There was some realignment during the offseason and the biggest loser was the Missouri Valley Conference, which watched Wichita State bolt for the American Athletic Conference. The Shockers’ departure paved the way for Valparaiso to enter the league, which now seems like a dogfight with several solid but not great teams battling for an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
Illinois State was left out of the dance last year despite a conference record of 17-1, mostly because a home win against Wichita State was the Redbirds’ lone marquee win. Though the team will not have to go through the Shockers to win the conference, it must overcome the loss of all three double-digit scorers from last year.
Six-foot-9 forward Phil Fayne is the team's top returning player, accruing 9.1 points and 6.3 rebounds per game as the leader of a frontcourt that held opponents to the fifth-lowest field-goal percentage in D-I basketball. Illinois State compiled a 28-7 record last season thanks in large part to its defense holding foes to 61.3 points per game, the seventh-best mark in the country.
Redbirds coach Dan Muller is banking on junior-college transfer Zach Copeland being an instant impact scorer. The 6-foot-4 guard averaged 18.7 points while making 47.7 percent of his 3s. The team also needs 6-foot-6 transfer William Tinsley to be a difference-maker after he had 15.5 points and 5.4 rebounds per game with 38.9 percent 3-point shooting efficiency. Another boost could come from St. Louis transfer Milik Yarbrough.
Muller should have plenty of size to continue to play a tough defensive style with 6-foot-9 UTEP transfer Christian Romine now eligible and defensive specialist Daouda Ndiaye back for his junior year after averaging 1.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game.
Despite the key personnel losses, Illinois State should be among the conference's elite and collect at least 20 wins.
In perhaps a first for a conference that has at least 90 percent of its members returning, Illinois State is the only squad that had a record above .500 in conference play a year ago. One of those teams that finished right at .500 is Northern Iowa.
Though the Panthers lose star Jeremy Morgan, most of the team is back with several players having the experience of being in the NCAA Tournament at least once. It is easy to forget Northern Iowa won a game in both the 2015 and 2016 NCAA Tournaments and was at one point ranked in the top 10 of the polls during the 2014-15 season.
One of those players with tournament experience is senior Bennett Koch, who coach Ben Jacobson is leaning on to be a team leader. The 6-foot-9 forward performed at a high level when he was on the court last year, notching 11 points per game, but foul trouble limited him to 20.3 minutes per game.
Jacobson has tried to mold 6-foot-7 stretch player Klint Carlson into a similar stretch player to what Morgan was, but the experiment has not gone especially well. As a junior, he made just 25.3 percent of his 3s though his 4.9 rebounds per game were of great help. He also had 8.3 points and 2.1 assists last year, both improvements from his sophomore season.
Carlson's struggles leave the team relying on North Dakota transfer Adam McDermott and transfer Miles Wentzien to be deep threats. The 6-foot-3 Wentzien was a JUCO All-American last year with 14.8 points, 6.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game all while converting 45 percent of his 3s.
The team also gets an addition of a different kind with guard Wyatt Lohaus being ready to roll. After being a jack of all trades for the team during the 2015-16 season, he was limited to just six games last year due to injury and was granted a medical redshirt to retain his junior status.
His loss was the gain of Spencer Haldeman, who saw more minutes than expected as a freshman. His 35.4 percent shooting from the field needs work, but he is an 86 percent free throw shooter and notched 7.6 points per game.
If sophomore big men Luke McDonnell and Justin Dahl canspell Koch off the bench, Northern Iowa should have the depth needed to be a 20 win team his year. Even in a down year, the Panthers were 26th in the nation in fewest points per game allowed and held opponents to the fewest free-throw attempts of any team in the country.
Valparaiso is the conference newcomer and should make a run at the top spot immediately. The Crusaders have won 22 or more games in six of the past seven seasons and are coming off a 24-9 season.
Their roster has turned over a lot, especially with 6-foot-9 stretch player Alec Peters and 6-foot-7 Shane Hammink out of eligibility. They were the top two players on the team last year in points and assists, with Peters also being the top rebounder.
