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Mid Continent Preview

November 9, 2002 Conference Notes No Comments

Mid Continent Conference Preview

by Brian Seymour

Talk about big shoes to fill. Not only does new Valparaiso coach Scott Drew have to replace a legend, he has to replace his father, Homer Drew, who stepped down at the end of last season after 26 years and more than 500 wins.

Oedipal conflicts aside, replacing any legendary coach is hard enough. When its your father and you’re expected to win right away, the tension is ratcheted up a couple of notches. The elder Drew hasn’t exactly bolted for Florida to play shuffleboard – he took a position with the Valpo athletic department and the expectation is he’ll act as counselor for his son, but the history of sons replacing fathers, from royalty to politics to sports, isn’t filled with many success stories.

The cupboard isn’t exactly bare at Valpo, but there’s no clear cut favorite in the conference this season either.

History suggests it would be silly to expect anyone other than the Crusaders to take home the league title, but there’s up-and-coming programs who smell blood in the water with the Valpo coaching change.

Nascent Division I programs at Oakland University and IUPUI have been making waves. Southern Utah, the only team other than Valpo to visit the NCAA Tournament from the Mid-Con in the last seven years (2001) looks to have a lot of talent and Oral Roberts is the X factor in the league. The Golden Eagles could contend for the title or hang in the middle of the pack.

Team Profiles, in Projected Order of Finish:

1. Oakland University Golden Grizzlies

Coach: Greg Kampe (306-208, 19th year)
2001-2002 record: 17-13, 10-4 in the conference (T-2nd)
2002-2003 prediction: 19-11, 11-3

It would seem foolhardy to slot any team other than Valpo as the preseason prediction to win the conference title. With six titles in seven years, the Crusaders have more or less earned the benefit of the doubt where preseason predictions are concerned.

But while Valpo is the safe bet, the Golden Grizzlies of Oakland are a daring guess as to where the future of the Mid-Con is headed. In only its fifth year of Division I basketball, Oakland (that’s in Michigan – not California – by the way) has proven it can hang with the big boys, winning the regular season title two years ago, but ineligible to complete in the conference tournament until its D-I waiting period was up.

This season is the first one for 19-year OU coach Greg Kampe where all his recruits were brought in while Oakland is at the D-I level. If he could win a regular-season title with Division II holdovers without the carrot of going to the NCAA Tournament, imagine how he’ll do with better athletes and all that incentive, plus the possibility of Valpo sliding a bit without its legendary coach at the helm.

The key returning player for the Golden Grizzlies is junior shooting guard Mike Helms, a first-team All-Mid-Con selection last year. Helms averaged 18.3 points per game last season and could see that number increase dramatically this season with four new starters surrounding him, some of whom come with high expectations like point guard Rawle Marshall, a transfer from Ball State. The 6-foot-7 Marshall should tower over most of his opponents in the conference and will create defensive problems for opposing teams.

Another key transfer is forward Courtney Scott, who is eligible this year after coming from Iowa, where he played in every game as a freshman. Scott, built like a linebacker at 6-foot-6 and 260 pounds will also be physically bigger and stronger than most of the players he’ll be matched up against in the Mid-Con.

The key loss from last year’s team is Dan Champagne, who did as much as anyone to boost OU’s profile in the transition from Division II to Division I. Champagne’s reputation as a scrapper and a leader was more important than his 12.2 ppg average. Two other double-digit scorers from last season – Brad Buddenborg and Jason Rozycki were also lost to graduation.

With all the young players to develop, OU has eased up its traditionally difficult non-conference schedule. Gone are Michigan and Michigan State, but the Grizzlies will still face Illinois and Texas A&M.

2. Valparaiso University Crusaders

Coach: Scott Drew (0-0, 1st year)
2001-2002 record: 25-7, 12-2 Mid-Con (1st)
2002-2003 prediction: 17-12, 11-3

Crusader fans will be hoping that the apple didn’t fall too far from the tree as Scott Drew takes the reigns of THE program in the Mid-Con. Valpo’s legend as a giant-killer is still intact and a brutal non-conference schedule will give Drew a chance to cut his teeth before the other Mid-Con programs take their licks at the defending champs.

In a word, this year’s Valpo roster is diverse. Five different countries are represented including Latvia, Angola, Colombia and Finland. And that’s not counting two Puerto Ricans. The trick will be meshing all this diverse talent.

