Creighton could have a lot to say about that
The last time the Missouri Valley Conference was able to send multiple teams to the NCAA Tournament was back in 2007, when Creighton beat regular season champ Southern Illinois in the tournament final and both went dancing. That team of Salukis, led by the likes of Jamaal Tatum and Matt Shaw, won a pair of NCAA Tournament games before falling to Kansas in the Sweet 16. But with some asking when the Valley can get back to that level of success, the answer to the question of when the league can get back to multi-bid status may be "this year".
One reason for that could be the Creighton Bluejays, who return a wealth of experience from a team that won 23 games and advanced to the CBI Championship Series (where they lost to Oregon in three games). Head coach Greg McDermott and his program enjoyed the added benefit of taking an overseas trip in the offseason, playing four games in the Bahamas last month. Creighton won the four games by an average of 27.5 points per game, but the added practice/ game time is the primary purpose of such a trip.
Leading the way was sophomore forward Doug McDermott, who averaged 24.3 points and 9.8 rebounds per game on the trip. The trip capped a busy summer for the reigning MVC Newcomer (and Freshman) of the Year, who also played for Team USA in the Under-19 World Championships. But while the summer was a profitable one for McDermott it was busy as well.
"He had a busy summer," said Coach McDermott. "The experience was incredible and he really benefitted from it, but it's important that he gets ample rest."
Doug averaged a team-best 14.9 points and 7.2 rebounds per game in 2010-11, and he'll be expected to be a focal point of the Bluejay attack. But he won't be alone up front, as junior Gregory Echenique will get to play a full season after sitting out the first part of last season per NCAA transfer rules. The Venezuela native is in the same boat as McDermott in that he needs to get rest in the time leading up to the start of the season as well.
Echenique played for his native country in the FIBA Americas Tournament, helping lead the team to the second round of the event and thus was not with Creighton in the Bahamas. In speaking with Coach McDermott it's expected that getting to play a full season will help Gregory, who "took a while to find his groove" due to the transfer from Rutgers.
"It [representing Venezuela] was an incredible experience for Gregory," said McDermott. "He truly embraced representing his country, but we have to find a way to get him some rest."
Also looking to contribute in the frontcourt will be Ethan Wragge, who played in just nine games last season before being lost to a foot injury. Redshirt freshman center Will Artino led the Bluejays in rebounding during the four-game tour with an average of 11 rebounds per game, and Geoff Groselle grabbed 7.5 to go along with 2.5 blocks per contest. The Bluejays lost Kenny Lawson Jr. from last season's team but they'll have more than enough bodies to make up for his departure.
The backcourt is where Creighton has to improve if they're to have a shot at getting to the NCAA Tournament. The Bluejays finished last season with a turnover margin of -2.5 turnovers per game, a number that ranked 308th in the nation and dead last in the MVC. The growth of senior guard Antoine Young, along with Creighton's improved backcourt depth, should help in this area. Young (Second Team All-MVC) led the team with 5.0 assists per game in addition to scoring 13.1 points, and he took great care of the basketball during the CBI (7.3 assists, 1.0 turnovers per game).
"Antoine played his best basketball at the end of the season and he carried that momentum into the offseason," noted McDermott. "He was a distributor and picked his spots to score in the Bahamas."
Jahenns Manigat is another key cog in the backcourt, as the All-Freshman Team member from Ontario started the final 15 games of the season for Creighton. Manigat shot 39% from beyond the arc last season, attempting 105 of his 152 field goals from beyond the arc. His scoring (5.3 ppg) and three-point percentage (47.5%) improved in conference play, and Manigat reached double figures in three of Creighton's six CBI games.
The issue for Creighton last season, according to Coach McDermott, was the lack of a backup point guard. That shouldn't be an issue this season, with Austin Chatman being one of the new players in the rotation. Chatman left the Bahamas with an assist-to-turnover ratio of 3-to-1 (30 AST, 10 TO) in 18 minutes per game.
Gonzaga transfer Grant Gibbs, who according to the head coach "thinks like a point guard on the wing", averaged 8.0 points and 4.25 assists per game on the trip. Add in wing Avery Dingman, who scored a team-high 24 points in the final game of the trip, and Creighton has a deep perimeter group that won't lack for versatility either.
So what's it going to take for Creighton to win the Valley? Coach McDermott mentioned their need to take better care of the basketball in addition to becoming a more consistent team defensively. That will be key given the other contenders in the Missouri Valley.
Wichita State returns a number of key contributors led by Toure´ Murry and will once again be expected to be in the running for the regular season title. Indiana State, who won the conference tournament, returns their top three leading scorers from last season and has a very good point guard in sophomore Jake Odum.
And defending regular season champ Missouri State may have undergone a coaching change (Cuonzo Martin is now at Tennessee) and lost three of their top four starters, but reigning MVC Player of the Year Kyle Weems is back for his final campaign. Of course there are other teams who will be heard from in the Valley this winter, and the league's overall philosophy of scheduling well from a non-conference standpoint will give teams chances to pick up resume-building victories.
"I believe we're [the MVC] right on the cusp of getting back to where the league was five or six years ago," remarked McDermott. "Across the league a lot of good young players will be back."
There's no guarantee that the Valley will get back to the days of consistently earning multiple NCAA bids this season, but it's a definite possibility. Creighton is one of the teams that will have a lot to say about the outcome.