The Missouri State Bears struggled in the Missouri Valley last year, going only 7-11 en route to an 11-22 record overall. For UNI, the Panthers played postseason basketball for yet another year, albeit in the CIT and not the Big Dance. How does each fan base feel about last year's results?
For Missouri State I can tell you that nobody was particularly happy with the results, but nobody was really surprised either. Quite frankly, they were the youngest team in the Valley with two of their leaders out with injuries for the entire season. Essentially, the fans recognized that it would be a down year, but were excited to watch Valley Freshman of the Year Marcus Marshall.
UNI was last year's third best team , and while I wouldn't say the fans are disappointed with only being behind two NCAA Tourney teams, the potential was there for a better end result. Really, it was the MVC Tournament loss to Illinois State that left a bad taste in UNI's mouth.
What are the biggest pieces each team has lost since last season?
The biggest loss for Missouri State is easily Anthony Downing. He was the Bears' best player on the floor last season, both as a scorer and simply as a leader. Downing is a guy who didn't give up when his fellow seniors were lost for the season and everything was clearly going downhill.
Jake Koch is a huge departure for the Panthers, as he has been the anchor at the team's five spot for years now. While UNI is losing some bigger scorers, Koch's departure leaves some question marks in the post. Really, Koch frustrated a lot of Valley teams with his tenacity on both sides of the ball, and he will be greatly missed.
Who are the players who need to step up the most this year?
For the Bears Jamar Gulley is going to be the rock for the team. The senior was a medical redshirt last season and is easily MSU's best scorer in the post. The ultimate success for Mo State will be dependent on if Gulley can shake off the cobwebs from missing an entire season and turn around last year's worst field goal shooting team in the Valley.
Seth Tuttle is going to have to fill in as the team's leading scorer and power post presence. Honestly, I have no doubt that Tuttle is going to meet expectations, and even if he doesn't he will have a solid supporting cast. However, this team is going to go as far as Tuttle is able to take them.
Who are the players UVa fans ought to look out for the most? (For NIU, if you say Paul Jesperson, I hurt you.)
Haha, I would love to answer Paul Jesperson, but that wouldn't be an accurate answer. For UNI I'm going to give a double answer of Deon Mitchell and Wes Washpun. Those are the two PGs for the team, with the former being one of the team's leaders and the latter being a transfer who is expected to speed up the game. From what I understand The Cavaliers have a strong defense but a lower scoring offense, so limiting the number of possessions would be in Virginia's benefit. While traditionally UNI hasn't been that much of a fast, push the tempo team, this team of point guards could change that.
The Virginia-Missouri State matchup is going to be relatively early in the season, so I expect the Bears to go early and often to Marcus Marshall. Quite simply, he is their most established scorer returning from last season, so I expect the early season Bears to rely on his shooting to carry them.
What's your outlook for the season? What's a success, what's a failure, and what's something each team can live with?
The Panthers are going to want to make progress and go further in the MVC Tournament, whereas the Bears will be able to live with more wins than losses. Honestly, I think an NIT appearance would be realistic for either of the teams, but they both have some higher aspirations. Wichita State is the Valley's presumed victor, while Indiana State is expected to be the number two team. However, both UNI and a vastly improved MSU team are going to be competitors for that two spot and will be hoping to be a second Tourney bid for the Valley.