The crispness of the fall air, the orange hues that overtake the treetops, and the squeak of basketball sneakers in gymnasiums across the country. These are just some of the telltale signs that basketball is back.
More importantly, the annual countdown to March Madness can begin anew.
Let’s keep things moving with the 10-school Missouri Valley Conference.
The 2015-16 Missouri Valley season was one of the more successful ones in recent memory. Five teams won at least 11 of the 18 conference games, with the field paced by Wichita State’s 16-2 dominance.
It looked like things might be typical for a mid-major, with one team clearly a notch above the rest cruising through the conference tournament to a solid seed in the Big Dance. However, a stunning overtime upset by Northern Iowa over the Shockers in the semifinals of the Missouri Valley tournament completely turned that idea on its head.
The Panthers went on to edge out Evansville in the championship game to earn an automatic bid, while Wichita State was considered very much on the bubble for an at-large bid. The Shockers ended up getting selected as an 11 seed, and boy did that prove to be the correct decision.
After easily taking care of Vanderbilt in the First Four round, Wichita State met sixth-seeded Arizona in the first round. And just as they had shown in their Sweet 16 run the season prior, experience can be king in March.
Things were not pretty, with the Hurricanes erupting to a 27-6 lead. But fast forward to 10:29 in the second half, and it was the Shockers ahead 43-42. Alas, Angel Rodriguez took over for Miami and the upset was narrowly avoided, ending the brilliant careers of seniors Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker.
Meanwhile, remember that Northern Iowa team that won the conference tournament? It made a real splash of its own, scoring an upset of sixth-seeded Texas in the first round. If you need a reminder of how that happened, it involved Paul Jesperson and a half-court heave.
With just 44 seconds left, Northern Iowa led the third-seeded Aggies 69-57. Four turnovers later, the game was heading to overtime at 71-71.
The Panthers had a shot in the first overtime period, but a Texas A&M jumper tied the game and UNI was unable to convert in the waning seconds. The Aggies then controlled the second extra frame, sending the Panthers home with a nearly unprecedented level of heartbreak.
Just about every player you might be familiar with from last year’s Missouri Valley slate is gone, leaving the field wide open.
However, there is still one player there’s a good chance you know. It’s not for his regular season — which was nothing to sneeze at but not spectacular — but rather his postseason dominance.
That player is Northern Iowa senior Jeremy Morgan, who absolutely torched Texas A&M in the second round of the tournament with 36 points on 50 percent shooting.
Morgan is a really nice player, combining good size with very efficient scoring. The 6-foot-5 guard averaged 11.3 points per game last season, doing it on 48.5 percent shooting. That included a solid 40.7 percent clip from 3-point territory, and he complemented that by shooting over 80 percent from the free-throw line.
In addition to the scoring, he averaged 5.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.9 steals per game a season ago.
The soon-to-be four-year rotation player was recognized as the preseason player of the year. Hailed as one of the conference’s best defenders, Morgan takes on a lot of responsibility for a Panther team that returns very few players from last year’s tournament run. He’s unlikely to get a ton of help around him, but Morgan is a great player to have around.
There’s a good chance you can only recognize one or two names on the Wichita State roster, if that. For a team that has been a mainstay of the tournament for years, that’s a little surprising.
But with the core of the team now gone, this is a completely new-look Shockers team. See if coach Gregg Marshall cares.
Despite losing VanVleet, a two-time Missouri Valley Player of the Year recipient, and Baker, the glue of the team, the Shockers were picked by 37 of 42 voters to win the conference.
Other players like guard Conner Frankamp, forward Zach Brown and center Shaquille Morris also have a lot of weight on their shoulders coming into the year. The conference should certainly be wide open, but Wichita State earns the benefit of the doubt for the dynasty Marshall has led.
Nine of the 10 players on the All-Missouri Valley first and second teams in 2015-16 were seniors, including Baker and VanVleet from Wichita State and Evansville guard D.J. Balentine.
It would appear, then, that it makes sense to give credit to the one guy who is still around.
That would be redshirt junior Brenton Scott of Indiana State, who landed a spot on the second team last season.
Picked sixth in the preseason conference poll, the Sycamores have an advantage as one of the more experienced teams. They are getting seven letterwinners back from last season, including three starters.
Besides Scott, point guard Everett Clemons is a player to get excited about. Last season, Clemons led the team in assists while shooting 44.4 percent from the field. While he has very little shooting ability, he’s an amazingly good rebounder, averaging 6.3 per game. Those are certainly unusual figures for a 6-foot-1 guard, but he’s a nice weapon to have.
Freshman to watch
With the amount of main guys Wichita State lost, it stands to reason that it would need some fresh faces to log big minutes.
Whether that means players who took reserve roles last year, redshirted, or were still in high school, the Shockers are going to need some new people to step up in order to win the conference’s regular-season title for a fourth consecutive season.
A player who might fill one of those spots is true freshman C.J. Keyser.
Keyser, a combo guard from Baltimore, combines outstanding athleticism that allows him to play bigger than his 6-foot-4 frame would suggest with solid on-ball skills.
The leaping ability of the guard immediately stands out, with him regularly being filmed doing 360 dunks and other amazing feats. If he can bring some of that razzle-dazzle to Wichita, he should be a player who quickly makes a name for himself.
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