November 14, 2020 

Missouri Valley Conference preview: Lady Bears lead the way, but parity increasing

A preview of a Missouri Valley Conference title that nearly anyone could win

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Bradley junior Lasha Petree was named the 2020-21 Missouri Valley Conference Preseason Player of the Year on Tuesday, Oct. 13, 2020. (Bradley Athletics)

The Missouri State Lady Bears entered the 2020 Missouri Valley Conference Tournament knowing two things for certain: First, that they were the team to beat, armed with their first No. 1 seed since 2012. And second, that the depth of the conference would make their road to back-to-back tournament titles as difficult as possible.

“We had a target on our back all year,” head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton said in early March. “But I think that target is even bigger going into the tournament, and flashing red.”

But the tournament never happened, as the growing threat of COVID-19 spurred its cancellation hours before the first game was due to tip off. That same day, the NCAA announced it was canceling the national tournament, too.

“Obviously, we’re going to channel the disappointment we had from last year and fuel our fire this year and compete at a high level,” Agugua-Hamilton said at a Valley coaches’ round table in October. “… I think having basketball taken away really opened their eyes to how much they love the sport, how much they love our family here. And we just want to stay present and do it together.”

Lucky for the Lady Bears, they’re in prime position to maintain their position at the top of the conference, taking the top spot in the Valley’s 2020-21 preseason poll. They’ll be led once again by Agugua-Hamilton, who following the 2019-20 season won the Maggie Dixon Award for the nation’s best rookie coach. Agugua-Hamilton’s 26 wins were a conference-best for a first-year head coach, and the team was ranked in the AP Poll and Coaches Poll for a combined 33 weeks.

Thirty-three of 40 first-place votes went to Missouri State, while No. 2 preseason pick Bradley grabbed the other seven votes. Following them, in order, were Northern Iowa, Drake, Illinois State, Southern Illinois, Valparaiso, Loyola Chicago, Indiana State and Evansville.

The MVC season won’t begin until Dec. 31, and non-conference scheduling remains up in the air for many teams. But when that day arrives, these are the keys that the top teams — and everyone else — will strive for.

Bradley surging

An outstanding 2019-20 campaign saw the Braves start 16-2 overall and 7-0 in Valley play — both program-bests — and ended with back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in school history, while their third-place finish was also their best ever.

Bradley had a chance to compete for the MVC tournament title, but also was solidly in the conversation to grab a potential third bid to the NCAA Tournament out of the conference, assuming they advanced far enough. For that reason, there’s an air of unfinished business heading into the new season. 

“They do have big shoes to fill [compared to last season], because we’re a very close-knit team,” head coach Andrea Gorski said. “And I think now that we’re at a point where we’re taking a lot of pride, wearing the Bradley jersey. And I think that they don’t want to let Chelsea [Brackmann] down. They don’t want to let Amber [Bozeman] and Ryan [Wilkins], our other two [2019-20] seniors down. They don’t want to let the old folks that used to play and put on a Bradley uniform down anymore.”

The 2020-21 Braves are off to a good start in that regard, as far as the preseason expectations go. Not only were they picked to finish second in the Valley, but junior Lasha Petree was selected as the Preseason Player of the Year, while senior Gabi Haack also made the five-member preseason all-MVC team. Both were named to the All-MVC First Team in March. The No. 2 selection is Bradley’s highest ever, and Petree’s and Haack’s honors represent the first time a Braves player has been named to the preseason all-conference team since 2002.

With four returning starters, and the prospect of a sixth straight season of improving their win total, the Braves are in especially good position to kick off the next MVC dynasty — but they won’t let a good place in a preseason poll tell them that.

“We don’t really talk about [preseason polls] at Bradley,” Gorski said. “… It’s a tough league. We play against great teams every night. It’s just, control what you can control.”

Northern Iowa strives for more Iowa-sized statements

Last season featured shades of UNI’s potential for greatness as it picked up Iowa bragging rights by defeating all of its other in-state Division I opponents — Iowa, Iowa State and Drake — for the first time in school history.

But there’s still plenty of room for improvement, and the Panthers have been on the right track for some time. In the past 12 seasons, they’ve finished over .500 in Valley play, and in the past 11 seasons, they’ve won 17 or more games (last season they finished 18-11). From 2016 to 2018, they appeared in every MVC Tournament title game, but haven’t won it all since 2011.

Returning all five top scorers from last season and four starters, headlined by senior Karli Rucker — a 2020-21 preseason all-conference pick — and adding six freshmen, all from Iowa, UNI is in an excellent place to return to that glory.

UNI’s Karli Rucker, the lone non-Missouri State or Bradley representative on the preseason all-conference team, led the Panthers in points, assists and minutes last season. (UNI Athletics)

The potential for ascension also means increased eyes on the women’s game, something the Valley saw in droves last season, with a 260% overall per-game viewing increase, and a 328% per-game increase in games broadcast on ESPN+. Fellow Iowa program Drake also benefited from that success, but when it comes to the Valley holding its own amidst Iowa and Iowa State and Big Ten and Big 12 viewership, respectively, the platform is strong.

“All we need is an opportunity and people to give us a chance,” said head coach Tanya Warren. “And when we have those chances, we make the best out of them, and that’s what you’re starting to see. But it’s a credit to all the young women across the country and the work that they put in, and the product that’s put on the floor. It’s a beautiful game to watch.”

How will longtime favorites Drake fare?

