Bradley coach Geno Ford watched Garrett Stutz play in 2012 and looked forward to the day he graduated from Wichita State.
Then he watched Wichita State go to the Final Four in 2013 and win 35 straight games last season. It didn’t matter who wore the Shocker uniform.
“They just go out and get more good players,” Ford said. “They’re not backing up for any of us. They’ve gotten better and better.”
Missouri Valley Conference coaches spent Tuesday morning on their annual summer conference call and much of the discussion focused on the Shockers. After finishing second in 2013, WSU went 18-0 in the Valley last season and won the conference tournament. Without Creighton around, everybody is wondering which team can emerge as an obstacle to WSU’s dominance.
“Wichita State has set a bar,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “Everybody is chasing that extremely hard. The level of recruiting has really been amped up.”
While excitement over newcomers is standard for the summer, the MVC’s improvement will likely develop because of experience. If a team or two is to challenge WSU and build a strong NCAA at-large resume, its returners are the key. Illinois State coach Dan Muller came close to guaranteeing the conference would produce multiple NCAA teams.
The MVC returns 36 players with starting experience after a season in which 70 percent of its scoring and rebounding came from non-seniors. Four of the six players who earned All-MVC honors are back.
Several teams can make a claim for finishing second behind WSU and, perhaps, ending its 21-game winning streak against conference opponents. Northern Iowa returns five seniors, including All-MVC forward Seth Tuttle. Evansville returns five starters, including the MVC’s top scorer (guard D.J. Balentine) and rebounder (Egidijus Mockevicius). Missouri State guard Marcus Marshall is healthy after a knee injury ended his season while he averaged 14.3 points.
WSU returns three starters, plus All-Newcomer team member Darius Carter. Guards Fred VanVleet, the Player of the Year, and Ron Baker and forward Tekele Cotton, the Defensive Player of the Year, give coach Gregg Marshall a foundation that will make the Shockers an easy preseason choice as the favorite.
“You’ve got a bunch of us who are going to be a year older,” Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. “We’re going to much stronger across the board. That needs to show up in our non-conference play.”
The stability in the MVC extends to the bench. All 10 coaches return for the first time since 2009-10.
“When I came into the league, we were certainly not on the top,” Marshall said. “It’s cyclical. We can’t worry about the other teams. We have to continue to work hard with our program and try as hard as we can and keep it on top.”
The Shockers are on top, perhaps by a margin that makes the rest of the Valley look bad. Nine coaches know the reputation of the MVC requires somebody to close that gap.
“They’re the standard in the league by a mile,” Ford said. “I think it’s possible for a couple teams to push them, which didn’t happen last year. It needs to happen.”
“He was a freshman and had to be our best player,” Moser said. “That’s hard to do.”
“Our size and athleticism will be much improved, and that needed to happen,” Ford said. “When (Shaw) is down around the basket he’s of a size and physical explosiveness we haven’t had here.”