September 13, 2022 

Turning up the heat in the Missouri Valley Conference

Separate women's tipoff event highlights the MVC's growth in women's hoops

There is a small but precious window in late summer when college basketball coaches are off the recruiting trail, finished with camps and send their student-athletes home before the fall semester begins. When three new teams are entering your league in 2022-23, the window for a tiny break gets smaller, the competition gets tougher, and everyone is left with their own unknowns. Welcome to challenge of being part of the new-look Missouri Valley Conference (MVC), one of the best mid-major women’s basketball leagues in the nation.

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The 2021-22 season saw the MVC boast the No. 10 conference NET ranking in the nation and finish in the top 15 in conference RPI. Five teams finished with double-digit conference wins and three teams finished the year with over 20 wins total. Southern Illinois won their first regular season MVC title since 2007 paced by the 2022 Jackie Stiles MVC Player of the Year, forward Abby Brockmeyer. Illinois State got hot at the right moment to win the 2022 MVC post-season tournament and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. Throw in conference realignment and coaching changes and the new-look MVC is poised to be better than ever before.

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The MVC leadership has announced that for the first time they will conduct separate men’s and women’s basketball tip-off events this year. On September 14, 2022, the women’s event will be held at TaxSlayer Center in Moline, Ill. The day will include not only media availability of coaches and student-athletes, but also a conference-wide celebration of Title IX. 

“It is a decision where we want to do the best we can to give our women athletes the best student-athlete experience they can receive. And we felt that when you consider the esteem that women’s basketball has in the Missouri Valley Conference and the success they have had, they can handle it on their own in terms of the type of notoriety and publicity they deserve. We are looking forward to it and excited about the event,” Commissioner Jackson said in August.

Illinois State’s Kristen Gillespie and her fellow MVC head coaches are preparing for the new-look league in 2022-23.
(Photo credit: Doug DeVoe)

In July 2022, Loyola-Chicago departed for the Atlantic 10, but three institutions – Belmont, Murray State, and Illinois-Chicago (UIC) – joined the MV,C bringing the total to 12. Commissioner Jeff Jackson said in August during a conference-wide women’s basketball media availability that these programs enhance an already strong league. “The addition of these three programs validates the importance of basketball in the Missouri Valley Conference. We all saw the success that Belmont had in the NCAA Tournament last year and the history they have in their program makes them a tremendous addition to our league. Murray State and UIC have a similar commitment to wanting to have their programs be successful. It just lengthens the depth and competition in our conference.”

Not only will the travel destinations and mascots change, but so will the women’s basketball conference schedule. “They will play 20 games. They will get all their competition in after the Christmas holidays. And because of the quality of the institutions we are adding to the conference we are very comfortable going to 20 games,” Jackson said.

That challenge of a 20-game conference schedule is something not lost on the head coaches, whether it has been working this fall to finalize non-conference games or preparing for what their new-look league will be.

“I thought The Valley was really good leading up to this but now it’s amazing. With those three new teams it has elevated our profile. It is going to be a grind when you think about what we are going to have to do from end of December through mid-March every week, that’s a gauntlet. It is going to be exciting and extremely challenging but as a competitor you have to be up for that challenge,” said Illinois State head coach Kristen Gillespie.

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Belmont is a program that many believe will compete with the top teams in the MVC right from the start. The Bruins are no stranger to success under the direction of head coach Bart Brooks, having earned six NCAA Tournament automatic bids in the last seven years. What better way to make an entrance to your new league than coming off an upset win of Oregon as the No. 12 seed in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament.

“We are thrilled to be part of this outstanding league and to get to compete against some really talented coaches and players,” said Brooks. He has been at the helm of the Bruins program since 2017 and has a roster that is ready for the grind of the MVC. “We have seven of our top nine returning from a team last year that made a nice run in the NCAA Tournament. We have a really good core group of veterans back that have played a lot of basketball together.”

One of those key Belmont veterans, 5’6 junior guard Destinee Wells, will quickly become a household name across The Valley. Wells led her team in scoring last season and became only the second player in Ohio Valley Conference history to be named OVC Tournament MVP as a freshman and sophomore. She along with fellow juniors Madison Bartley and Tuti Jones were the top three scorers for Brooks a season ago. 

Junior Tuti Jones is key part of a strong group of veterans returners for Belmont who upset No. 12 Oregon in the first round of the 2022 NCAA Tournament. (Photo credit: Sam Simpkins, Belmont University Photography)

Murray State, like Belmont, joins the MVC from the OVC where the Racers are coming off at 22-10 season in 2021-22. Sixth year head coach Rechelle Turner brings back four returning starters, including the OVC’s Player of the Year in 2021-22, forward Katelyn Young. With three transfers who can make an immediate impact and four true freshmen, Turner likes where the Racers are at. “We feel really good about our roster, our depth, our chemistry and culture,” she said. 

Turner also knows that having a veteran presence on her team going into a new league is vital. “It is very important for us to be able to have people who have been there and been through the dogfight of conference play, even though it will be different. But to be able to put players on the floor who have helped build this program and get us to where we are makes me as a coach feel a lot better about going into a new situation.”

UIC makes the moves to The Valley from the Horizon League and enters this season with a new head coach. A former MVC women’s basketball player herself at Illinois State, Ashleen Bracey takes over a Flames program that was just 11-94 overall in the past four seasons. She has retooled the UIC roster with transfers and will rely heavily on the services of 6’1 junior Jaida McCloud. McCloud returns as the team’s leading scorer at 16.3 points per game. As a first-time head coach, Bracey knows that establishing her vision and creating a winning culture takes time.

