Here are five questions I can't wait to see answered in the Missouri Valley this season:
1. Is this the year the Valley returns to the glory years?
Before Butler ushered in the new power era of the mid-major, there was the Missouri Valley. In 2006, four conference teams earned NCAA tournament bids and two -- Bradley and Wichita State -- went to the Sweet 16. A year later, Southern Illinois rode a No. 4 seed to regional semifinals as well.
Ever since, the Valley has slipped, falling to the ranks of the one-bid leagues. There have been highlights, of course -- the name Ali Farokhmanesh still sends shivers down the spines of Kansas Jayhawk fans -- but the standard has dipped.
Until perhaps this season. The cyclical nature of basketball is turning in the Valley’s favor thanks to rosters heavy with talented upperclassmen. Creighton and defending NIT champion Wichita State both could make a case for a top-25 preseason ranking. Then there is Indiana State, the Valley’s NCAA rep a year ago. The Sycamores have stockpiled their nonconference schedule with enough meaty games to turn a few heads.
It all should make for an interesting conference battle and perhaps a richer March for the Missouri Valley.
2. Can Chris Lowery jump off the hot seat?
When Southern Illinois inked Lowery to a seven-year extension in 2007, it was smart business. On the heels of a Sweet 16 berth and three incredibly successful seasons, Lowery ranked among the hottest "it" coaches in the country. Now with that deal down to its final three years, Lowery is fighting to save his job. The once-powerful Salukis are just 58-67 since that Sweet 16 run.
Whether this is the year to turn things around remains to be seen. Mamadou Seck, the Valleys’ leading rebounder a season ago, is back and SIU has a strong recruiting class to bolster its roster. But the Salukis need to rediscover their identity in order to succeed. In those first three years when everything was going so well, Southern Illinois allowed just 57.5 points per game. Ever since, the Salukis have given up 64.6.
3. Can McDermott & Son steal March?
Getting Greg McDermott to return to his Missouri Valley roots -- he led Northern Iowa to three NCAA tournament berths -- was huge for Creighton. Getting Greg’s son, Doug, to follow dear old dad to Omaha was even bigger.
The younger McDermott was a stud freshman and is coming off an excellent summer with Team USA. And he's not the only standout for the Bluejays. Antoine Young and Gregory Echenique give Creighton three of the league’s best players and the reason for the early expectations.
But you know how March goes. It’s about great storylines and the father-son tandem taking Creighton back to the tournament would make for a heckuva tale.
4. How will following in Cuonzo Martin’s footsteps pay off for Paul Lusk?
Following in Martin’s wake already has paid off quite well for Lusk. Three years ago, Martin left Purdue to become head coach at Missouri State, making room for Lusk’s job bump to associate head coach. This past offseason when Martin left for Tennessee, Lusk grabbed the opportunity by taking over the Bears.
He inherits a team with both question marks and bonus points -- the bonus coming in the form of returning Valley player of the year Kyle Weems. The conference’s most versatile player, Weems averaged 16 points and 6.9 rebounds per game. His supporting cast is gone, though. The loss of four starters means there is work to be done for Lusk, but in Weems the new coach at least has a good foundation.
5. Who will be the Valley player of the year?
Certainly not as interesting q question as who will win the league, but this race could be equally tight. Weems earned the honors last season and he’s back in the fold, which should give him an early edge on the competition. But Weems will be playing for a retooling Missouri State team, which could either help or hurt his numbers.
Creighton's McDermott, Young and Echenique are three of the league's nine leading returning scorers. Together they could lead the Bluejays to special things this season, but they also could split the POY vote. Jake Odum, point guard extraordinaire, will have to play especially well for Indiana State to return to the NCAA tournament, but confidence is one thing Odum doesn’t lack.
And don’t discount a few sleepers: Mamadou Seck will have to put up big numbers if Southern Illinois is going to regroup, and at Evansville, Colt Ryan already has 125 3-pointers in just two seasons. The Purple Aces, who return the majority of their team and debut a new downtown arena, are on the uptick.