Those huge losses means it will be Tevonn Walker's team this year, and he’s coming off a season in which he had 11.9 points and 5.6 rebounds. The question now becomes, who will pass him the ball? One of the team's main ball-handlers, Lexus Williams, transferred to Boise State during the spring. That leaves it up to senior Max Joseph, who had 5.7 points and 1.8 assists per game as a solid complimentary backcourt piece a season ago.
If the team can get contributions from Nebraska transfer Bakari Evelyn and Oklahoma State transfer Joe Burton, the backcourt should have a good amount of options to choose from to make jumpers. Evelyn did not see much playing time in one season in the Big Ten, while Burton had 4.7 points per game as a sophomore during the 2015-16 season while making 39.7 percent of his 3s.
The team will have plenty of size down low and a world of potential, but not a lot of experience.
Sophomores Jaume Sorolla and Derrik Smits, the son of former NBA center Rik Smits, had a combined 8.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game last year. With those two standing 6-foot-11 and 7-foot-1, respectively, they should discourage many foes from driving into the paint.
If three-star 6-foot-7 stretch player Parker Hazen can either start at small forward or be a priority reserve, Valparaiso will be one of the most dangerous mid-major teams in America.
Crusaders coach Matt Lottich has all the weapons to chase down a fourth straight conference title, and if he can put the pieces of this puzzle together, it should led to a trip to the NCAA Tournament.
About 10 years ago, Southern Illinois was a mid-major juggernaut. From 2002-07, the team made six straight NCAA Tournament appearances, but the Salukis have not been back to the dance since.
The team was 17-16 last year and loses just two players to graduation. Southern Illinois was not built on jump shooting as the team ranked 323rd in the country in 3-point field-goal percentage and 288th in total assists.
It will be a big-man dominant team again this year with 6-foot-6 Sean O'Brien running the show. He was second on the team in scoring and assists with 11.8 points and 2.7 dimes per game and was the top rebounder, pulling down 8.5. O'Brien is an effective forward, but not a prolific shot blocker like 6-foot-9 Thik Bol, who had 9.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and a team-high 2.3 blocks per game last year.
As for the backcourt, junior Armen Fletcher is a versatile player who averaged 11.8 points and 4.8 rebounds. The team also needs a big year from junior Sean Lloyd, who was the team's top 3-point shooter last year while knocking down 34.8 percent of his shots from behind the arc.
While coach Barry Hinson is doing a solid job with this program and is getting more guys to stick around, the lack of outside shooting is a major issue that will prevent the Salukis from being in the hunt for a conference title.
Loyola Chicago went 18-14 last season, going just 8-10 in conference play, after a 10-2 start thanks to winning the Virgin Islands Paradise Jam. Most of the roster is back from a year ago, with the exception of star guard Milton Doyle.
The absence of Doyle means stretch player Donte Ingram and undersized 6-foot-5 forward Aundre Jackson will have to build off of their big junior years. The two combined for 27.5 points and 11 rebounds with each converting over 45 percent of their 3s.
The team has a guard with a similar skill set to Doyle in Fairleigh Dickinson transfer Marques Townes. The 6-foot-4 guard sat out the 2016-17 season due to NCAA transfer rules but managed 11.5 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game on a team that made the NCAA Tournament in 2015-16.
Loyola Chicago's starting five is among the best in the conference, but its lack of big men and depth is a massive problem. If two freshmen forwards can become impact players, the Ramblers could win the conference. But if young players fail to develop, this will likely be a team hovering around .500.
The Bradley Braves did not have a single senior on its roster last year, and it showed as the team went 13-20. The team was streaky, losing six straight in the middle of conference play but winning four straight before the season concluded in the conference tournament.
Though a few players decided to transfer, all of third-year coach Brian Wardle's key pieces are back, including leading scorer Darrell Brown. He was the team's only double-figure scorer last year with 12.6 points, and he hit 37 percent of his 3s. Six-foot-5 senior JoJo McGlaston will be his main backcourt helper after averaging 8.1 points and 3.8 rebounds.