“This is a process and winning and competing for championships doesn’t happen overnight. Staying true to the process is important for us. We have four pillars we talk about within our program – discipline, communication, accountability, and resiliency. Resiliency is the most important one – we are all going to fail but how do you respond to that failure is important,” Bracey said.

Bracey is one of three first-time head coaches joining The Valley in 2022-23. Kate Popovec-Goss takes over the Bradley program after five years as an assistant at Northwestern. Bradley was 1-17 in the MVC last year but returns seven players, including the conference’s Freshman of the Year, guard Caroline Waite. Popovec-Goss hit the ground running, recruiting the transfer portal and spent the spring and summer practice time learning about the team they have assembled in Peoria.

“One of the things we prided ourselves on at Northwestern which I oversaw was our defense. It’s a match-up which is a hybrid of man and zone and it’s really been the first thing I wanted to implement when I got here. We can shape-shift it to the team that you have which is why I love it so much. It’s very unorthodox and our kids have really absorbed it well. What I have learned about our team is they have very high basketball IQ’s,” Popovec-Goss said.

Southern Illinois claimed the 2021-22 MVC regular season title but the Salukis will have a very different look in 2022-23. First-time head coach Kelly Bond-White takes over a program that returns just one starter and must replace three key players who left a legacy of success and work ethic. Bond-White and her staff spent time early injecting their culture into the program and focusing on skill work and development.

“The most exciting part has been getting to know my kids. They are like sponges. A lot of those kids didn’t get a lot of minutes because of the great players in front of them, so they understand there is opportunity there right now, but their work ethic will determine that,” Bond-White said.

Bond-White is no stranger to the ups and downs of building a program and sustaining its success in a tough conference. She served under Hall of Fame coach Gary Blair at Texas A&M for 19 seasons. “His best advice was from the last book he gave me and it was to get to neutral. He said you are going to be hit with new things, new experiences that you never expected, but don’t get too high and definitely don’t get too low.”

Missouri State finished second to Southern Illinois in 2021-22 conference race but with their 25-8 overall record, secured a trip to the NCAA Tournament. The Bears advanced to the round of 32, losing to Ohio State 63-56. Head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton left for the same position at Virginia bringing Beth Cunningham, former head coach at VCU, to Springfield in April 2022. When she took the head job there were just six returning players on the roster and so building a nucleus with seven newcomers (transfers and freshmen) was key. 

“When I took the program here, I knew this was a winning culture and has a long history of that. When you talk about winning culture it’s not just the X’s and O’s, it’s from the top down,” Cunningham said. “I have been proud with our returners that they understand that winning culture. The eight weeks we had with our full team during the summer was invaluable on and off the court.”

Northern Iowa and Illinois State battled for The Valley’s tournament title in 2022. (Photo credit: Doug DeVoe)

The new teams and head coaches in The Valley are just part of the storyline that produces great matchups, upsets, and outstanding individual performances every year. Illinois State’s trip to the 2022 NCAA Tournament has Coach Gillespie seeing a shift in the mentality of her players who are wanting to make that trip again this season. Indiana State has added depth to its roster with key transfers who bring depth and experience to the court for head coach Chad Killinger. Northern Iowa brings back nine returners for the 2022-23 season, including four seniors. The Panthers finished 13-5 in the MVC last year but the sting of a two-point loss to Illinois State in the tournament finals is keeping the current players hungry for more.

Robyn Scherr-Wells enters her second season at Evansville looking to build on year one with players she says believe in the vision of the Aces program. Drake also enters its second year under head coach Allison Pohlman and will look to improve on a 9-9 league record from 2021-22. Valparaiso also finished 9-9 in the MVC (11-19 overall) and will need to replace their three leading scorers from 2021-22. Head coach Mary Evans spent the off-season focused on replacing that scoring punch through the collective effort of her team’s offense. 

“We have to get back to running our offense well, being more motion-oriented and being more team-oriented. We spent the summer getting back to basics and teaching them the real fundamentals of our motion offense,” Scherr-Wells said. 

Illinois State punched their ticket to the 2022 NCAA Tournament with the automatic bid from winning the Hoops in the Heartland title. (Photo credit: Doug DeVoe)

With its 2023 neutral site championship in Moline, Ill., known as Hoops in the Heartland, The Val­ley becomes the only Division I stand-alone women’s basketball event to be held in the same city eight or more consecutive years.  In fact, Hoops in the Heartland 2023 will match the ACC, SEC, Big Ten and Big 12 Conference Tournaments, as the only Division I stand-alone women’s basketball championships to be held at a neutral site for more than 15 consecutive years.

The upcoming season in the MVC will have new coaches, players, and travel destinations but one thing is constant: there will be great games, performances, and an uber-competitive race for the conference title. The Valley is poised to hold its place as a top mid-major league in 2022-23 and we look forward to watching all season long.

Written by Missy Heidrick

I am a retired Kansas State shooting guard and spent almost 20 years working in Higher Education and Division 1 athletics. I am currently a basketball analyst for television and radio, contributing correspondent at The Next, Locked on Women's Basketball podcast host, WBB Naismith Award board of selectors member and run my own consulting business. I am a proud mother of two and wife to a patient husband who is almost as big of a sports junkie as I am!

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