1. Wichita State
Coach: Gregg Marshall
2013-14: 35-1, 18-0 MVC
Star power: G Ron Baker and G Fred VanVleet form one of the nation’s top backcourts and both are on preseason All-American teams. VanVleet earned MVC Player of the Year honors last season
On the bright side: Everything is bright for a program that averages 29.2 wins a season over the past five. WSU’s national prominence has never been higher than over the past 20 months. That reality is reflected in preseason hype and recruiting commitments from two players (G Landry Shamet and F Markis McDuffie) ranked in the top 100 nationally by recruiting analysts.
Compelled to mention: WSU’s big men may need time to adjust to big-time basketball and a tough schedule will test that ability. Other than senior Darius Carter, no post player has played in an NCAA Division I game.
Come mid-March: The Shockers expect to make plans for Omaha, the nearest site for the NCAA Tournament’s second round. Non-conference games against Memphis and Utah will challenge the Shockers, but they should cruise into March looking for a high seed.
2. Northern Iowa
Coach: Ben Jacobson
2013-14: 16-15, 10-8
Star power: F Seth Tuttle earned All-MVC honors after averaging 15.4 points and 8 rebounds. He has increased his scoring and rebounding totals in each of his previous three seasons.
On the bright side: The Panthers return eight players who started a game and add five redshirts, including Virginia transfer G Paul Jesperson. With five seniors and five juniors, UNI should be a consistent team with the experience to win on the road.
Compelled to mention: Opponents made 36.1 percent of their three-pointers last season, making UNI the Valley’s leakiest defense from behind the arc. Jacobson vows to make defense an emphasis this season.
Come mid-March: A return to the NCAA Tournament is the only acceptable conclusion for the Panthers, who last played in the Big Dance in 2010.
3. Missouri State
Coach: Paul Lusk
2013-14: 20-13, 9-9
Star power: G Marcus Marshall, the MVC Freshman of the Year in 2013, is healthy after missing most of last season with a knee injury. Marshall averaged 14.3 points in 12 games before tearing the meniscus in his right knee against Wichita State.
On the bright side: The Bears won 20 games despite Marshall’s injury and return six players with starting experience. G Austin Ruder took on a heavier load with Marshall out and averaged 8.6 points and made 40 percent of his three-pointers.
Compelled to mention: The Bears need a major improvement on defense to crack the top of the MVC. They allowed opponents to make 46.6 percent of their shots, worst in the conference.
Come mid-March: MSU played in the CIT last season. Making the NIT is a good step. Winning a game or two represents a significant breakthrough in Lusk’s fourth season.
Coach: Marty Simmons
2013-14: 14-19, 6-12
Star power: The Aces can match almost anybody with their top two – G D.J. Balentine and C Egidijus Mockevicius. Mockevicius averaged 14.2 points, 9.9 rebounds and 3 blocks over his final 10 games.
On the bright side: Evansville added juco transfers F Willie Wiley and G Taylor Stafford in an attempt to get Balentine scoring help. Stafford averaged 25 points and made 40.2 percent of his threes for Eastern Arizona College.
Compelled to mention: The Aces went 2-7 in games in which they allowed 80 or more points. They won’t finish in the top half of the MVC without improving their defense. Balentine averaged 37.9 minutes. The Aces need depth at guard.
Come mid-March: It is a good sign for the MVC if the Aces are in the running for an NIT bid. Evansville last played in the NIT in 1994 and the NCAA Tournament in 1999.
5. Indiana State
Coach: Greg Lansing
2013-14: 23-11, 12-6
Star power: F Khristian Smith can be one of the Valley’s top inside-outside threats if he improves his three-point shooting from 32.9 percent. With G Jake Odum gone, Smith is the top candidate for go-to guy.
On the bright side: The Sycamores are used to winning under Lansing with an NCAA trip in 2011 and appearances in the NIT in 2013 and 2014. He should keep them competitive even after losing Odum, F Manny Arop and G Dawon Cummings.
Compelled to mention: Odum, a two-time All-MVC pick, did everything for the Sycamores the past four seasons and replacing his experience and confidence won’t be easy. Transfer G Tre Bennett gets first shot running the Sycamores.
Come mid-March: With only two seniors on the roster, a winning season and upper-half finish in the MVC would keep Indiana State on the right track. A trip to the CIT or CBI will suffice.
6. Illinois State
Coach: Dan Muller
2013-14: 18-16, 9-9
Star power: C Reggie Lynch may be the best of the Valley’s young big men and he can be a force if he cuts down on fouls (10 disqualifications last season). Lynch, a 6-10 sophomore, averaged 8.3 points and made 58.2 percent of his shots. He led the MVC in blocked shots, 2.82 a game.
