Drake recorded points at a brisk clip (1.07 per possession in MVC play) in the last year of Dr. Tom Davis’s storied career.
In a year of change, however, the rest of the Missouri Valley may well be chasing last year’s winner yet again.
Times are good in Carbondale. SIU has become known nationally for playing outstanding defense, coach Chris Lowery has been given a new seven-year contract and the team’s 43-year-old arena is slated to be remodeled. To keep the good times rolling this season, Lowery will have to replace Jamaal Tatum, who took more shots than any other Saluki last year and hit 41 percent of his threes. That’s no small task, but there are gains still to be realized on offense if Bryan Mullins, Wesley Clemmons and Tyrone Green can simply hold on to the ball. Last year, SIU ended 22 percent of its possessions in the MVC with a turnover. Only Illinois State was more generous in giving away opportunities. If the offense can do its part, this defense will again take the Salukis a long way, thanks in large measure to senior Randal Falker. Though just 6’7”, Falker combined defensive rebounding (20th nationally) and shot-blocking (28th) last year better than any other player in the country, not to mention the fact that he makes 60 percent of his twos. Falker is the best player in the Valley.
After saying "yes" to Arkansas on April 2, Creighton coach Dana Altman said "no" to them on April 3. That meant saying "no" to a roster in Fayetteville that returns nearly 100 percent of last year’s minutes. Instead, Altman will be in Omaha coaching the MVC’s least experienced team. The only returning starter is Dane Watts, a 6’8” senior who did a little of everything for the Bluejays last year. Watts was not only Altman’s best defensive rebounder, he was also the best three-point shooter among the starters. Minutes will now fall to 6’2” senior Nick Bahe and 6’1” junior Josh Dotzler, both of whom (particularly Dotzler) struggled with turnovers last year. Chad Millard, a 6’8” transfer from Louisville, is eligible after redshirting last year. He’ll be joined by 6’9” redshirt freshman Kenny Lawson, Jr., who sat out all but two games last year with tendinitis. The backcourt will add freshman P'Allen Stinnett, a 6’3” shooting guard from Las Vegas who, in some circles, is the highest-rated recruit to arrive in the MVC this season.
This team scored very efficiently last year, thanks to a lot of twos by Nate Funk and Anthony Tolliver. With both now gone, the Bluejay offense doesn’t figure to be as productive. If Altman can get his inexperienced group to continue playing D--which they, in fact, did quite well last year while the offense garnered most of the praise--Creighton will once again finish near the top of the Valley.
At first glance, the Bears were an unlucky team in 2007. They were, of course, left on the outside looking in come tournament time. Though Barry Hinson’s team sported the best point differential per possession in the conference, the Bears finished three full games out of first, behind not only Southern Illinois but also Creighton. Make no mistake, Missouri State was indeed among the conference elite. Still, this may well be one of those cases where the numbers lead us slightly astray, for it turns out that a good deal of the Bears’ attractiveness on paper can be traced to just one game, their 106-54 annihilation of Evansville at home on January 9. A 52-point win will do wonders for your point differential, tempo-free or otherwise. That aside, Missouri State’s year in 2007 was pretty easy to summarize: including the conference tournament, it was 13-2 against MVC opponents besides Southern Illinois and Creighton. Against those two, the Bears went 0-5.
Getting over that hump in 2008 will be tough. Hinson’s team will have to replace the points produced last year by the now-departed duo of Blake Ahearn and Tyler Chaney, who combined to shoot 44 percent from outside while launching about 10 threes a game. In their absence, keep an eye on undersized big man and local favorite Deven Mitchell. With the possible exception of Kent State’s Haminn Quaintance, Mitchell combines excellence in defensive rebounding and steals better than any other player in the country.
