MVC Preview: Missouri State to be challenged by Bradley

NCAA BASKETBALL: MAR 30 Div I Women’s Championship - Third Round - Missouri State v Stanford Cardinal
Brice Calip (with ball) hopes to lead Missouri State to an MVC championship and beyond. | Photo by Robin Alam/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Led by Brice Calip and Jasmine Franklin, the No. 24 Missouri State Lady Bears are the favorites to win the Missouri Valley Conference (MVC). The Bradley Braves will do their best to play spoiler and hope they can get an NCAA Tournament bid either way. Other teams, including those picked to finish eighth and ninth, could make some noise too.

The Missouri State Lady Bears lost their leading scorer, Alexa Willard, to graduation, but are still expected to be in the national conversation for the third year in a row. Leading scorer Brice Calip and leading rebounder Jasmine Franklin lead the way for a tournament-minded team.

The rest of the MVC isn’t going to roll over, though, and the conference may even get multiple bids. Last year it likely would have had at least Missouri State and the Drake Bulldogs in the tournament. With Drake losing its top two scorers Becca Hittner and Sara Rhine, look for a bubble team from last year, the Bradley Braves, to make a push for second place in the conference and a spot in the Big Dance.

Bradley received seven first place votes in the preseason poll conducted by coaches, sports information directors and media members, while Missouri State was awarded the other 33. The Braves return their top two scorers from last year in Lasha Petree and Gabi Haack. Those two were both ahead of Calip and Franklin in points per game last year.

Meanwhile, don’t be surprised if the Loyola Chicago Ramblers and Indiana State Sycamores, picked to finish eighth and ninth, respectively, also improve this year with all the contributors they return.

Rewind: A look at where the MVC left off

Missouri State won the regular season title last year with a record of 16-2 in conference play. The Lady Bears went 26-4 overall and 15-0 at home.

Drake was not far behind at 14-4 in the conference, while Bradley was in third at 13-5. The Braves improved to 7-0 in the MVC when they defeated the Bulldogs by one point on Jan. 26, 2020 but went 6-5 to close out the season after that. Drake, on the other hand, lost to Missouri State in its second conference game, but finished with a 6-1 stretch.

The Illinois State Redbirds (11-7) and the Northern Iowa Panthers (10-8) were the other two teams who finished with winning records in MVC play. The Valparaiso Crusaders went 9-9 in the conference and were trailed by the 8-10 Southern Illinois Salukis, 6-12 Ramblers, 3-15 Sycamores and 0-18 Evansville Purple Aces.

No games from the 2020 MVC Tournament took place due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Becca Hittner of Drake won the conference’s Player of the Year award for the third season in a row, while then-junior transfer Juliunn Redmond of Illinois State won Newcomer of the Year and Sixth Player of the Year. Brice Calip of Missouri State won Defensive Player of the Year and Evansville’s Abby Feit won Freshman of the Year. Lastly, the Lady Bears’ current coach, Amaka Agugua-Hamilton, was named Coach of the Year in what was her debut season with the Missouri State program.

Highlights: Missouri State’s postgame celebration after clinching first place in 2020

The 2020 NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the pandemic, but two MVC teams made Swish Appeal’s hypothetical bracket. Missouri State made it as a 7-seed and Drake made it as an 8-seed.

Team-by-team analysis

Here’s where each team stands entering the 2020-21 season, in order of the preseason poll:

1) Missouri State Lady Bears

Returners Brice Calip and Jasmine Franklin averaged 12.6 and 10.9 points per game, respectively, for the Lady Bears last season. Alexa Willard averaged 16.1 so the loss of her to graduation is a big deal. But Calip, a senior guard, and Franklin, a junior forward, are capable of taking the team a long way. Plus, Missouri State returns eight players who played at least 14.4 minutes per game last year, so basically its entire rotation minus Willard. Head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton is hoping the six players besides Calip and Franklin will step up.