The key returnees are 6-foot-11 center Raitis Grafs (Latvia) and guard Stalin Ortiz (Colombia), both of whom averaged double digits in scoring last season. Grafs towers over almost everyone in the conference except teammate Antti Nikkila (Finland), who stands 7 feet tall. If paired together in the frontcourt, opposing defenses will be hard-pressed to match up with the Crusaders’ twin towers.

Losing All-Mid-Con performer Lubos Barton will hurt though. The leading scorer from last season’s squad, Barton contributed 14.9 points per game.

The aforementioned schedule includes contests against national powers Syracuse, Purdue, Missouri, Notre Dame on the road and Charlotte at home. Winning one of those games would a success, winning more than one could launch the Crusaders towards another NCAA berth. In any case, it’s definitely going to be an interesting season in northern Indiana.

3. Southern Utah University Thunderbirds

Coach: Bill Evans (149-139, 11th year)
2001-2002 record: 11-16, 8-6 Mid-Con (3rd)
2002-2003 prediction: 13-13, 9-5

Give SUU coach Bill Evans credit – with only four players returning from last year’s squad – he decided to rebuild in a hurry. Eight players on the Thunderbirds’ preseason roster are junior college transfers. And of the four players who aren’t JuCo transfers, two are local Cedar City products.

So obviously chemistry is going to be an issue. But there’s a lot of talent on the floor for SUU. Senior guard Jay Collins returns after starting 21 of 26 games last year and averaging 11.2 ppg. The other three returnees – Donnie Jackson, Jason Baker and Kevin Henry — all started several games last season and will counted on to step up, especially early in the year until the new talent can get their feet wet.

Among the JuCo transfers, forward David Palmer was twice named all-California at that level and center Nic Fitzgerald returns after a two-year Latter-Day Saints church mission. Throw in redshirted junior guard Jordan Mulford and freshman Rand James, both highly touted Utah high schoolers and it’s easy to see the key question for SUU will be how quickly all its new players can get on the same page.

Early season tests include games at intrastate rivals Utah and BYU and a game in the Pit against New Mexico.

4. Indiana U/Purdue U-Indianapolis Jaguars

Coach: Ron Hunter (116-110, 8th year)
2001-2002 record: 15-15, 6-8 Mid-Con (6th)
2002-2003 prediction: 13-17, 7-7

Another young Division I program, IUPUI made a great late-season charge in the Mid-Con tournament, advancing to the title game despite its sixth seed and almost stunning Valpo, losing 88-85.

Building on that run and that promise will be the theme for coach Ron Hunter and he has three returning starters in guards Bryan Buchanan and Matt Crenshaw and forward Josh Mullins. Consider than forward Antoine Lewis came off the bench last year, but still averaged 11.5 points per game and there’s a solid nucleus in Indianapolis.

IUPUI also had a solid recruiting class, bringing in 6-foot-8 forward Pero Macura from Croatia and 6-foot-8 forward Nick Rollins from Orlando, Fla., a high-school classmate of PGA Tour golfer Ty Tryon at Dr. Phillips Academy.

However, the Jaguars lost last season’s leading scorer, Charles Price.

A pair of tournament appearances could result in intrastate matchups against Purdue and Notre Dame and the Jaguars will also face Michigan and Northwestern.

5. Oral Roberts University Golden Eagles

Coach: Scott Sutton (40-50, 4th year)
2001-2002 record: 16-14, 10-4 Mid-Con (T-2nd)
2002-2003 prediction: 14-13, 7-7

The Golden Eagles have as much returning talent as anyone in the conference with three starters returning and their leading scorer from last season, senior forward Reggie Borges, who only started seven games, but averaged 14.4 points per game and 20.3 in Mid-Con play.

Senior Tyrone Tiggs (13.1 ppg), junior Luke Spencer-Gardner (9.6) and senior Kendrick Moore (4.2) are the returning starters. But the rest of the roster is very young with four freshman and four sophomores, none of whom saw any significant playing time last season, so depth will be an issue for the Golden Eagles.

But the coaching staff is high on three true freshmen – 6-foot-10 forward Cameron Tragardh, forward Yemi Ogunoye and guard Jonathan Bluitt to make an impact.

The key non-conference game is the annual intracity tilt with Tulsa, who will likely be ranked in the Top 25 when the two schools meet.

6. University of Missouri-Kansas City Kangaroos

Coach: Rich Zvosec (121-157, 2nd year at UMKC)
2001-2002 record: 18-11, 7-7 Mid-Con (5th)
2002-2003 prediction: 12-15, 6-8

The Kangaroos lost three of their starters from last season and most of their scoring, but return one of the most electric performers in the conference and the nation, junior guard Michael Watson.

