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2002-03 Season Preview

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Mid-Continent

Andrew Glatczak


The Homer Drew era is done, so Mid-Continent teams finally get a reprieve, right?


In the words of Lee Corso, not so fast, my friend.  Valparaiso is not going anywhere yet. Even though Homer Drew stepped down at Valparaiso, his son Scott, a former assistant to his dad and an ace recruiter, was anointed the replacement, keeping the program in the family. And while Valparaiso loses some key members of last year�s team, most of the teams that challenged Valpo last year lose quite a bit too. Oakland loses four players who averaged double figures in Mid-Con play, IUPUI loses leading scorer Charles Price and UMKC loses three starters. Even Oral Roberts loses two starters from last year, and remember the Golden Eagles were only 17-14 last year; it may be expecting a lot of ORU to jump from being good to greatness. Of course, Southern Utah faced the same thing two years ago and came through just fine.


So, for now the Crusaders are still the pick.  Transition year or not, Valpo is still Valpo, and unless someone knocks them off they are the team to beat. The Crusaders lost several key players, but still return experience and, judging by their
ambitious schedule, aren't expecting to drop off too far this year. Out of conference Valpo faces Syracuse, Missouri, Notre Dame, Purdue, UNC Charlotte, and
Cincinnati. ORU looks to be the Crusaders' main competition, and the Golden Eagles are the "sexy" pick by many publications to knock off Valpo. But watch out
for IUPUI. The Jaguars have advanced further in the conference tournament both years they were eligible, and Ron Hunter's program doesn't seem far from making
an NCAA Tournament breakthrough. Most of the rest of the conference can drawn out of a hopper.

Valparaiso continues to be the Mid-Continent's flagship program and best chance for national recognition. Last year the Crusaders beat UNC-Charlotte, Rhode Island, and West Virginia in addition to hanging right with Arizona and Kansas. However,
other Mid-Con schools have shown improvement in recent years on the national scene. Last year IUPUI went to Atlanta and beat Georgia Tech, giving the Jaguars
their biggest win since becoming a full-fledged Division I member three years ago. Plus, last year the league was 42-52 in non-conference Division I play, including a  9-4 record against the Horizon League.

Valparaiso
Valpo had an impressive season (25-8), but the team's tentative performance in the NCAA Tournament against Kentucky left a sour aftertaste to the year. The
experienced Crusaders proved they could play with better teams earlier in the year but looked overmatched and almost afraid against a Wildcat team that seemed to be ripe for an upset. Homer Drew's retirement puts his son Scott in the spotlight. It was Scott who helped Valpo bring in some highly rated recruiting classes, and he's working on another monster one next year.

Valparaiso loses all-conference performers Lubos Barton and Milo Stovall, former juco star Antonio Falu transferred after 15 games and Jared Nuness, the last
link to the 1998 Sweet 16 team, has finally used up his eligibility. Still, don�t fret for the Crusaders, who have height and strong, if relatively inexperienced, guard play. Senior Raitis Grafs (12.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg) returns at center and will be counted on
for even more this year with Barton gone. Senior Stalin Ortiz (11.2 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and sophomore Ali Berdiel (4.4 ppg, 1.9 apg) are expected to make up the backcourt, with senior Greg Tonagel and juco transfer Roberto Nieves among the backups. The forward spots are somewhat of a mystery, but returning junior Joaquim Grimes and freshman Dan Oppland should see extensive action. Grafs could even play some at the four spot when seven-footer Antti Nikkila comes in.

While not as experienced as last year's team or as loaded as the 1998 Sweet 16 team, the cupboard is far from bare at Valparaiso. Yes, there are a few question
marks: How will the new backcourt and former backups fare in starting roles? Can the newcomers jump in and provide the depth like in past years for the Crusaders? How much of an adjustment will there be for Scott Drew moving from assistant to the head role?  Expect the point play to be at least serviceable, and don't be surprised to see a lot of the big lineup with Grafs and Nikkila, which will tower over most Mid-Continent frontlines and challenge even the best teams on the schedule. This team is battle-tested and used to playing the big boys, so even with the new
faces don't expect much to change. Don't be surprised to see Valpo upset a few of those "name" teams on its schedule, and make the Crusaders the choice by a nose
over Oral Roberts and IUPUI.

Oral Roberts
The Golden Eagles made strides last year, playing pretty solid ball and going 15-7 after a 2-7 start that included a loss to Division II Cameron. The season ended for Scott Sutton and crew in depressing fashion, however, after ORU was upset by IUPUI in the Mid-Continent Tournament semis.

