Excitement builds in Valley hoops after Loyola’s Final Four run

Illinois State coach Dan Muller is surrounded by Redbirds Keyshawn Evans (left) and Phil Fayne during Wednesday’s annual Missouri Valley Conference Basketball Media Day in St. Louis. (Greg Halbleib/WJBC)

By Greg Halbleib

ST. LOUIS – Missouri Valley Conference basketball coaches will battle on the floor in a little more than a month, but they were unified in one opinion as they looked ahead to the coming season during the annual Basketball Media Day on Wednesday in St. Louis. 


Valley basketball, for both men and women, could be something special this season.


Loyola men’s basketball coach Porter Moser said while the Missouri Valley Conference was showcased during his Ramblers’ Final Four run last March, this Valley hoops season could be even better.


“I was at Illinois State the year the Valley got four teams (into the NCAA tournament),” Moser said. “There were like four teams in the top 50 so they had a bunch of opportunities. You know where it says ‘good wins’? It was like four or five against Valley teams. That’s going to happen again this year.”


Illinois State men’s coach Dan Muller agrees.


“It’s going to be a battle,” Muller said. “I think what Loyola did last year brings a lot of excitement to our league, but that doesn’t make you play better on game night. We’ve got to follow that success up as a league with success in the non-conference and really good basketball, and I’ll be very surprised if that doesn’t happen.”


Loyola guard Clayton Custer said the Valley toughened the Ramblers for last season’s Final Four run.


“We had to win three do-or-die games in a row just to make it to the NCAA tournament,” Custer recalled. “People don’t realize how good the teams are in the Valley. When we went up against Miami in the first round, I don’t think we were intimidated at all. We were ready for the moment.”


The entire conference benefitted from Loyola’s Final Four appearance in many ways according to Missouri Valley Conference Commissioner Doug Elgin.


“We are still basking in the glow, and (Loyola’s run) couldn’t have been more perfectly timed given the change in membership a year ago,” Elgin said, referring to the departure of Wichita State and the addition of Valparaiso to the Valley. “What it says to the other members of the league is that any one of our programs can step up and take that leadership position. I think that’s really re-energized our league top to bottom.”


A new individual to the conference is Central Catholic High School graduate Nick Norton, who is following up a stellar career at University of Alabama-Birmingham with his final year of eligibility at Drake as a graduate transfer.


“The only conference I knew growing up was the Missouri Valley,” Norton related. “Being able to play in it is special. Even if it’s only for one year, it means a lot and I can’t wait to get going.”


Norton is joining a Bulldogs roster as one of eight newcomers under a new head coach.


“What I bring to the table is leadership and experience, being that guy in the locker and on the court,” Norton said. “With eight new guys and three returners, we’ve all got to step up and everyone is doing a great job of doing that.”


Although teams have been working out throughout the off-season, official practices begin on September 25. Illinois State’s top returning scorer, Milik Yarbrough, has not been with the team due to his indefinite suspension following an incident in Normal last week in which he is accused of striking a woman with his vehicle, causing minor injuries. Muller said no decision on Yarbrough’s status has been made as information on the incident is gathered, but would not rule out a decision before the first official practice.


“As soon as we get enough information to feel good about what happened that night, we’ll be able to make a decision,” Muller said. “One thing we do have to be careful of doing is unjustly punishing the kid.”


Illinois State women’s basketball coach Kristen Gillespie will prepare a team that is half new and half returning, but she said that process has been good so far.


“I think all of our newcomers bring something unique and different on the offensive end,” the second-year Redbird coach said. “What I’ve been really pleased with is our six returners. They’ve really gotten better. They’ve put in the work.”


Gillespie echoed the men’s coaches about the potential for a standout season on the women’s side of the Valley.


“I’m excited. It is going to be really tough,” Gillespie said. “I think there’s going to be a lot more parity, I really believe, from top to bottom. Drake is still the gold standard. They have done such an outstanding job. I would like to think we could make a little bit of a move from where we finished. That’s our team’s goal. Hopefully we can catch some people by surprise but we want to be playing our best in March.”

Greg Halbleib can be reached at greg@wjbc.com. 


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