What will determine if this is a good season for the Valley or not, however, is whether any of the teams behind the Bluejays are good enough to help the league earn multiple NCAA tournament bids for the second straight year.
Last year, regular season champion Wichita State earned a No. 5 seed and runner-up Creighton landed a No. 8, snapping a five-year at-large drought for the Valley. This year, Illinois State appears to be the most likely team to challenge the Bluejays in the Valley race and perhaps contend for an NCAA tournament bid.
Although coach Tim Jankovich left to become the heir apparent to Larry Brown at SMU and standout point guard Nic Moore followed him to Dallas, the Redbirds still return the core of a team that won 21 games last season. Illinois State upset Wichita State in the Valley semifinals, took Creighton to overtime in the title game and made a solid showing in the NIT, raising hopes the Redbirds can end a 15-year NCAA tournament drought next March.
The barometer for whether Illinois State can meet expectations or not may be whether any of the point guards on the roster can help ease the loss of Moore. Promising freshman Kaza Keane, a 6-foot-1 Canadian guard new coach Dan Muller added in May, will likely eventually get the starting nod over senior Anthony Cousin and sophomore Johnny Hill.
If the point guard position doesn't become a liability, Illinois State has the makings of a loaded offense. All-league forward Jackie Carmichael averaged 13.9 points and a Valley best 9.7 rebounds last year, Jon Ekey and Tyler Brown are lights-out perimeter shooters and John Wilkins can do damage inside and out.
Besides the Redbirds, the teams most likely to challenge Creighton and perhaps make a push for an NCAA bid are Northern Iowa, Wichita State and Evansville.
Defense will again be the strength for a Northern Iowa team that returns six of its top seven players, but the Panthers need sophomores Seth Tuttle and Deon Mitchell to help the offense become more efficient. Wichita State lost all five starters from last year, but the Shockers have a chance to reload rather than rebuild because the incoming class may be coach Gregg Marshall's best ever. And Evansville returns high-scoring Colt Ryan but will need interior scorers to emerge before it can challenge the league's best teams.
MAKING A LIST
Best shooter: Doug McDermott, Creighton
Best playmaker: Jake Odum, Indiana State
Best defender: Gregory Echenique, Creighton
Coach on the rise: Gregg Marshall, Wichita State
Coach on the hot seat: Marty Simmons, Evansville
Three must-see games: 1 Creighton vs. Wisconsin, Nov. 23 (Las Vegas will be the site of the marquee non-league game for the Bluejays); 2. Illinois State at Louisville, Dec. 1 (A Valley contender takes aim at a national contender); 3. North Texas at Creighton (Tony Mitchell vs. Doug McDermott? Yes, please.)
FACTS AND FIGURES
New coaches: Dan Muller, Illinois State (Had been assistant at Vanderbilt); Barry Hinson, Southern Illinois (Had been director of basketball operations at Kansas)
Regular-season winner last season: Wichita State
Tourney winner last season: Creighton
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2011-12: 8th ; 2010-11: 12th, 2009-10: 9th
Last NCAA tourney win by a league team: 2012, eighth-seeded Creighton defeated Alabama in the round of 64
More conference previews from Yahoo! Sports:
Ohio Valley Conference (No. 15): Isaiah Canaan talks about coming back to Murray State, his most famous shot and how Hurricane Katrina altered his life; Murray State, Belmont poised to continue league's run of recent success
Southern Conference (No. 19): Trading soccer for hoops has paid off for College of Charleston star and Great Britain Olympian Andrew Lawrence; Davidson is loaded for another run at a league title, NCAA bid
Southland Conference (No. 28): Pat Knight's epic rant had unintended benefits for Lamar; Oral Roberts assumes the role of instant favorite in its new league
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