On the bright side: The Redbirds won’t be forced into playing small with the addition of forwards MiKyle McIntosh (6-7, 234), Teddy Hawkins (6-8, 219) and Will Ransom (252). Add those three to Lynch and John Hones (6-9, 262) and the potential for an effective front-court rotation exists.
Compelled to mention: While the Redbirds return four starters, the roster remains in transition. Jones is the lone player remaining from Muller’s first season and he redshirted in 2012-13. Illinois State totals six seasons of NCAA Division I experience and no eligible player owns more than one.
Come mid-March: The Redbirds should be a candidate for the CBI or CIT. If their chemistry equals their talent, something bigger is possible.
7. Southern Illinois
Coach: Barry Hinson
2013-14: 14-19, 9-9 MVC
Star power: In an 11-game span from late January to March, G Anthony Beane averaged 21.9 points and 3.8 rebounds, making 52.8 percent of his shots and 42.4 percent of his three-pointers. He averaged 14.7 points and 3.2 rebounds for the season.
On the bright side: Hinson is methodically building a roster after cutting back on the transfer experiment. Sean O’Brien, Tyler Smithpeters and Bola Olaniyan started as freshmen. He added five freshmen and two transfers for this season.
Compelled to mention: Smithpeters is back on the team after a brief suspension for violating the student code of conduct.
Come mid-March: The Salukis aren’t ready for postseason play and a weak non-conference schedule won’t help. One more good recruiting class will change that outlook.
Coach: Geno Ford
2013-14: 12-20, 7-11
Star power: F Mike Shaw did little in two seasons at Illinois before transferring to Bradley. Ford called him Bradley’s best player in practices last season and a vocal force in the locker room, even while sitting out. Ford hopes Shaw (6-8, 230) can be a force in the lane in the MVC after attempting nine shots in 22 games at Illinois.
On the bright side: The Braves are bigger and more athletic with the addition of Shaw, junior transfer Jermaine Morgan (6-8, 235) and freshman Josh Cunningham (6-7, 216), ranked No. 88 by Rivals.com in its top 150 from the class of 2014. Freshman Donte Thomas (6-7, 217) is playing well in preseason practices.
Compelled to mention: Point guard Tramique Sutherland may be out until late November or early December with a fractured finger on his left hand. Ford is counting on Sutherland, a transfer from Hill (Texas) College, to start and his options behind him are not ideal.
Come mid-March: The Braves will finish in the bottom half of the MVC for a fifth straight season, four under Ford, putting the coach and his program under pressure to win in 2015-16. The Braves need to show progress after slipping from 18-17 to 12-20.
Coach: Ray Giacoletti
2013-14: 15-16, 6-12 MVC
Star power: G Gary Ricks Jr. is back after averaging 12.3 points and making 18 of 40 three-pointers in eight games last season. A broken foot ended his 2012-13. Drake went 6-2 with Ricks in the lineup.
On the bright side: Drake opened an $8 million practice facility, Giacoletti’s answer to anyone who questions the school’s emphasis on basketball.
Compelled to mention: Drake posted one winning MVC record since 1986, going 15-3 in 2008. Giacoletti will get plenty of time to build the program in the way he learned as an assistant at Gonzaga.
Come mid-March: Coaches will hit the road for recruiting trips to continue building the roster. Drake loses five seniors and has transfers Kale Abrahamson (Northwestern) and Graham Woodward (Penn State) sitting out this season.
Coach: Porter Moser
2013-14: 10-22, 4-14 MVC
Star power: G Milton Doyle swept the MVC’s Freshman and Newcomer of the Year awards after averaging 14.9 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.6 assists. He is the first player to lead the Ramblers in scoring, assists, steals (38) and blocks (23) in the same season.
On the bright side: The Ramblers return their top five scorers and Moser expects Coffeyville Community College transfers F Montel James and G Earl Peterson to contribute.
Compelled to mention: Doyle’s season is in jeopardy after he tore the labrum in his right (shooting) shoulder. He will try to play, but faces season-ending surgery if he cannot function. F Marlon Jones, Loyola’s top recruit, did not meet academic requirements and is at South Plains (Texas) Community College.
Come mid-March: Moser will continue to recruit Chicago hard to build MVC-level depth on his roster. This season will help determine if the program is moving in the right direction.
Paul Suellentrop’s MVC predictions
Ron Baker, Wichita State
Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
D.J. Balentine, Evansville
Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa
Anthony Beane, Southern Illinois
Player of the year: Baker
NCAA teams: Wichita State, Northern Iowa
NIT teams: Missouri State
Coach on the hot seat: Bradley has finished seventh, seventh and 10th in Geno Ford’s three seasons and he is 16-38 in MVC play. His program needs to show improvement this season or 2015-16 will almost certainly be make or break.