2011-12 was supposed to be the season the Missouri Valley finally got back to sending multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament and re-assert itself as the undisputed king conference of mid-major basketball. One of those things happened, as Wichita State garnered the league's first at-large bid since 2007. However, no other team from the middle of the conference established itself as a bubble team, leaving the Valley as nothing more than a two-headed monster from late January on.
For the first time in its existence, the Missouri Valley had two teams ranked in both major polls at the same time during the postseason when Creighton and Wichita State achieved the feat in February. Unfortunately, the lack of the parity at the top that the conference had been known for contributed most to the achievement. The Shockers and Bluejays were the only teams to finish above .500 in the final Valley standings, which left the remaining eight teams in a do-or-die situation during Arch Madness.
The theme heading into the 2012-13 season is once again one which is noticeably void of parity. Creighton returns a First-Team All-American and just about all of his supporting cast, a pair of facts which have the Bluejays poised to begin the season both as the clear favorites in the Valley and nationally ranked. After that, however, the conference picture becomes incredibly muddled.
2011-12 CONFERENCE STANDINGS
CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT CHAMPION
2) Creighton defeated 4) Illinois State (83-79 in overtime)
NCAA TOURNAMENT RESULTS
5) Wichita State (at-large): Lost to 12) VCU (62-59)
8) Creighton (automatic): Defeated 9) Alabama (58-57); lost to 1) North Carolina (87-73)
THREE BIGGEST OFFSEASON STORYLINES
1. Preseason National Player of the Year from the Valley?
Creighton's Doug McDermott is the only 2012 First-Team All-American returning to college basketball, so it stands to reason that he would enter next season as the preseason National Player of the Year favorite. Whether or not that actually comes to fruition will be one of the more intriguing aspects of the early fall.
Two non-BCS programs (three if you count Utah in '05) have produced Naismith Award winners over the past decade: Saint Joseph's with Jameer Nelson in 2004, and BYU with Jimmer Fredette in 2011. Though statistics indicate that Creighton is a program at least on par with both the Hawks and Cougars, the public perception doesn't follow. St. Joe's plays in the A-10 and BYU is one of the more well-known overall athletic programs in the country, while CU plays in the Valley and, fairly or unfairly, is far more firmly entrenched under the "mid-major" umbrella.
Though McDermott has the credentials, the statistics and the game to garner more preseason love than any other individual player in the country, expect "Can a player from the Valley really deserve this?" to emerge as a hot debate nationally, beginning at some point in the middle of the summer. If he's putting up out-of-this-world numbers again during the non-conference portion of the season, then the controversy will intensify appropriately.
2. The abrupt end of the Chris Lowery era
It seems like just yesterday Southern Illinois was the hottest mid-major program in college basketball and Chris Lowery was one of the sport's most sought-after young coaches.
After guiding the Salukis to the Sweet 16 in 2007, Lowery turned down a handful of coaching opportunities from BCS conference programs to stay in Carbondale. Those who questioned the move proved to be correct in doing so, as Lowery never led SIU back to the big dance and was fired in March after posting an 8-23 season, the worst in program history.
Lowery's replacement is the same man who once gave him fits on the sidelines. During Barry Hinson's nine seasons at Missouri State, the Bears accounted for 10 of Southern Illinois' 40 conference losses. That's one quarter, for those who enjoy simplified factoids but detest basic math.
"What we're going to be able to accomplish is going to be spectacular," siad Hinson, who signed a five-year deal worth a reported $1.5 million in late March.
He'd probably settle for satisfactory in his first season.
3. Mountain West/Missouri Valley Challenge fails to please
Complaints about an inability to gain the national spotlight have been a theme in the Valley for years now, which is part of the reason the league signed a four-year deal in 2008 to play games against teams from the Mountain West. Unfortunately, since the deal stipulates that no teams can play each other more than once, this year's matchups are, to put it mildly, less-than stellar.
League favorite Creighton will face MWC bottom-feeder Boise State, while top contenders Wichita State and Illinois State take on the almost equally unappealing duo of Air Force and Wyoming.
Missouri Valley associate commissioner Mike Kern has already said that the deal with the Mountain West will not be renewed when the challenge contract runs out after next season.
EARLY PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
McDermott's return is the understandable theme of the offseason, but big man Gregory Echenique and versatile guard Grant Gibbs are the reason the Bluejays are a top 20 preseason team as opposed to a one-man freak show. If Creighton improves its effort on the defensive end considerably this season, it can absolutely become a team that takes that next step into the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
2. Illinois State
It's been a tumultuous offseason for Illinois State, which first lost Tim Jankovich to a coach-in-waiting deal at SMU, and then star freshman point guard Nic Moore to transfer. Still, former Vanderbilt assistant Dan Muller has more than enough pieces in place to at least make a run at earning an NCAA Tournament bid. Senior forward Jackie Carmichael might be the only player in the league capable of going toe-to-toe with McDermott in the post.
3. Wichita State
It's hard to know what to do with a team that dominated the league last year but lost its top five scorers. Thankfully, Gregg Marshall was able to bring in talented Oregon transfer Malcolm Armstead to soften the blow. The Shockers will take a step down, but it's hard to envision Marshall allowing that step to be overly steep.
4. Northern Iowa
The Panthers were almost too balanced last season, as seven players averaged better than six points per game, but just one was in double figures. The good news for Ben Jacobson is that only one of those seven players (Johnny Moran) was a senior.
Scoring was never the problem last season for the Purple Aces, who return Colt Ryan and his 20.2 ppg for another year. Unfortunately, EU couldn't keep anyone else from lighting up the scoreboard and was one of the worst rebounding teams in Division-I. They'll compete in the top-tier of the league if they develop any sort of inside presence.
6. Missouri State
It can easily be argued that no team lost more at the end of last season than Missouri State, which graduated All-Valley forward Kyle Weems and second-leading scorer Caleb Patterson. The talented senior duo of Anthony Downing and Jamar Gulley must step up for the Bears to be competitive in the league.
7. Indiana State
They Sycamores were a bit of a disappointment last season, but the return of junior Jake Odum is cause for optimism. Odum was the only player in the Valley to average at least 11 points, six boards and five assists last year.
9. Southern Illinois
The Braves will be better in 2012-13, which is an easy thing to say when a team has gone 2-16 in a league the year before.
EARLY PREDICTED ALL-MISSOURI VALLEY TEAM
G Grant Gibbs, Creighton
G Ben Simons, Drake
G Malcolm Armstead, Wichita State
F Doug McDermott, Creighton
F Jackie Carmichael, Illinois State
ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Fred Van Fleet, Wichita State
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: Doug McDermott, Creighton