2001-02 Mid-Continent Conference Preview
by Mark McGrath
The Mid-Continent Conference is at a crossroads. They lost the strong presence of Youngstown State (jumped to the Horizon League), and the viability of the conference has been questioned. But there are some bright spots, especially in Valparaiso, Indiana, where the Crusaders hope to cast the spotlight on the coference come March. A new contender is Oakland University. The Golden Grizzlies are finally off the NCAA probationary period for new D-I schools just in time to mount a challenge to the Crusaders and last year’s champion, the Southern Utah Thunderbirds. With that in mind, here are our predictions for the upcoming season.
1. Valparaiso Crusaders: As much as we try to block it out, Cinderella’s glass slipper always seems to appear in our collective subconscious every time Valpraiso’s basketball team is mentioned. Bryce Drew and his teammates’ improbable run to the Sweet 16 have left an indelible image in all of our minds. The only problem is that Homer Drew and the rest of the Crusader’s basketball team is ready to leave those sweaty slippers behind and prove that their program is a legitimate force. For the first time since 1998, they have the talent to take the next step toward an even longer trip to the dance.
Drew definitely has the firepower to achieve this kind of goal, beginning with Rattis Grafs. Grafs has been predicted by many to be the top player in the conference this year, as he is expected to improve on the 14 points and 8 rebounds a year he averaged last year. Coupled with four-year starter, Lubos Barton, the Crusaders have a tandem that few teams could hope to match. The wild card thrown into the mix is the addition of JuCo All-American Antonio Falu. Falu has been earmarked for All-Conference honors having never taking the court for the Crusaders. Add a strong returning bench to the recipe and you have the makings of a Mid-major team that could finally dispel its Cinderella stereotype once March comes around.
2. Oakland Grizzlies: This year if the Grizzlies win the conference championship, they’ll actually be able to attend the NCAA tournament. Finally off probation, Greg Campe has postseason play as a motivating tool and will look to the return of Jason Rozycki to spark Oakland’s run for another championship. The health of Jason’s knee has been a question mark however, and whether the team chemistry will be affected by his return has also been discussed. With all five starters returning from last year, it looks like the Griz will be Valpo’s stiffest competition for the championship. If sophomore guard Michael Helms continues to progress at the rate they hope, Oakland could be among the 65 announced in March.
3. Oral Roberts Golden Eagles: Forgive Eagle coach Scott Sutton if he bristles at any comparisons between he and his father. The son of legendary Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton, Scott hasn’t yet experienced the Sutton winning tradition. In two years of head coaching, Scott has been given ample time to turn around the team’s recent misfortunes, and is being asked to produce this year. Fortunately for Sutton and Oral Roberts fans, with the return of Markius Barnes, the Golden Eagles are sure to improve on last year’s 10-19 overall record. While Barnes will be the workhorse, he will not be the only one to make a strong contribution in the backcourt. Luke Spencer-Gardner is one of the better playmakers in the MCC and Josh Atkinson can shoot from anywhere on the court. If Oral Roberts gets any significant help from the forward position, look for them to rise to the upper echelon of the MCC and contend with Oakland for second place.
4. Southern Utah Thunderbirds: It was the Birds’ turn last year to try on the conference’s dancing shoes. Bill Evans’ team raced to a 25-6 record, and beat Valpo in the conference championship only to come up just a few points shy of beating Boston College in the first round of the NCAA tournament. Last year’s success surprised everyone, but look for Southern Utah to suffer from a mild hangover this year. Gone from last year’s team is conference Player of the Year Jeff Monaco and his 18 points and 5 assists per game. In addition to the loss of Monaco, Evans has had to deal with the departure of three other starters including Fred House and his 18 points per game. The cupboard isn’t completely bare however, as the Thunderbirds expect great leadership and strong rebounding from Dan Beus.
5. UMKC Kangaroos: Its hard to blame former coach Dean Demopoulos for jumping that fence and heading for the greener pastures promised by the NBA’s Seattle Supersonics. The Kangaroos have had a tough time living up to expectations, and such blame usually falls squarely on the coach’s shoulders. UMKC returns a plethora of key players including Michael Jackson and Michael Watson. The major question that faces new coach Rich Zvosec is whether he can get his team to play with consistency throughout the course of the year. Team chemistry could pose problems for the Kangaroos if the losses begin to accumulate.
6. IUPUI Jaguars: Things have always been tough on coach Ron Hunter and his Jaguars. Never lacking for talent, they simply haven’t been able to put together enough victories together to mount any kind of ascension to the top of the MCC. This year the Jags have to deal with the departure of Don Carlisle. One of the school’s greatest players ever, Carlisle’s 16 points and 9 rebounds per game will be sorely missed. Hunter expects great things from senior forward Charles Price who was very effective last year. The only question that arises in Price’s game is whether it was skewed by Carlisle’s presence last year. Lance Williams could also prove to be invaluable for IUPUI if he is able to maintain any consistency in his three point shooting, but look for another dismal year near the bottom of the conference for the Jaguars.
7. Western Illinois Leathernecks: Finding something positive to say about the Leathernecks, while not impossible, has proven to be somewhat of a challenge lately. One could say that although they won only five games last year, they were able to return all of their starters and key bench players. Unfortunately, a new look probably wouldn’t have been a bad idea for this team. Look for coach Jim Kerwin to shuffle the lineup constantly with little success no matter who’s playing. This team is bad, and doesn’t look to get better anytime soon.
8. Chicago State Cougars: Like the Leathernecks, the Cougars only won five games last year. Chicago State however, has lost most of last year’s scoring. Coach Bo Ellis is going to have problems finding someone who can put the ball in the basket as no returning player averaged more than five points per game. Ellis has the luxury of two big and powerful forwards in the middle with Randy Nelson and Clark Bone, but the Cougars will struggle mightily to match last year’s win total.