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Shock factor: MVC now wide open

Four different Missouri Valley Conference teams received a first place vote in the conference’s preseason poll. Three-time conference defending champ Wichita State was not one of them. Who will get this conference’s automatic bid into the NCAA Tournament is a question we may not have the answer to until March.

Jamie Rhodes-USA TODAY Sports

Balanced, deep, competitive. There are just a few of the words that come to mind when thinking about the Missouri Valley Conference heading into the 2015-16 season, not to mention high hopes for the teams in a league that has had the same champion represent it in the NCAA Tournament the past three years.

That team is Wichita State. The Shockers won 28 games last season, and lost only one game in the conference. Despite all of their recent success, Wichita State was picked to finish fifth this season in the preseason poll.

Life without Alex Harden begins this season for the Shockers, who now plays in the WNBA for the Phoenix Mercury. Wichita State is going to feature an entirely new starting lineup this season, as the Shockers will try to win their fourth straight Missouri Valley Conference Championship.

The team picked to win the conference this season is the same team who lost to Wichita State in the conference tournament final last season. Missouri State last won the Missouri Valley Conference in 2006, and brings back four starters from that team, including Kenzie Williams, who was voted to the Preseason All-MVC Team.

"It's an honor to be picked up there, but it's more about what you do at the end of the season," Williams said. "We have a lot of great players returning in our league this season, and great players returning on our team. It's just exciting, and we know it's going to be competitive going against all of those great players."

Joining Williams on the Preseason All-MVC Team are Sara Dickey from Evansville, Dyana Pierre from Southern Illinois, Taylor Manuel from Loyola and Lizzy Wendell from Drake.

The Lady Bears received 22 of the 40 first-place votes in the conference preseason poll. Right behind them was the Drake Bulldogs, who received 15 first place votes. The Bulldogs have three first team all-conference players returning, including Wendell, who was voted preseason conference Player of the Year.

Northern Iowa seems to always find themselves in the top half of the conference, and were picked to finish third this year. Panthers Head Coach Tanya Warren has finished in the top half of the conference standings six straight times, and won the MVC regular season back in 2011.

Northern Iowa returns four starts from a team that went 12-6 in the conference last season. The Panthers will have to play the top teams in the conference better if they want to contend, going a combined 1-3 against Drake and Missouri State last season.

"I think we match up extremely well with them, especially if we're healthy," Warren said. "If we stay healthy, I like our ability to match up."

Southern Illinois is also returning a large part of their team as every starter from last year is back for the Salukis. Southern Illinois was picked to finish fourth in the conference this season after finishing fifth in the conference a year ago.

Four teams received at least one first-place vote in the conference preseason poll, showing how deep the conference has the potential to be this season. Missouri State Head Coach Kellie Harper says the preseason poll is an excellent way to get a program excited about the upcoming season.

"There are a lot of teams with high expectations and high hopes," Harper said. "And high hopes not only to compete in the league, but also to move up in the rankings. There are a lot of teams out there that feel good about themselves, based on statistics, based on how they are competing and how their schedule is materializing.

"I think it bodes well for the Valley."