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Missouri Valley Preview: Can another NCAA contender emerge behind Creighton?

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Jackie Carmichael hopes to help Illinois State break a 15-year NCAA tournament drought (AP)

Yahoo! Sports is breaking down each league for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 31 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 11 league, the Missouri Valley Conference.

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Thanks to its All-American forward, high-octane offense and burgeoning national profile, Creighton will probably emerge as the Missouri Valley Conference's showcase team again this winter.

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:

CAA (No. 12): Old Dominion's 'Mission Possible' is to make the best of challenging seasonDrexel aims to avenge last year's snub, snap 16-year NCAA tournament drought

MAC (No. 13): New Ohio coach Jim Christian is back in his comfort zoneAkron hopes to avenge last year's MAC tourney title game loss

Horizon League (No. 14): An unlikely Florida recruiting pipeline has sparked Youngstown State's revivalValparaiso won't sneak up on anybody this season

Ohio Valley Conference (No. 15): Isaiah Canaan talks about coming back to Murray State, his most famous shot and how Hurricane Katrina altered his lifeMurray State, Belmont poised to continue league's run of recent success

Ivy League (No. 16): Princeton's Ian Hummer excels at a school he has adored since childhoodIvy League Capsule Preview: Harvard is still a title threat despite cheating scandal

Patriot League (No. 17): C.J. McCollum bypassed the NBA and returned to Lehigh to fulfill a promise to his parentsExpect another spirited two-way battle between Bucknell and Lehigh

MAAC (No. 18): Mitch Buonaguro enters important year optimistic Siena can climb back into contentionNext step in Manhattan's stunning turnaround could be league title

Southern Conference (No. 19): Trading soccer for hoops has paid off for College of Charleston star and Great Britain Olympian Andrew LawrenceDavidson is loaded for another run at a league title, NCAA bid

WAC (No. 20): Will the beleaguered WAC survive as a basketball league beyond next season?;WAC Capsule Preview: Utah State hopes to rebound from frustrating 2011-12 season

Sun Belt League (No. 21): In likely his final season at North Texas, Tony Mitchell wants to leave a legacyMiddle Tennessee State vies for the NCAA bid it narrowly missed last year

Summit League (No. 22): In the small town of Brookings, S.D., Nate Wolters is a reluctant superstarSouth Dakota State looks like the clear favorite

NEC (No. 23): Oft-overlooked Shane Gibson hopes to go from hidden gem to stardomNEC Capsule Preview: Three-way battle for league title could hinge on LIU Brooklyn suspensions

Big Sky (No. 24): New stars must emerge for Weber State to succeed without Damian Lillard;Montana remains the favorite despite Will Cherry's injury

Big West (No. 25): With San Diego State on its way, Big West teams are investing in hoops to avoid being left behindRevamped Long Beach State takes aim at another Big West title

Atlantic Sun (No. 26): Humble, unassuming Torrey Craig leads South Carolina Upstate's resurgenceWhich team will capitalize on Belmont's departure?

Big South (No. 27): Unwanted in high school, guards Saah Nimley and Arlon Harper are now powering Charleston Southern's resurgenceCoastal Carolina hopes home is sweet this March

Southland Conference (No. 28): Pat Knight's epic rant had unintended benefits for LamarOral Roberts assumes the role of instant favorite in its new league

America East (No. 29): Stony Brook basketball draws inspiration from baseball team's College World Series runEarly departures drain league of some of its top talent

MEAC (No. 30): Rush of publicity from Missouri win has long-lasting impact at Norfolk StateSavannah State seeks NCAA bid to cap remarkable turnaround

SWAC (No. 31): Mike Davis prefers challenge of winning at Texas Southern to torture of taking a year offBalanced league will crown new champ this year

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