Eric Coleman is one of the best defensive rebounders in the nation. Considering he’s only 6’6”, that’s saying a good deal. Coleman also takes on a large share of his team’s possessions on offense and performs capably. (Iffy free-throw shooting is pretty much all that keeps him from being a bona fide threat on both sides of the ball.) Still, the departure of Grant Stout leaves a big hole. The 6’8” Stout was the team’s most efficient offensive weapon, its best shot-blocker and, like Coleman, one of the finest defensive rebounders in D-I. Even with Stout on hand last year, the Panthers’ offense was merely average. Coach Ben Jacobson’s style (like that of his predecessor, Greg McDermott) puts a priority on transition defense and largely does without offensive rebounds. It’s a style that can work well so long as turnovers are low. As it happens, however, UNI gave the ball away on exactly one in every five possessions in-conference. That’s not awful, but combined with the absence of offensive boards, it meant there were simply too few chances to score in Cedar Falls last year. This year, if Jacobson can find a legitimate outside threat, Northern Iowa can do some damage in the Valley. Adam Viet is one possibility. The 6’3” senior averaged just 13 minutes a game last year, but did hit 42 percent of his threes. Viet will be joined by new arrival Carlton Reed. A former Iowa Mr. Basketball, the 6’4” Reed will be eligible this season after sitting out last year as a transfer from Steve Alford-era Iowa.
If you like points, Bradley games were fun to watch last year. The Braves couldn’t miss. Neither could their opponents. Bradley bombed away from the perimeter and its opponents pounded the ball inside. Both strategies worked, as both sides in MVC games involving BU verged on scoring 1.1 points per trip. This year, coach Jim Les will be without half of last year’s eight-man rotation, but he still has two key players returning in Jeremy Crouch and Daniel Ruffin. Crouch had offseason shoulder surgery; Les has to hope the doctors didn’t harm the 6’5” senior’s shooting stroke, as Crouch shot 50 percent on his threes last year. Senior point guard Ruffin compares quite favorably with the more widely renowned D.J. Augustin at Texas. The 5’11” Augustin is a better perimeter shooter, but the 5’10” Ruffin is significantly more likely to record a steal and takes much better care of the ball. Ruffin’s handle was indicative of his team’s strength, as the Braves committed a turnover on fewer than 16 percent of their possessions against Valley opponents, far and away the best mark in the conference. Bradley will continue to score points. Whether they continue to give up points will define this team’s postseason destination.
Tim Jankovich served as an assistant for the last four seasons at Kansas, where the defense has been consistently outstanding lately. Now the first-year head coach at Illinois State, Jankovich has vowed to improve the Redbirds’ D, one that allowed Valley opponents to ring up 1.07 points per trip last year. He’ll want to start on the perimeter, from where ISU’s opponents hit 39 percent of their threes in 2007. There’s even more room for improvement in Normal on the other side of the ledger. ISU gave away the ball on 23 percent of its possessions in the Valley last year, too much to overcome for an offense that was merely average shooting the ball. Boo Richardson, Jankovich’s 5’8” senior point guard, will help this team greatly if he can simply cut down on his turnovers.
One thing the new coach does have going in his favor, however, is experience. ISU returns five of its top six players from last year. At a time when much of the conference will be relying on newcomers, this bodes very well for the Redbirds. One of those seniors, Levi Dyer, can be filed under “unique.” In effect, he’s a 6’11” small forward. The Colorado native shoots almost exactly as many threes as twos, and hits 48 percent from beyond the arc.
It’s been more than six months since the Shockers said goodbye to Mark Turgeon, now at Texas A&M, and welcomed new coach Gregg Marshall, who made Winthrop synonymous with mid-major success. Marshall’s new team is relatively inexperienced, but as we’ve seen, so is the conference as a whole. The first order of business for the new coach will be to find this team’s identity. In 2007, Wichita State went 8-10 in the conference without displaying any particular strength or weakness. It was average across the board. For above-average performance in 2008, Marshall will look to two seniors: Matt Braeuer is solid with the ball and hits the few threes he takes as a classic pass-first point guard, and P.J. Couisnard is a model of cross-position excellence. At 6’4”, Couisnard hits the defensive glass and blocks shots like a power forward. He shoots a couple threes a game and does alright (35 percent). He makes 55 percent of his twos while being one of the Shockers’ best assist men. Couisnard is the Chuck Bednarik of D-I, surely, but the fact that he’s 6’4” and a vital part of his team’s interior defense highlights a concern in Wichita: this team’s lack of size.
