Tuesday , Nov , 01 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

College Basketball Preview – Mid-Continent Conference

*** College Basketball Preview – Mid-Continent Conference ***

The Sports Network

By Nick Browne, College Basketball Staff Writer

OUTLOOK: Valparaiso’s string of NCAA Tournament appearances came to an end
last season as the Crusaders finished third in the Mid-Continent Conference
(10-6) and registered their first losing season as a whole (15-16) for the
first time since 1993. Oral Roberts won the regular season conference crown
with a league ledger of 13-3, and finished with a 25-8 mark overall. The
Golden Eagles were denied a bid to the NCAA tournament thanks to a last-second
shot from Oakland’s Pierre Duke in the conference tournament. Oral Roberts
returns its top two player, 2005 MCC Player of the Year Caleb Green, as well
Ken Tutt, who led the conference with 82 three-pointers a year ago, and should
finish the year as the number one team in the league once again. Valpo will be
hard-pressed to regain its stronghold at the top of the conference thanks to a
slew of roster problems. IUPUI should challenge Oral Roberts for the top spot
in the conference thanks to the addition of Xavier transfer Angelo Smith, and
the return of 6-6 rebounder Brandon Cole. After those three teams, there is a
significant drop-off. UMKC lost scoring leader Mike English, rebounding leader
Carlton Aaron, and marksmen Brandon Temple. The Kangaroos do however, run out
the Mid-Con’s best backcourt tandem in Tim Blackwell and Quinton Day. Oakland
advanced to the NCAA Tournament last year as the MCC’s lone representative,
but returns only four players. While Western Illinois can boast the top
recruiting class in the conference, the club did lose scoring and rebounding
leader Eulis Baez. The Leathernecks should cause some headaches for the top
teams, but likely won’t be in the mix come early March. Southern Utah, Chicago
State and Centenary are likely to battle to stay out of the league basement.


PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH: 1. Oral Roberts; 2. IUPUI; 3. Valparaiso; 4.
Western Illinois; 5. UMKC; 6. Oakland; 7. Southern Utah; 8. Chicago State; 9.


ORAL ROBERTS: The Golden Eagles come into the 2005-06 campaign with high hopes
after finishing at the top of the Mid-Con a year ago, unseating perennial
league king Valparaiso. The team will certainly benefit from the strong
inside-outside presence of Tutt and Green. ORU also comes into the season with
a sour taste in its mouth after being ousted in the conference tournament by
Oakland, and denied a bid to the Big Dance. Both Green and Tutt joined the
1,000-point club last season. Green led the Mid-Con in both scoring and
rebounding (19.4 ppg, 9.3 rpg), while Tutt drained a league-best 82 three-
pointers and also led the league in free-throw percentage (.870). Point guard
Jonathan Bluitt returns to run the Golden Eagle offense after leading the Mid-
Con in assists for the second consecutive year (5.4 apg), and led everyone in
assist-to-turnover ratio (2.54). League shot-block leader, Larry Owens returns
to anchor the Eagle defense and again looks to hold the opposition in check
while turning away all comers and getting his hands on any ball that comes his
way. Incoming freshman, Marchello Veally, a 6-7 forward who averaged 17.4
points and 11.4 rebounds per game last year as a senior in high school, along
with Arizona’s top prep point guard, Daren Jordan, should help cement the
Golden Eagles as favorites to win the Mid-Con for the second consecutive year.

IUPUI: Coach Rob Hunter’s squad should rule the glass this year, thanks in
part to 6-9, 230-pound Xavier transfer Angelo Smith, and with the return of
6-6 Brandon Cole, who recorded six double doubles in 2004-05. Cole showed
flashes of solid perimeter skills last season and will need to up his game for
the Jaguars if they are to challenge Oral Roberts for the top spot in the
conference. With the addition of 6-9 Michael Vavrek, a tough offensive
rebounder, IUPUI’s frontcourt depth should be better. Guards George Hill and
David Barlow give the Jags experience in the backcourt, and both should help
on the glass. If either struggle, the team has Penn State transfer Brandon
Cameron and juco transfer Matt Burks ready to fill the void. Over the last two
seasons, the Jaguars rank second in the conference in total victories (57).
Hunter’s up-tempo style is complemented by the all-around game of Coles. The
addition of juco transfer James Thompkins (26.5 ppg, 10.7 rpg) will add depth
to an already formidable roster. The addition of 10 new players will add even
more depth to Hunter’s club, which should give ORU a run for its money.

VALPARAISO: Coach Homer Drew’s team finished last season with a losing record
for the first time in over a decade, as a slew of injuries ended the
Crusaders’ run of NCAA Tournament appearances. Valpo plugged away and still
took third in the conference with a 10-6 league mark. The roster is again
suffering from injury troubles and the season has yet to begin. The team’s top
three-point shooter, Seth Colclasure suffered a broken collarbone and will be
sidelined until at least the beginning of conference play. Ken Harris, the
club’s top sixth man from a year ago, collapsed while lifting weights last
spring and is undergoing physical and speech therapy and most likely will not
suit up for the Crusaders again. Coach Drew hired his son, Bryce, in hopes of
restoring glory for Valpo. Bryce Drew is best remembered for connecting on
“The Shot” in the first round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament to beat Ole Miss.
Thankfully for the Crusaders, they are deep at guard and should be able to
hold down the fort until Colclasure is able to return. While the roster has
endured some injury problems, there are some bright spots. Forward Dan Oppland
is capable of challenging for MCC Player of the Year honors, and swingman Ron
Howard gives the Crusaders some versatility in their lineup. If the many
question marks surrounding the team are answered, Valpo should challenge Oral
Roberts and IUPUI to regain the top spot in the league.