Oral Roberts has all the ingredients back to challenge Valparaiso this year. Senior all-conference forward Reggie Borges returns after averaging over 20 ppg in
conference play last year and 14 ppg overall while starting only seven games on the year. Quite possibly the league's best backcourt also returns with senior gunner Tyrone Tiggs (13.1 ppg, 76-189 3 pt. FG) and junior Luke Spencer-Gardner (9.6 ppg, 5 apg). Junior Ralph Charles, senior shot-blocker dynamo Kendrick Moore (3.3 bpg), 6-11 redshirt soph Matt Gastel and freshman Cameron Tragardh will also figure heavily in the frontcourt. Backcourt depth is provided by redshirt junior Josh Atkinson and juco transfer guard Corey Stokes. Atkinson was a starter two years ago and averaged 11.6 ppg, but sat out last year, and Gastel also played significantly (7.2 ppg and 10 starts) two years ago. If both revert back to their 2000-01 form, look out.

The Golden Eagles don't quite stack up to Valpo in the height department (not many do) but have plenty of skill underneath and on paper definitely look to have an edge in backcourt play over the Crusaders. Oral Roberts will need to prove it can handle the favorites' role; it started to learn how to win last year, can it continue to the next step? The schedule offers the chance to build momentum early; home games
against Arkansas, Wichita State and SMU offer the chance to impress with some wins over relative  "name" teams that will be ripe for picking. And the early season road schedule is doable; a visit to Tulsa could be a real measuring stick for the year. The key will be how the redshirts come back for ORU and whether the team meshes with all the talent on hand. There hasn't been this much excitement surrounding ORU since its teams were nicknamed the Titans, and it's awfully
tempting to pick the Golden Eagles to win the league.  Ultimately though, the Mid-Continent is still Valparaiso's to lose, but it wouldn't be a surprise at all if ORU is dancing in March for the first time since 1984.

IUPUI
Indiana-Purdue at Indianapolis coach Ron Hunter is one of the most pleasantly animated coaches in the land to watch on the sideline, an entertainer in the mold of
ex-ESPN cult hero Dick Fick from Morehead State.  Besides being funny, Hunter is proving to be pretty good. Last year the Jaguars won at Georgia Tech and after finishing sixth in the league in the regular season made it to the Mid-Continent tournament final before being clobbered by Valpo by 33.

The championship was a learning experience, and don't be surprised IUPUI (15-15 last year) shows off its newfound knowledge this year. Seven players who started last year return, led by senior forwards Josh Mullins, Dannorris Harvey, and Antoine Lewis and guard Bryan Buchanan. All averaged between six and 11 points a game, but its possible that still another senior could be the team's most important player. 6-7 forward Josh Murray transferred in from Ball State, where he averaged eight points and eight rebounds a game in 2000-01, and should fill in nicely for the departed Charles Price and his 12 points and 7 boards per game.  The frontcourt looks good, the main concern is point guard, where junior Matt Crenshaw (6.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 4.6 apg) and senior Wright State transfer Marcus May will battle it out.

The experience returns, now its just a matter of how much improvement players made in the offseason and how the transfers fit in on the court with the holdovers.
This is a program on the way up though. A championship run may be too much to ask, but eight seniors on the roster make IUPUI a team opponents certainly won't
want to play late in the season. To no surprise, there is no game with Georgia Tech this year, but games with Ball State and Northwestern and possible shots at
Notre Dame and Purdue in tournaments will give more teams in the Midwest a chance to see that the school with the funny name and funny coach is nothing to
laugh at.

Missouri-Kansas City
The Kangaroos were a Mid-Continent team that actually had more trouble in conference than out last year.  UMKC finished 18-11 but only 7-7 in the MCC with a
semifinal loss to Valpo in the Mid-Continent tournament. The Kangaroos 2-3 zone defense kept most non-conference foes off balance but wasn't as much a surprise to MCC teams. UMKC beat Missouri Valley teams SW Missouri State and Northern Iowa and played Kansas and Oklahoma State of the Big 12 tough, but was 0-5 against Valpo and Oral Roberts, sealing the team's fate as a tier below the top teams last year.

This year UMKC, like most Mid-Con teams, loses more starters (3) than it returns (2), but also like most returns one of their best players. 6-1 junior guard Michael Watson is back after averaging 21.9 points a game last year. He took a ton of shots last year to get his points (35.3 FG %) so the hope for coach Rich Zvosec is that Watson is a little more efficient this year. The other starter returning is 6-9 senior forward Tom Curtis (2.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg), who again will do dirty work inside. The only other returnees who saw significant action last year are 6-5 senior forward Randall Athison (3.3 ppg) and 6-10 sophomore center Dan Leadbetter. Like Oakland, UMKC has a number of promising newcomers. 6-9 sophomore center Carlton Aaron goes 300 pounds. The Temple transfer didn't play much for the Owls, but his size can't be ignored at the Mid-Continent level. Juco Brandon Temple is expected to step in at the point, hopefully freeing Watson to do his thing at the two spot instead of having to handle the ball so much. James Williams and Jeffrey Bramble are two 6-8 juco transfers who also should have an impact at the forward spots, while 6-10 Shaw University transfer Randall Logan gives UMKC 300 more pounds of beef on the inside.

