Mid-Continent Conference Offseason News Update
by Paul Oren
“Everything changes, but everything stays the same.”
A quote which applied to the Mid-Continent Conference last season. Once the dust settled from three schools bringing in new head coaches and a new school joining the conference, Valparaiso continued to sit atop the Mid-Con mountain, winning the regular season championship and defeating IUPUI in the Mid-Con Tournament final to advance to the NCAA Tournament. The Crusaders have long been the dominant force in the Mid-Con, but have missed out on the NCAA Tournament in 2 of the last 4 seasons despite winning the regular season title. Is Valpo slipping? Or is the competition gap getting narrower? The 2004-2005 Mid-Con season should provide the answers.
For the first time since 1995-96, all of the head coaches return. Homer Drew (Valpo) has the most wins at 523 while Derek Thomas (Western Illinois) has the least with 3. Greg Kampe has coached at Oakland for 20 straight seasons as he is one of 7 Mid-Con coaches who have only had 1 head coaching job. Drew and UMKC’s Rich Zvosec are the only two coaches in the conference who have coached at another college, and it is perhaps Zvosec who has the toughest coaching job of all this season.
UMKC must replace All-Time Mid-Con Scorer Michael Watson and Oakland must do the same with 2nd All-time Mid-Con Scorer Mike Helms. Watson played with the Boston Celtics during the NBA summer leagues. Watson and Helms were only two of the top scorers in the Mid-Con last season. 4 of the nation’s Top 12 in scoring came from the Mid-Con (IUPUI’s Odell Bradley and Centenary’s Andrew Wisniewski were the other two), however all have graduated. Only Chicago State, Oral Roberts, and Valpo return their leading scorers from a year ago.
The off-season brought the addition of several players to teams and the return of a big one to Oral Roberts. The Golden Eagles, who figure to be Valpo’s top competition, return senior point guard Luke Spencer-Gardner from a deep bone bruise in his knee. ORU also adds JUCO All-American Larry Owens who was one of the nation’s top scorers and rebounders at Yavapai (AZ) CC. Western Illinois adds the largest class with 8 newcomers including Troy Okeson, whose brother Todd grabbed national headlines last season for guiding Nevada to the Sweet 16. Valpo added some much needed depth with 6’9 forward Aris Williams and they hit the Chicago pipeline by landing Jarryd Loyd and Vincent Humphrey. Loyd was known as one of the quickest players in the Windy City and is close friends with current Crusader point guard Jimmie Miles.
Along with the graduation of some of the Mid-Con’s best players, came transfers, injuries, and suspensions. ORU lost Schulyer Thomas to a torn Achilles in a summer pickup game. Thomas was projected to have a big impact in the paint for the Golden Eagles. Valpo has health concerns with their big man, Kenny Harris, who went from 400 pounds last season to 310. Doctors discovered a herniated disc and Harris is going through rigorous rehabilitation, red-shirting is not out of the question. It would be a big hit to the Crusaders depth which was damaged when starting guard/forward Oumar Sylla transferred to Richmond. Sylla was thought of as the Crusaders best defender. Oakland may open the season with uncertainty following a pick up fight in which Rawle Marshall, the team leader, punched newcomer Kris Krzyminski and broke his nose. Marshall has been suspended indefinitely, a blow to a team that was in turmoil for all of last season. Oakland also lost contributor Shawn Hopes to a transfer.
The Mid-Continent Conference has been and will continue to be a one-bid NCAA Tournament conference and the only way to get that bid is to win the Mid-Con Tournament. This season the task gets easier for ORU as the tournament is being moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma. The past two seasons, the tournament has been held in Kansas City at the Municipal Auditorium, a “home court” advantage that never amounted to success for UMKC. However this season, the two favorites are ORU and Valpo, and Valpo has never won a game against ORU in Tulsa.
Mid Con coaches spent a lot of their off-season being very ambitious in their scheduling. UMKC opens their season with 6 of the first 7 games being against teams which made post-season tournaments last season. Overall the Mid-Con has 26 teams on their schedule that played in the NCAA or NIT tournaments last season. Some of the bigger regular season games include both Valpo and Oakland taking on Cincinnati and Illinois. Duke travels to the United Center in Chicago to play Valpo in what will be considered a home game for the Crusaders. UMKC plays at Mississippi State and Centenary plays at both Texas and Texas Tech.
The season figures to be exciting and with all of the scheduling done, the recruiting in the books, the off-season conditioning complete, it is time to put the ball in the air and get the season underway. Will Valpo hold on? Does ORU have enough to get over the hump? Will UMKC or IUPUI have enough firepower to reload their losses and move to the upper echelon?