WESTERN ILLINOIS: Coach Derek Thomas continues to stockpile junior college
talent in hopes of brining his program to the top of the Mid-Con. The
Leathernecks come into the season with the top recruiting class, and Marlon
Mahorn, nephew of former NBA star Rick Mahorn, looks to be at the top of the
heap. Mahorn can play guard or small forward and at 6-7, has the height and
talent to beat most of the big men in the conference on the block. Western
Illinois improved eight games last season from the 2003-04 campaign and it
could have been more if the Leathernecks could have pulled out wins in some
close losses. The club lost its leading scorer and rebounder in Eulis Baez,
but was able to add some much-needed size in the low post. The addition of
6-10 Nigeria native Eze Samuel and 6-8 swingman Chris Gonzales should add some
needed help on the glass. Guard David Jackson returns after being named one of
the top rookies in the Mid-Con in 04-05.

UMKC: The Kangaroos were a surprise team in the conference last year,
rebounding from an 0-7 start to finish 16-12 and 12-4 in the Mid-Con. Once
guards Quinton Day and Tim Blackwell became eligible, the club won a school-
record 11 straight games. Coach Rich Zvosec’s squad was the only one in the
conference to beat regular season champ Oral Roberts twice, accounting for two
of the three ORU conference losses on the year. Unfortunately for the
Kangaroos, they lost the regular-season title in the last week of the season
and were ousted in the first round of the conference tournament. The team
still boasts one of the best backcourt duos in the league in Day and
Blackwell, but the loss of Carlton Aaron and Mike English inside will be tough
to stomach. The addition of juco transfer Kyle Spears, a 6-10 forward who
averaged 9.1 points last season, will add some needed punch to the lineup. The
Kangaroos aren’t likely to repeat last season’s stellar conference mark, but
they should cause some headaches for the rest of the league.

OAKLAND: The Golden Grizzlies shocked everyone by sweeping through the
conference tourney as the seventh seed and advancing to their first-ever NCAA
Tournament. Oakland was the only team with a sub-.500 record to advance to the
Big Dance, posting a mark of 13-19 overall. Don’t expect the Grizzlies to
repeat last year’s miracle run, however, as they return only four players from
2004-05. The production of Rawle Marshall and Cortney Scott will be hard for
the team to replace, as Oakland comes into the season with the possibility of
starting three freshmen — point guard Keith MacKenzie, shooting guard Clyde
McKinney and swingman Derrick Nelson. On the upside, Oakland is expected to
have center Shawn Hopes back after he missed all of the ’04-’05 campaign. In
addition to Hopes, transfers Ricardo Billings and Vova Severovas will be
eligible sometime in December. Guard Calvin Woods also will eligible to play
this season after transferring in from Rutgers. Woods, Billings and Severovas
are talented players, but don’t expect another run through the conference
tournament and into the NCAA Tourney for the Golden Grizzlies this season.

SOUTHERN UTAH: The Thunderbirds lost their two leading scorers from last year
in DeAngelo Newsome and Tim Gainey. On top of that, they lose three-point
marksman Jason Baker who shot a scorching 48.7 percent from the behind the
arc. Veterans Rand Janes and Steve Barnes will have to pick up the slack is
Southern Utah has any chance of being respectable this season. The ‘Birds were
able to add some much-needed size with the arrival of transfer Fernando
Bonfim, a 7-0 center who averaged 14.3 points and 11.7 rebounds per game while
leading Western Nebraska to a 25-8 record in 2004-05. Bonfim gives the
Thunderbirds their best low-post option in some time, but he will need help
from frontcourt mates, Lubor Olsovsky (6-9) and Esteban Bonzano (6-10). Janes
and Olsovsky are the top returning players for coach Bill Evans, whose team
will live and die with shooting and zone defense.

CHICAGO STATE: The Cougars lost almost all of their scoring from last season,
with Royce Parran being the only returning player to average more than six
points per game (10.0 ppg). At just 5-10, Parran is going to be asked to
shoulder the offensive load by head coach Kevin Jones. Chicago State lost two
starters to graduation, seven-footer Deji Akindale declared for the NBA draft,
and David Inabnit transferred. The Cougars have managed a 16-16 conference
record over the past two seasons, marking the most league victories in a two-
year span in school history. Jones is hoping juco transfers Kourtney Calvin
and Camron Clay will be able to pick up some of the slack at both ends of the
floor. Look for the Cougars to finish in the bottom of the pack, unless they
get production from a surprise player or two.

CENTENARY: The Gents wallowed in the depths of the MCC last season, posting
just one league victory and finishing with a dismal 3-24 record overall. New
coach Rob Flaska was hired after two seasons at Arkansas as Stan Heath’s top
assistant. Flaska brought in eight new players in an effort to turn the
program around, but fans should realize it’s not going to happen overnight.
The Gents lack height, fielding just one starter over 6-6, he being 6-9 center
Jason Underwood. One of three returning players, Tyrone Hamilton, led the team
in three-pointers a year ago, and looks to be the only returning starter.
Hamilton though, is coming off a season-ending knee injury and it remains to
be seen if he is 100 percent. Transfer Larry Logan, who averaged 24 points and
11 rebounds at Owens College in Ohio last year, will need to step into the
lineup and provide some scoring punch as well as a presence on the glass. The
Gents are also still recovering from the death of Chad Maclies in May, and
they will need to get over the pain of losing their brother if the squad hopes
to turn things around.