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The Dagger

Missouri Valley preview: Wichita State aims to follow last year’s Final Four with another special season

Jeff Eisenberg
The Dagger

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Cleanthony Early (Getty Images)

Yahoo Sports will break down the top 12 leagues for the upcoming college basketball season working backward from No. 12 to No. 1. Here's a look at our No. 10 league, the Missouri Valley Conference.

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Creighton and Wichita State might have waged one of the 2013-14 season's most intriguing league title duels had the Bluejays not bolted for the Big East this summer.

Instead the Valley race doesn't appear as though it will be quite that competitive.

Seven months removed from a magical March that culminated in the program's first Final Four bid in nearly five decades, Wichita State appears poised to prove it was no one-year wonder. Steady point guard Malcolm Armstead and standout big man Carl Hall have both graduated, but most of the rest of last year's NCAA tournament rotation is back and a handful of newcomers are poised to solidify the frontcourt.

[Related: The Dagger's college basketball preseason top 25]

Wichita State's most dynamic weapon is 6-foot-8 forward Cleanthony Early, a Valley player of the year candidate who is capable of scoring from the paint and the perimeter. In five NCAA tournament games last season, Early averaged 16.2 points and 7.8 rebounds per game, a stretch highlighted by his 24-point, 10-rebound outburst against Louisville.

Joining Early in the frontcourt will be two newcomers who collectively will attempt to replicate Hall's low-post scoring and defensive prowess. Ultra-athletic Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Kadeem Coleby will provide shot-blocking, rebounding and an ability to finish in transition, while highly touted junior college transfer Darius Carter has shown a knack for back-to-the-basket scoring.

Wichita State needs a backup point guard to emerge in its backcourt, but the Shockers are otherwise loaded on the perimeter. Former top 100 recruit Fred VanVleet is poised to build on a strong finish from last season at point guard. Sweet-shooting Ron Baker and onetime starter Evan Wessell are healthy again after both missing most of last season. And Tekele Cotton's quick feet, long arms and anticipation gives Wichita State the league's best perimeter defender.

If anyone can challenge Wichita State over the course of league play, it's probably Indiana State, which returns four starters and a slew of key bench players from a team that was on track to challenge for an NCAA bid in mid-February before dropping seven of nine to end the season. Four-year starting guard Jake Odum is a Valley player of the year candidate and former Gonzaga transfer Manny Arop is an all-conference contender as well.

No Valley team besides Wichita State and Indiana State appears capable of contending for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament, but Northern Iowa, Bradley and Missouri State boast the most returning talent.

Northern Iowa will count on standout forward Seth Tuttle, versatile guard Deon Mitchell and Tennessee transfer Wes Washpun to help make up for the loss of several key seniors from last year's 21-win team. Bradley is hoping some of its newcomers emerge to provide a supporting cast for senior stars Walt Lemon Jr. and Tyshon Pickett. And Missouri State needs big men to step up as a complement for Valley freshman of the year Marcus Marshall and now-healthy forward Jarmar Gulley.

MAKING A LIST

Best shooter: Ron Baker, Wichita State. Once Baker returned from a stress fracture in his left foot that sidelined him for most of the regular season last year, the 6-foot-3 redshirt freshman's outside shooting served as a catalyst for the Shockers' March surge. Baker sank a 14 of 34 threes he attempted, torching top-seeded Gonzaga for four 3-pointers in the NCAA tournament's round of 32 and sinking a trio of threes against Louisville in the Final Four. The 41.1 percent shooting Baker delivered from behind the arc during March is something he's more than capable of duplicating over the course of a full season as a sophomore.

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Indiana State's Jake Odum (AP)

Best playmaker: Jake Odum, Indiana State. The Valley's best point guard has been one of the league's best players since he arrived at Indiana State in 2010. Odum excelled as both a scorer and a distributor as a junior, averaging 13.6 points and 4.5 assists while leading the Sycamores into NCAA tournament contention deep into February. The only area in which Odum can still drastically improve as a senior is by limiting his turnovers, which approached three per game last season.
Best defender: Tekele Cotton, Wichita State. It's pretty hard to believe that Cotton didn't make the Valley's all-defense team last season given what the 6-foot-2 perimeter stopper accomplished in March. He held Pittsburgh leading scorer Tray Woodall to two points in the opening round of the NCAA tournament, hounded Gonzaga's Kevin Pangos and La Salle's Ramon Galloway into uncharacteristically poor nights the next two rounds and then frustrated Ohio State's Aaron Craft into 2-for-12 shooting in the Elite Eight. Bradley's Walt Lemon Jr. also deserves consideration, but Cotton's anticipation and quickness make him special on defense.
Top NBA prospect: Cleanthony Early, Wichita State. If Early wasn't already on the NBA's radar last winter, his 24-point, 10-rebound Final Four masterpiece against Louisville surely changed that. The 6-foot-8 forward can score in the paint or on the perimeter and rebounds and defends well near the rim, but he'll need to show more consistency with his outside shot and improve his handle in order to persuade NBA scouts he has a future at small forward.
Best backcourt: Wichita State. Though Indiana State (Odum), Misssouri State (Marcus Marshall) and Bradley (Walt Lemon Jr.) all have individual standouts, it's the Shockers who have the strongest group. Promising sophomore Fred VanVleet played well enough late last season to suggest he's ready to inherit the point guard position from Malcolm Armstead. Baker provides outside shooting, solid defense and effort plays. Cotton is an elite perimeter defender. And though D.J. Bowles' scary collapse leaves Wichita State without a backup point guard, Rian Holland will get a crack at that role and Baker and Cotton can handle the ball in a pinch.
Best frontcourt: Wichita State. Having averaged 13.9 points and 5.4 rebounds as a junior, 6-foot-8 forward Cleanthony Early is a threat to win Valley player of the year as a senior. Center Carl Hall has graduated, but Wichita State has reinforcements ready to ease the sting of that loss. Louisiana-Lafayette transfer Kadeem Coleby is an explosive leaper who can block shots, run the floor and finish at the rim, while junior college All-American Darius Carter is a low-block scorer who can step out to 15 feet and sink jumpers.
Best recruiting class: Bradley. Geno Ford has recruited well since coming to Bradley, and this offseason appears to be no exception. The biggest contributor from Ford's five-man recruiting class could be 6-foot-6 Jordan Swopshire, a knock-down shooter and capable defender who could provide a spark right away and will get even better once he adds muscle to his lanky frame.
Coach on the rise: Geno Ford, Bradley. In the 2 1/2 years since he left a 20-win Kent State program for a 20-loss Bradley program, Ford has proven he wasn't as crazy as he seemed at the time. Bradley won 18 games and reached the CIT quarterfinals a year ago and it's poised to make another jump this winter, with standouts Walt Lemon Jr. and Tyshon Pickett returning and Wake Forest transfer Anthony Fields set to make his debut. Anything short of an upper-half-of-the-league finish would be disappointing, and cracking the top three is a realistic goal.
Coach on the hot seat: None. The Valley's coaches are all pretty secure entering the new season, though how Marty Simmons fares at Evansville post-Colt Ryan could be worth keeping an eye on. The Aces never managed better than a 10-8 conference record in any of Ryan's four years and never advanced to either the NCAA tournament or the NIT.

FACTS AND FIGURES

New coaches: Ray Giacoletti (Drake)
Regular-season winner last season: Creighton
Tourney winner last season: Creighton
League RPI rank in each of past 3 seasons: 2012-13: 9th, 2011-12: 8th ; 2010-11: 12th
NCAA bids the past three seasons: 5 (Creighton (2), Wichita State (2), Indiana State)

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