Watson, an All-Mid-Con first team selection last season, averaged 21.9 points per game last year, among the leaders in the nation in scoring and he’ll be counted on again this year to provide much of the spark for UMKC. Starting forward Tom Curtis also returns.

Three JuCo transfers will help provide some instant experience to the Kangaroos. Guard Javon Clark and forwards Jeffrey Bramble and James Williams are the key newcomers, along with hometown freshman Brandon Lipsey.

With UMKC hosting the conference tournament at Kemper Arena, the Kangaroos could be dangerous late in the season. In addition to a non-conference game against Oklahoma State, UMKC will host national title contender Kansas in a “neutral site” game at Kemper Arena.

7. Western Illinois University Leathernecks

Coach: Jim Kerwin (128-153, 11th year)
2001-2002 record: 12-15, 3-11 Mid-Con (7th)
2002-2003 prediction: 10-17, 4-10

With seven newcomers including four JuCo transfers, WIU has the look of a team building for next season, but will hope to improve on a disappointing conference performance last year.

Forward Shawn Mason returns for his senior season and will be counted on for more than the 11.5 points per game he averaged last season. Guard J.D. Summers started most of the Leathernecks’ games last season also. Summers’ high school teammate – senior Luis Rivas – only played in five games for WIU last season, but scored 55 points in those games and will be a key component as well.

A challenging non-conference schedule sees the Leathernecks playing nine straight road contests to start the season, with the first home contest not until Dec. 23 against SE Missouri State. A game against Illinois on Nov. 30 is the highlight of that road trip.

8. Chicago State University Cougars

Coach: Bo Ellis (20-91, 5th year)
2001-2002 record: 2-26, 0-14 Mid-Con (8th)
2002-2003 prediction: 3-24, 1-13

On the bright side for CSU coach Bo Ellis, there’s nowhere to go but up after a winless conference slate last year. One of the worst Division I programs last season, the Cougars seem to have improved on paper and it’s not unreasonable to expect them to win a few games, but there’s a long road ahead on the way to respectability.

On the brighter side, the unquestionable highlight of the season for the Cougars will be a trip to Hawaii for the Rainbow Classic and a first-round matchup against Western Kentucky and its heralded big man, Chris Marcus.

CSU does return its highest scorer from last season, center Clark Bone. His 8.4 rebounds per game were among the leaders in the conference last season. Kelvin Smallwood averaged almost 10 points per game off the bench last year and should get the starting nod at forward this year.

Freshmen Nate Carter, Anthony Mlachnik and Derrick Wimmer will be called on early to contribute minutes.

Preseason All-Conference Team
Michael Watson, G, UMKC
Mike Helms, G, Oakland
Raitis Grafs, C, Valparaiso
Reggie Borges, F, Oral Roberts
Stalin Ortiz, G, Valparaiso

Conference MVP
Michael Watson, UMKC — The Kangaroos will go as far as the talented Watson can carry them.

Newcomer of the Year
Courtney Scott, sophomore transfer, Oakland — The transfer from Iowa will be eligible after the first semester and watch out — the 6-foot-6, 260-pounder could dominate in the paint

Coach on the Hot Seat
Bo Ellis, Chicago State — It’s not so much going 2-26 or losing all your conference games. That hurts, but the Cougars were blown out of almost every game last year. Improvement this year will need to come with more competiive games for Ellis to keep his job.

Potential Upsets
Oakland over Texas A&M, Dec. 2 — The Aggies aren’t exactly a national powerhouse, but they ARE a Big 12 team.

Valparaiso over Notre Dame, Jan. 4 — The game is at the United Center in Chicago, so the court will be neutral, even if most of the fans will be cheering for the Irish.

IUPUI over Michigan, Jan. 4 — If the Wolverines think IUPUI is an alphabet-soup cupcake, they’re sorely mistaken.

Karma Alert
Not to throw dirt on the Scott Drew era at Valpo yet, but we couldn’t help notice former coach Gene Bartow (1964-1970) is enshrined in the Valpo Hall of Fame. Bartow, a former national title winner at UCLA and legendary coach at UAB, saw his son, Murry, take over for him as coach in Birmingham, but Murry’s tenure ended after another disappointing season last year.

Mid-Continent Geography
The conference tournament, March 8-11 at Kemper Arena in Kansas City, marks the farthest west the tournament has even been contested. We have no comment on how Southern Utah fits in to the concept of “Mid-Continent”.


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