Missouri-Kansas City's defense should keep the Kangaroos in games, assuming the big guys are mobile enough to rotate in the scheme. Remember how Temple's
matchup zone was exploited last year when quickness was a problem. Backcourt scoring shouldn't be a problem with Watson, the question will be whether the
frontcourt guys can light it up some. UMKC has excellent size and lots of beef, so it should be fun to see the Kangaroos play three Big 12 teams before conference play starts. This, like Oakland, is another interesting team to watch. Watch for the Kangaroos to finish just ahead of Oakland, as the newcomers here are mostly jucos versus Oakland's freshmen. Right now there's just too many question marks to put UMKC any higher than fourth, but don't count out a possible Mid-Continent tourney run.

Oakland
The Golden Grizzlies lose four starters from a team that went 10-4 in conference, 17-13 overall.  Highlights included a 26-point trouncing of Detroit and going 3-1 against Mid-American Conference teams, but an upset by IUPUI in the first round of the Mid-Con tourney was not the way the season was supposed to end for the team picked by many to unseat Valparaiso for the championship last year.

Gone are Brad Buddenborg, Dan Champagne, Jason Rozycki and Mychal Covington, who accounted for nearly 45 points and 16 rebounds a game last year. The only significant scoring threat back is junior guard Mike Helms, who averaged 18.4 ppg last year. Surprisingly, he also grabbed 4.2 rebounds a game, impressive for a guy only 6-0. Other returnees are 7-0 junior center Jordan Sabourin, who started 14 games last year, and junior forward Kelly Williams. The newcomers to this team, though, are where it gets interesting. 6-7 sophomore guard Rawle Marshall is a transfer from Ball State, and will be expected to step in right away and
take some of the scoring load off Helms' back. 6-6, 260 lb. sophomore forward Courtney Scott is a transfer from Iowa who is eligible for the second semester and
brings girth to Oakland's inside game. Plus, coach Greg Kampe welcomes five freshmen to campus this fall, and forwards Courtney Williams (6-9) and David Ritzema (6-10) and center Shawn Hopes (6-7) could give Oakland a downright huge inside game if all three develop quickly.

Oakland is the MCC's most intriguing team entering 2002-03. What looks to be a stellar class of newcomers could make the Golden Grizzlies a darkhorse in the
conference race, or at the very least a spoiler. Also, a softer pre-conference schedule could mean a better record than previous years heading into conference
play, which would be a big boost to a young team. The key will be the development and meshing of all the new talent, as well as finding someone to take some of the
scoring pressure off Nelms. However this year goes, this school has had quite a bit of success since moving to Division I, and that is a direct reflection on Kampe and the coaches. It's not easy when you're in a league in the land TV forgot and when you have to recruit at a school that sounds like it should be in California. This year Oakland is one of those classic "year away" teams, but don't be surprised if that year gets here faster than expected.

Southern Utah
It's tempting to pick the Thunderbirds higher just out of respect for coach Bill Evans. But there's just too many unknowns this year, even if it is hard to picture SUU having another season like last year again, when an inexperienced team started 3-11 on its way to 11-16 but 8-6 in the conference.

SUU lost Dan Beus (13.5 ppg, 7.3 rpg), one of the holdovers from the 2001 NCAA Tournament team. Only four players from last year's team return, meaning
newcomers will be filling many key roles. The good news is those four were among the six leading scorers for SUU, so maybe the newbies will be needed more for
depth than headlining roles. Leading returnees are senior off-guard Jay Collins (11.2 ppg) and senior forward Donnie Jackson (7.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg). Other key returnees are junior guard Jason Baker (6.9 ppg) and senior forward Kevin Henry (5.3 ppg), although Baker is expected to redshirt. Among the new players being counted on to make an impact in the backcourt are redshirt juco guard Jordan Mulford (5-8), juco Al Williams (6-4) and redshirt freshman Rand James. In the frontcourt, center Nik Fitzgerald (who played one year at SUU before tranferring to a junior college
last year) and forwards Aaron Miles (a 6-8 senior who played in all but one game last year), Robbie Warren, a 6-8 juco transfer, and 6-7 juco transfer David Palmer.

The Thunderbirds under Evans are traditionally a stingy defensive team, and that will help offset any lack of firepower. SUU has the tools where, if some of the newcomers can provide a spark, this team could conceivably move higher. The middle teams in the Mid-Con all have question marks, so whoever finds answers quickest will have an excellent chance at finishing in the upper division. Plus, it's hard to imagine this program just slipping back to mediocrity after the NCAA experience two years ago, even if just about all the faces from that team are already gone.  But at this point, there's just too much inexperience and not enough to expect this team to compete with the likes of Valparaiso and Oral Roberts for the
championship.