Last year, the Sycamores made their noise early in the season, beating both Butler and Purdue before starting 4-1 in the MVC. Come March, however, ISU found itself in last place in the conference. What happened over those final 13 games? Reality. ISU was more lucky than good in its first five conference games; it managed to go 4-1 despite making less than 40 percent of its twos and barely outscoring its opponents. When the Sycamores' threes stopped falling and opponents started making theirs, the roof fell in. Don’t blame a young team’s fatigue. Or if you do, label it a curious and selective form of fatigue, which made itself felt in shooting and in FG defense but not in rebounding or turnovers. Now first-year coach Kevin McKenna, formerly an assistant at Creighton, is installing a new system in Terre Haute. His first priority should be improvement on offense, where the Sycamores managed just 0.94 points per trip in conference play last year. No other MVC team came in under a point per possession. There are, however, a couple of bright spots. Even as overwhelmed freshmen last year, guards Cole Holmstrom and Marico Stinson proved they can take care of the ball. Six-foot-six junior Adam Arnold is a voracious defensive rebounder.
The Purple Aces were the best three-point shooting team in the Valley in 2007. More good news: they attained this distinction thanks in large part to a sophomore, 5’11” point guard Jason Holsinger. New coach Marty Simmons has several positives in place thanks to just one player who figures to be around for two more seasons. Holsinger gives his coach deadly perimeter shooting (44 percent on his threes last year), an excellent assist rate and reliable ball handling, all of which will be important for two reasons. First, there are a lot of points to be replaced with the departure of Matt Webster. Last year, just four players in all of D-I went to the line more frequently than did the 6’8” Webster, who shot 73 percent when he got there. Second, this team had serious issues on defense in 2007. The Aces ranked dead last in the MVC in forcing turnovers, as almost 83 percent of conference opponents’ possessions ended with shots. All those shots meant Evansville gave up 1.09 points per trip in-conference. Only Drake was more permissive on D. Speaking of which…
In each of the last seven seasons the Bulldogs have won between five and seven games in the MVC, including last year when they went 6-12. Yet for a team with such a record, Drake had a strangely good offense. Just Missouri State, Creighton and Bradley scored more efficiently in MVC play. One might therefore presume that the Bulldogs had some problems on defense. That would be putting it mildly. Opponents riddled Drake with made shots from all over the floor, hitting 54 percent of their twos and an absolutely unreal 43 percent of their threes. The Bulldogs’ conference opponents last year shot better than Florida did in the SEC. It didn't matter, therefore, that Drake was adequate on the defensive glass and forced a fair number of turnovers. In his final year at the helm, coach Tom Davis watched as his team gave up 1.15 points per possession in the Valley. This performance on defense was extreme enough to virtually guarantee improvement this year under first-year coach Keno Davis (son of the former coach). Improvement on defense may well be offset by a decline in the offense, as the next-generation Davis seeks to replace both his team’s main offensive weapon (Ajay Calvin) and its point guard (Al Stewart) from last year. The possessions on offense will now fall to 6’5” senior Klayton Korver and 6’1” sophomore Josh Young.
Given the unusual degree of turnover in both the coaching ranks and on the floor, forecasting the MVC this season is tricky. That being said, Southern Illinois looks like a solid favorite, even without Jamaal Tatum. The Salukis might not be quite as good as they were last year, but it’s not clear who in the Valley is going to be better than SIU this year.
2007 Pythag % Returning 2008
Team Wins Minutes Prediction
Southern Illinois 13.1 68.2 13-5
Creighton 12.9 35.8 11-7
Missouri St. 13.3 54.4 11-7
Northern Iowa 8.9 64.5 10-8
Bradley 9.3 45.3 9-9
Illinois St. 6.3 74.5 9-9
Wichita St. 8.8 48.7 8-10
Indiana St. 4.0 84.3 7-11
Evansville 7.6 43.2 5-13
Drake 5.9 43.1 5-13
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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