Bradley displayed one of the nation's worst offenses last year, with its 65.5 points per game ranking 322nd in the country. But this team has many of the tools needed to reach 20 wins and be one of the top teams in the conference, but until Wardle finds a point guard, the Braves will continue to be a sub-.500 club.
After a 25-win season in 2015-16 and being defeated in the conference tournament final by Northern Iowa on a buzzer beater, Evansville lost of a bunch of seniors. It showed as the team posted a 16-17 record while going just 6-12 in conference play.
The team was uneven to say the least as Jaylon Brown logged nearly 37 minutes per game as a senior, leading the way with 20.9 points while making a team-high 42.7 percent of his 3s. More responsibility is on Duane Gibson's shoulders to be a team leader and increase his production. The Aces need a few players to step up, and 6-foot-6 freshman Evan Kuhlman will need to be a gamer.
Evansville is clearly in rebuilding mode. It would not be surprising to see this team lose more than 20 games given all the departures.
Missouri State had a quality 17-16 season and is looking for more with star player Alize Johnson back for his senior year after flirting with the NBA Draft process.
Johnson, a 6-foot-9 forward, averaged 14.8 points and 10.6 rebounds while converting 38.8 percent of his 3s. The team did get some good news with 5-foot-11 guard Ronnie Rousseau III announcing he will return. He played the first 14 games, but stepped away for the remainder of the season for personal reasons, averaging 11.6 points, 2.9 rebounds and 2.1 assists before his absence.
With Jarred Dixon also returning to the backcourt, this team could have one of the best starting fives in the Missouri Valley.
The Bears bring in 7-foot-2, 285-pound New Mexico State graduate transfer Tanveer Bhullar, who rarely played at the WAC school despite his older brother Sim Bhullar being one of the programs most outstanding and noteworthy players ever. If he can stay injury free and not get into frequent foul trouble, his frame should cause problems for almost every opponent Missouri State faces.
Missouri State could challenge for 25 wins, and it could be the Bears and Valparaiso fighting it out for the right to go to the NCAA Tournament.
Larry Bird's former team, Indiana State, went a paltry 11-20 last year and is in search of just its second win in the NCAA Tournament since Bird led the program to the 1979 NCAA championship game.
Three of the Sycamores’ top four scorers from last year are out of eligibility but they are getting back the best of the bunch in 6-foot-1 guard Brenton Scott, who averaged o15.9 points, 4.9 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
The team's biggest man of mystery is 6-foot-6 Qiydar Davis, who comes over from Louisiana Tech as a graduate transfer. Indiana State should be improved from last year, but nowhere near good enough to get into one of the top spots in the conference.
Drake is a program in turmoil as the Bulldogs went 7-24 last year and went through a mid-season coaching change with Jeff Rutter replacing Ray Giacoletti after a 1-7 start. Neither of those men are coaching the team this season, as Niko Medved was hired from Furman in the offseason.
He managed to get Furman a share of its regular-season league title for the first time since the 1974-75 season by winning 23 games. Medved takes over a team that only loses one key player due to either graduation or transfer.
Drake struggled in most facets last season, ranking 320th in field-goal shooting percentage, 288th in points per game allowed, 300th in total blocks and 280th in fouls committed. T.J Thomas, a 6-foot-8 senior, should see tons of playing time after averaging six points and a team-best 5.1 rebounds per game last season. Fellow forwards Nick McGlynn and Casey Schlatter figure to also receive more playing time after they combined for 9.3 points and 6.8 rebounds as sophomores.
Though the team will go into the post more this year, guards Reed Timmer and De'Antae McMurray still will need to set the table. Timmer was the team's top scorer last year with 15.3 points. Drake is a bottom-tier conference team, but things seem to going in the right direction with a coach with a track record of improving mediocre programs.
The Missouri Valley was a one-bid league last year, and that’s probably true again. Illinois State has tons of production to replace, which means Valparaiso and Missouri State should be the class of the conference.
Greg Peterson’s Missouri Valley Conference forecast:
2. Missouri State
3. Northern Iowa
4. Illinois State
5. Loyola Chicago
6. Southern Illinois
7. Indiana State