2) Bradley Braves

Lasha Petree (16.5 points per game last year) and Gabi Haack (13.3) are back for their junior and senior seasons, respectively. Both are guards on the taller end of the spectrum, but the team did lose its top rebounder in Chelsea Brackmann to graduation. Look for senior forward Nyjah White, who averaged 5.1 rebounds last year to get more playing time after both she and Brackmann averaged around 26 minutes per game last year. The Braves may also look for junior guard Tatum Koenig to score more after she led the team in assists and played 32 minutes per game as sophomore.

3) Northern Iowa Panthers

The Panthers return their top five scorers, four of whom were starters. It all starts with senior guard Karli Rucker at the top. Rucker, a member of the 2020 All-MVC First Team, averaged a team-best 13.7 points per game last year and was the only Panther in double figures. Look for redshirt senior forward Megan Maahs to have a big year for UNI as well.

4) Drake Bulldogs

Drake lost 36.6 points per game with the graduation of Becca Hittner and Sara Rhine. Senior guard Maddie Monahan and redshirt junior guard Kierra Collier will try to replace the duo, but Hittner’s success in the conference was rare air. With Brenni Rose also graduated, Drake will be searching for other players to step up besides Monahan and Collier, who are somewhat proven talents.

5) Illinois State Redbirds

The Redbirds are currently taking a break from team activities due to “limited roster numbers in conjunction with COVID-19 testing protocols.” They have canceled their first three games.

Juliunn Redmond is now a senior and will be tasked with leading an Illinois State team that has lost Lexi Wallen and TeTe Maggett to graduation. That duo combined for 32.3 points per game last year. Redshirt sophomore guard Mary Crompton and senior guard Paige Saylor will need to step up as will Little Rock transfer Terrion Moore.

6) Southern Illinois Salukis

Senior forward Abby Brockmeyer returns for the Salukis after averaging 10 points and 7.6 rebounds per game a year ago. She is joined by senior guard Makenzie Silvey who led the team with 14.8 points per game as a junior. The team’s second leading scorer, Nicole Martin, has graduated as have two other starters in Kristen Nelson and Brittney Patrick.

7) Valparaiso Crusaders

The Crusaders lost their top two scorers but return their next four: junior guard Shay Frederick, redshirt junior guard Carie Weinman, senior guard/forward Grace White and redshirt senior forward Caitlin Morrison. White is the team’s best returning rebounder while Frederick is the conference’s best returning distributor — she averaged 4.3 assists per contest in 2019-20.

8) Loyola Chicago Ramblers

The Ramblers return a handful of players who could contribute significantly and could have a solid addition in Bre Hampton-Bey if she is granted eligibility after transferring from the UMass Minutewomen. Senior guard Ellie Rice is a player to keep an eye on. Her numbers were down last year but she averaged 11 points and 2.5 assists as a sophomore. She returns along with the team’s second-leading scorer from a year ago: junior forward Allison Day.

9) Indiana State Sycamores

The Sycamores also return quite a few potential contributors and the most important one this season may be senior guard LeAndra Echi. She averaged 8.1 points and 7.6 rebounds in just 10 games played last year. She has still not fully recovered from a leg injury and the Sycamores would love to have her at full strength as soon as possible. The team also returns its leading scoring in senior forward Jamyra McChristine.

10) Evansville Purple Aces

Evansville guard/forward Abby Feit returns for her sophomore campaign and, based on her stats from last year, an MVC Player of the Year award could be in her future at some point. She led Evansville in both scoring (13.7 points per game) and rebounding (8.4 boards per game) and was third in the conference in the latter category. However, some other players need to step up around Feit to get Evansville out of the basement.

Preseason nods

Player of the Year: Lasha Petree (Bradley)

MVC Preseason Team*: Brice Calip (Missouri State), Jasmine Franklin (Missouri State), Gabi Haack (Bradley), Lasha Petree (Bradley) and Karli Rucker (Northern Iowa)

*as decided by the conference’s head coaches, sports information directors and media members