Western Illinois
The Leathernecks pulled a reverse-Oral Roberts last year, starting out strong but petering out in conference play. WIU knocked off Hampton in non-conference play and was 9-5 in non-conference games, but 3-11 in conference added up to a
disappointing 12-16 finish. Of course, 12-16 was much better than the previous year's 5-23, but with all the seniors it's hard to understand why this team wasn�t
more of a threat in conference. And it wasn't like WIU was losing nailbiters; seven of the 11 losses came by double-figures.

Jim Kerwin has been the man in Macomb for 10 years now, and more often than not he's gotten more out of a team than expected. This would be a nice year to do
so, as the Leathernecks lost five players who started 14 or more games last year. The only returnees who started more than a few games are 6-5 senior forward
Shawn Mason (11.5 ppg) and 6-3 swingman J.D. Summers (6.8 ppg, 4.0 rpg). Lorenzo Lawrence, a 6-3 senior guard, is also back after scoring 5.9 points per game off the bench last year, so Western does return some firepower in the backcourt spots, although last year's point man, Brian Williams, will be missed. Matt Robins, a 5-11 senior guard, also returns after coming off the bench and playing in all but one game. He averaged only 2.1 ppg last year, but may have the
inside track at the point this year, if 6-2 juco transfer Ray Harris doesn't take it. Inside, Luis Rivas was limited by injuries last year, playing in only five games. However, the 6-6 forward/center averaged 11 ppg in the games he appeared in, and he could be a big key as to how far WIU goes this year.  With all the personnel losses, the Leathernecks will need big-time help from new blood. Frosh David
Genslinger (6-9) and Kenny Smith (6-4) and 6-6 juco Will Lewis were the only frontcourt recruits, and they will be pressed into action, if only for depth purposes if not actually starting.

Like Oakland, Southern Utah and UMKC, Western Illinois is a team coming into this year with a lot of question marks. Western is exceptionally short, even by MCC
standards-only one player over 6-6. The Leathernecks will need a lot of role players from last year to step up and some newcomers to contribute heavily from the
start. It would be nice to have some continuity in the starting lineup after Kerwin spent most of last year mixing and matching, trying to find the right combination or react to injuries. The early season schedule isn't nearly as friendly as last year, and
with nine straight games away from home to start the year it will take a whale of an effort to be better than last year's 12-16 mark. Kerwin has pulled rabbits out of his hat before, so don't count him out, but at this point it looks like a long year in Macomb.

Chicago State
And then there's poor Chicago State, bringing up the rear of the Mid-Continent like it has all too often.  Bo Ellis seemed to have the Cougar program on the right track when the 1999-2000 team won 10 games in just his second season. Even the 2000-01 team that went 5-23 played some people tough, losing a close one to DePaul and beating IUPUI twice. But then the bottom fell out from underneath again, in the form of a 2-26 season last year that included wins over only five-win Youngstown State and Division III Lakeland College of Wisconsin. The Cougars also took the collar in MCC play, going 0-14. It's hard to believe this program actually was winning 20+ games a year at the Division I level in the mid-1980s under Bob Hallberg; lately
this has been looking more and more like a place where it may be close to impossible to win in D-I.

Here's hoping Chicago State doesn't become the next U.S. International, Brooklyn College, or Houston Baptist. The Cougars actually return three of their top four players last year; unfortunately, those are the only returnees who even played last year. The frontcourt doesn't look half-bad. Clark Bone, a 6-8 senior center, averaged 12.3 ppg and 8.4 rpg last year and will be a candidate for all-league honors this
year. Forwards Kelvin Smallwood and Rubeen Perry also return after averaging 9.6 and 8.4 points a game, respectively. Smallwood goes 6-6; Perry 6-9, so CSU
will have the size if not the depth up front to challenge teams. The backcourt looks like an absolute mess; no one with any kind of experience returns.  Sophomore Craig Franklin has missed the last two years, but at least he's been around the program.  Other options will be juco transfers Tony Hansbro and Steve Turner and freshmen Anthony Mlachnik and Derrick Wimmer.

Once again the outlook is gloomy for the Cougars. The starting frontline is pretty good, but there's no proven depth behind it and nobody knows how the
backcourt situation will shake down. Add to this a schedule that doesn't allow a home game until December 19th, and it's hard to paint a rosy picture. The fact
that so many other Mid-Con schools have holes to fill should help, but it's hard picturing CSU winning any more than six or seven games this year.

 

Mid-Continent Conference

Predicted order of finish:
1. Valparaiso
2. Oral Roberts
3. IUPUI
4. UMKC
5. Oakland
6. Southern Utah
7. Western Illinois
8. Chicago State

 
 

 

 

 
       
 

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