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.”
“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.”
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.
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.
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.”
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.