ST. LOUIS — Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich believed Osiris Eldridge. A look into the NBA still made Jankovich nervous.
It would only take one agent getting in Eldridge's ear to make a mess. Jankovich didn't think NBA teams would pick Eldridge highly enough to justify skipping his senior season.
"I didn't want him taking bad advice from others," Jankovich said. "There's a lot of people trying to make money."
Fortunately for Jankovich — and the Missouri Valley Conference — Eldridge is back after withdrawing his name from the NBA Draft pool. He is the preseason Player of the Year for the second straight year.
"I really had no intention of leaving," Eldridge said. "I just used the pre-draft stuff as a gauge to see where I was at against the other competition."
NBA evaluations told Eldridge he possesses the physical tools to play. He still has some work to do.
"They told me to play my game and don't get caught up in, when you come to the league, being a point guard or a shooting guard — just play your game," he said. "They told me I needed to become more of a playmaker and not just worry about scoring. They also said I needed to get a more consistent jump shot and work on my ball handling."
Eldridge averaged 14 points and 6.2 rebounds as a junior. Jankovich said Eldridge will handle the ball more this season and play some point guard.
Countdown clock — Wichita State's teams are entering their second week of practices. The men face outside competition on Sunday when they scrimmage Kansas State. The women won't face another team until their exhibition game against Newman on Nov. 8.
That may be fitting for the experience of the respective teams. The women's team is mixing in eight newcomers with three returners.
"There is a lot of teaching going on," WSU senior Ashley Gladden said. "We're learning how to put the new faces in our game and our system."
All three returners agree the chemistry of the team is improved over 2008-09, coach Jody Adams' first season. The mixture of holdovers from the Jane Albright era and new recruits didn't blend well, resulting in a lot of turnover in the offseason.
"We grew very close over the summertime," Gladden said. "We stuck through things when they got a little tough in conditioning. Now we're trying to put that off-the-court chemistry together as a team."
The conditioning and competitive practices built a sense that the players can count on each other, senior Marisah Henderson said.
"We have to know that we have each other's back at the end of the day," she said.
The men's team, with nine returners, is moving along more quickly.
"We're getting better at shot selection," senior Clevin Hannah said. "Our freshmen, they're picking up on it slowly. We're just trying to get better day by day."
Buy some paint — MVC men's coaches expressed different opinions on the rule change that prohibits a secondary defender from drawing a charge while standing under the basket.
Some like it. Some don't. Some believe it will cut down on injuries. Some worry referees now must pay attention to feet while also watching hands chop at the ball. They all agree the NCAA needs to paint a circle under the hoop to help officials make the call.
"I don't think it's the right rule, especially if they're not going to mark the floor," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. Officials "don't need another thing to be thinking about."
WSU coach Gregg Marshall likes the change because it should reward the offensive player who dribbled to the basket.
"At that point, I feel like the player deserves the opportunity to finish his shot, if he's gotten that far," Marshall said. "You put down a line for the three-point shot. You put down a line for a free throw. Why wouldn't you put down a line for a rule such as this?"
Out of Iowa — The Valley's highest-profile newcomers are transfers from the University of Iowa. There is no sense in downplaying expectations for Tony Freeman at Southern Illinois or Jake Kelly at Indiana State.
Coaches, media and sports information directors voted Freeman on the six-player preseason all-conference team. Kelly received votes.
"It doesn't mean anything," Freeman said. "It's good to get those awards after the season, after you've won some games."
Freeman, a senior guard, averaged 13.8 points for Iowa in 2008 and sat out last season. Kelly, a junior guard, averaged 11.6 points as a sophomore. The NCAA gave him immediate eligibility due to a death in the family.
"He's a 6-6 point guard that can stretch the floor," teammate Rashad Reed said. "With (guard) Harry Marshall out there too, it's really going to stretch the floor and free people up for certain plays."
Old dogs — For many reasons, Southern Illinois didn't play the type of defense it likes last season. The Salukis were young, small and lost the Valley's top defender (Bryan Mullins) to injury.
Coach Chris Lowery expects that to change this season. Jack Crowder, from Wichita Southeast High, is one reason. Crowder, a 6-foot-4 junior transfer from Cowley College, became even more important when Lowery was forced to boot guard Ryan Hare from the team this fall.
Crowder averaged 20.6 points and 7.9 rebounds at Cowley.
"We haven't had an athlete like that in a very long time," Lowery said. "We couldn't guard anybody from 6-5 to 6-7. Now we feel we can."
Us vs. Them — The Valley begins its challenge series with the Mountain West on Nov. 13 when Bradley plays at Brigham Young. It wraps up when Wyoming travels to Northern Iowa on Dec. 23.
Next season, the series will be played the first week of December, from Wednesday to Saturday or Sunday. That will make the series easier to follow.
"I think it's a great step for both leagues," MVC commissioner Doug Elgin said. "I hope it goes beyond four years."
The MVC is discussing a women's challenge series with the Mid-American Conference. It would likely match the top four teams, not all conference schools.
Worth noting — Northern Iowa is the men's favorite for the first time since the 2005-06 season. The Panthers finished in a tie for fifth. The preseason favorite hasn't won the title outright since 2005 (Southern Illinois). Preseason favorite Creighton tied for the title in 2009.... WSU's fifth-place prediction is its highest rank since third in 2007.... The WSU women have been picked ninth or 10th three straight seasons.... Bradley scrimmages DePaul on Saturday in Peoria, Ill.... Missouri State senior guard Justin Fuehermeyer will miss 2-3 weeks with a fractured right thumb. The Bears open the season on Nov. 16 against Auburn.... Evansville forward James Haarsma is out through November with a stress fracture in his foot.