The most notable losses from the 2019-20 MVC squads came out of Drake, who lost three seniors, including two of the most impactful players in program history: three-time conference player of the year Becca Hittner and three-time all-conference first team pick Sara Rhine. Though the disappointment was palpable that those players in particular wouldn’t have a chance to finish out their senior season, that the Bulldogs still find themselves in contention for a conference title bears testament to the program they’ve built.

Returning two starters — senior Maddie Monahan and junior Kierra Collier — is one thing, but nearly all of Drake’s returning letterwinners appeared in 27 or more games last season, offering experience and a deep familiarity with team chemistry on the court. Plus, one of their newly-eligible players, Grace Berg, has been with the team since January 2019 after transferring from Missouri.

But in some ways, Drake is ready for a new challenge, that of being a relative underdog for the first time in many years. After ruling the conference for so long, including a 47-game regular-season MVC win streak that ended in February 2019, their losses have become just as much a part of their season as any other team. But that just makes things more exhilarating.

“You look at this year for our conference, and at all the returning talent in this league this year, is what’s also really exciting,” said head coach Jennie Baranczyk. “There’s a lot of maturity in this league. So to handle that disappointment from the end of last year, I think will fuel all of our league.”

Missouri State’s path to repeating

Though a second straight season losing a top player hurts — Alexa Willard was, by the numbers, one of the Lady Bears’ best — the team remains in a good position to match its preseason No. 1 pick with the return of junior Jasmine Franklin and senior Brice Calip, both of whom made the All-MVC First Team along with Willard in March. Both also rounded out the 2020-21 preseason all-conference team.

“It’s a team thing, not an individual thing,” said Agugua-Hamilton after acknowledging Willard’s major absence. “And we just gotta continue to work hard. We always talk about grinding right now, shine later, and just let the chips fall where they may.”

Brice Calip, seen driving to the basket against Southern Illinois on Feb. 15, 2020, was one of two Lady Bears players named to the MVC preseason all-conference team. (Jesse Scheve/Missouri State University)

Where Missouri State shone last season was, indeed, in its full-team involvement. Seven returning players appeared in all 30 games (though Calip missed just one due to an early-season injury), six had 12 or more starts and two more started at least once. That there is always a player on the bench ready to step up and make a start or play big minutes speaks to the Lady Bears’ versatility.

So, too, does it speak to its resilience. After Danielle Gitzen graduated following the 2018-19 Sweet Sixteen season, and head coach Kellie Harper departed for Tennessee, Agugua-Hamilton took over a team whose expectations were sky-high in spite of two big losses, and didn’t just meet them, but shattered them.

Stats-wise, the Lady Bears return the vast majority of their production in all areas, notably 88% of their defensive rebounding after leading the country in defensive rebounding rate last season. Franklin led the Valley in rebounds in 2019-20, while offensively, Calip led the Valley in assist-to-turnover ratio (and was named Defensive Player of the Year, to boot). Missouri State also received word on Oct. 17 that Abi Jackson, a midyear transfer from Auburn, will be eligible to play immediately.

“I do think it’s going to be another competitive year,” Agugua-Hamilton said recently, after acknowledging in March that she exceeded her expectations as a coach. “So with our team, we just want to keep working and not look at the end goal right now. Just win every day, be competitive, practice how we play. We always say progress is the process.”

How other teams could — and likely will — surprise

Each of the teams ahead of Drake in the 2020-21 preseason poll — Missouri State, Bradley and UNI — handed the Bulldogs at least one loss last season. The Lady Bears, on the other hand, suffered their two losses not to the conference’s top teams, but to Illinois State and Southern Illinois.

But were these wins a complete surprise, or were they simply a sign that there’s much more parity than advertised in the Valley?

“We’re a little different from Drake and Missouri State,” Illinois State head coach Kristen Gillespie said. “We had a chance, I thought, last year to do something that hadn’t been done at Illinois State for a while: to get into that elusive 20-plus win category, postseason play, the WNIT, or you never know what’s going to happen in Moline [Illinois, where the MVC Tournament takes place].

“I think [this year’s players] are using the momentum as unfinished business, not only for the group we have, but for the four that never got a chance to say, hey, we were a part of a 21-win season, or we got to play postseason.”

Both Illinois State and Southern Illinois — fifth and sixth in the preseason poll, respectively — lost a trio of starters, but return a handful of All-MVC honorees. Behind them, Valparaiso and Loyola Chicago each return three starters and Indiana State brings back four starters (and 11 letterwinners).

It may be No. 10 pick Evansville, though, that has the most questions surrounding its potential for progress this season. All of its regular starters return, led by MVC Freshman of the Year Abby Feit.

“Abby is a kid that is so coachable, and she just wants to get better, and is never satisfied, and just looking to take that extra step,” head coach Matt Ruffing said. “And it’s always good when you have someone on your team that people think could be the next person to carry the torch. And as a coaching staff, we’re going to do everything we can to help her be that person.”

Feit led the Purple Aces in starts, scoring, rebounding and many more statistical categories in 2019-20, but the team still failed to win a conference game for the first time since the 2017-18 season. Their closest outings came in the form of 10-point losses to Loyola Chicago and Indiana State.

But that hasn’t deterred them, especially since the path upward is so clear — and, relatively speaking, so attainable.

“For our team, we’re gonna focus on us and try and do our best to prove that, hey, we’re not the 10th-best team in this league,” Ruffing said.

From top to bottom, expectations are high in the Valley, and in spite of the challenges posed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the focus on basketball is unwavering.

“I think we’re ready to have another great conference year for the Missouri Valley Conference on the women’s basketball side,” Baranczyk said.

View The Next’s MVC player movement tracker here.

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