Here are five things I can't wait to see in the Missouri Valley Conference this season. For in-depth previews on all 10 MVC teams and my one-minute wind sprint, click here.
1. UNI's fight to stay at the top
Where does Northern Iowa go from here? In fact, thanks to Ali Farokhmanesh's thrilling, holy-crap-is-he-really-shooting-that-AHHHHMYGOD shot -- which downed Kansas, the prohibitive national title favorite, in the second round of the NCAA tournament -- it was easy to forget how dominant UNI was in the months that preceded it.
It's a bit unfair, then, to expect an encore from the Panthers in 2010-11. Farokhmanesh has graduated, as have frontcourt stars Adam Koch and Jordan Eglseder. That leaves a gaping hole in Ben Jacobson's frontcourt, one he'll need to fill with reserves like Lucas O'Rear and Jake Koch. The good news? Point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe could be poised for a breakout season. But without Eglseder and Koch, UNI will have to fight hard to avoid the comedown. The question is: how far?
2. What Wichita State does with that No. 1 spot
The Shockers return all but one key contributor from last year's 25-10 team. That batch of veterans is the result of a textbook three-year rebuild by coach Gregg Marshall, who took over when former Mark Turgeon left for Texas A&M in 2007. That was the easy part. The hard part -- dealing with expectations of success -- comes next.
Those expectations are built around the potent inside-out combo of forward J.T. Durley and guard Toure' Murray, a duo surrounded by a handful of proven contributors. The biggest question surrounds the loss of point guard Clevin Hannah, a two-year starter at the position who led the team in scoring in 2009-10. But Hannah or not, the Shockers are this conference's favorite. How will they respond?
3. Gregory Echenique's arrival at Creighton
When Dana Altman left the Bluejays to take over at Oregon, he left a team that failed to win 20 games for the first time in 11 years. But he didn't leave the cupboard bare. Center Kenny Lawson, Jr., earned all-conference honors in 2009-10, and he is likely to be the best big man in the Missouri Valley in 2010-11. Until January, at least. That's when Rutgers transfer Gregory Echenique -- who averaged 12.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks his freshman season -- will become eligible for the Bluejays. Echenique's productivity in the Big East bodes well for his foray into the MVC, a conference filled with teams that -- duh -- don't boast the size or interior strength of most high-majors. Once he gets on the court, he could be a dominant force, to say nothing of the combo he and Lawson will form on the Creighton interior. Scary.
4. Getting to know the Missouri State Bears
If there is a sign of how tough the MVC could be in the wake of UNI's 2009-10 season, it lies in the oncoming surge of the Missouri State Bears. Wait ... who? You could be forgiven for wondering where the Bears are coming from, but a deeper dig reveals the dirty truth: This is a team to be reckoned with. They return all five starters and two key reserves from a team that won 24 games and closed out the season by winning the CollegeInsider.com tournament championship. It's only the third year of head coach Cuonzo Martin's tenure, but already the Bears look like a threat to challenge for the MVC title.
5. Can Drake's recruits lift the program?
Drake coach Mark Phelps has yet to put a 20-win team on the floor in his two-year tenure, but he has succeeded off the court. Phelps has landed two of the conference's top recruiting classes in two straight offseasons, a yield that includes promising youngsters like Seth VanDeest, an MVC all-freshman honoree in 2009-10. The time has come, the wagons have been circled, and Phelps will be expected to start winning with his own talent. It's there. Now the wins have to follow.