October 30, 2013

Wichita State men unanimous MVC favorite

Coming off a Final Four appearance, Wichita State is the unanimous favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball title.

Coming off a Final Four appearance, Wichita State is the unanimous favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball title.

The Shockers (30-9 last season) received all 40 first-place votes. Coaches, sports information directors, beat writers and radio broadcasters from each of the 10 MVC schools vote. WSU is favored for the first time since 2011.

WSU’s women’s team was picked second behind Indiana State. The Shockers went 24-10 last season and shared the MVC title with Creighton before both teams advanced to the NCAA Tournament. WSU swept the preseason Player of the Year awards. Senior forward Cleanthony Early is the pick on the men’s side. Junior guard Alex Harden is the women’s selection. Sophomore guard Ron Baker joined Early on the All-MVC team.

Coaches and players from all 10 MVC schools met in Chicago for media day Wednesday at the Gentile Center, home court of Loyola, new conference member.

The Shockers are ready to play with the role of favorite.

“We're already prepared for something like that,” Early said. “We know we've got a lot to protect.”

Stay the course — MVC commissioner Doug Elgin admitted Creighton’s departure to the Big East hurts. He sounded confident the conference will continue to prosper as one of the top basketball-focused groups in the country, pointedly reminding the guests that Creighton, for all its success, never advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

“We are not defined by a single institution,” he said. “We've had remarkable balance throughout our history. Loyola is going to learn going (traveling) around the league that this is a basketball league.”

In the middle — A panel discussion with coaches and broadcasters covered scheduling, TV exposure, and the new officiating emphasis on cutting down defensive contact.

WSU coach Gregg Marshall renewed his objections to the mid-major label.

“We have a lot of high-major qualities at Wichita State and in the Valley,” Marshall said. “If we're so mid-major, why won't these high-major people play us?”

The officiating received a lot of attention, with coaches predicting long games and lots of free throws. Loyola players are practicing defense with tennis balls in their hands to prevent them from touching the dribbler. Northern Iowa women’s coach Tonya Warren said the Panthers played a closed scrimmage in which both teams shot 30-plus free throws.

New kids — The Loyola men are picked ninth. The women are picked sixth.

Christian Thomas, a junior forward on the men’s team, didn’t expect MVC voters to rank the Ramblers highly.

“We feel like we're not getting a lot of respect,” he said. “I'm expecting to come in and compete right away. It's important for us to come in and show we belong.”

The Ramblers went 15-16 last season, 5-11 in the Horizon League. The women’s team went 17-15, 10-6.

New pace — Northern Iowa’s men’s team is normally patient and deliberate on offense. That might change this season with the addition of guard Wes Washpun, a transfer from Tennessee.

With Washpun and returner Deon Mitchell at point guard, the Panthers might own the ingredients to move more quickly.

“(Washpun) might be the fastest kid I've ever played with or against,” UNI forward Seth Tuttle said. “It's going to be fast. We're going to pick the tempo up a little bit and see what we can do.”

On top to start — WSU’s men are the preseason favorite for the fourth time since 1985-86. It’s not a good omen.

In 1989, the Shockers finished second behind Creighton. In 2004, they again finished second, this time to Southern Illinois. In 2011, Missouri State won the title with WSU the runner-up. In all three seasons, the Shockers played in the NIT.

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