ST. LOUIS — David Ragland arrived at the Missouri Athletic Club for Wednesday’s Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball media day as he often does in any room he enters, with a large smile on his face to express his excitement for the days ahead. He wore the same purple tie as he did to his introductory news conference, a floral pattern partially hidden behind a black suit partnered by a new purple belt.
He joked about being undefeated so far. This summer has been a honeymoon period, after all.
Seated at the dais for his conference-wide introduction, Ragland recalled a message Butler coach Thad Matta gave him about the state of college basketball before he departed for the University of Evansville.
“At the end of the day, basketball is basketball,” Matta told him. “Recruiting is recruiting. At the end of the day, it’s the people that you do it with.”
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Of course, there was a loaded day ahead. Interviews with media occupied Ragland and the three players who made the trip — Blaise Beauchamp, Marvin Coleman II and Antoine Smith Jr. Photoshoots and community events added to the excitement.
The countdown to tipoff is quickly approaching. Things are starting to feel real. The first in-person media day since 2019 added to the anticipation leading up to the first official practice on Sept. 28.
“We’re a week away from full practice and 20 hours a week,” Ragland said. “We get a better feel for the makeup of our team even though they’re playing against each other.”
There were a variety of different Ragland topics and the other coaches across the Valley addressed. Here are three of the main talking points:
Missouri Valley Conference coaches are high on David Ragland to return the Aces to relevancy
Ryan Pedon recently spoke to Ragland. The new Illinois State head coach and the new main man at UE have a good relationship and share the common ground of being first-year coaches in the new-look MVC.
“I’ve known David Ragland a long time,” Pedon said. “He’s a great coach, he’s very well respected in our business. He’s a friend, and that certainly won’t change.”
Ragland and Pedon have gone through similar struggles ahead of their first seasons at the helm. Having each other to talk to and brainstorm with has been a good asset for each of them as they begin their head coaching careers. Ragland compares their relationship to that of a workout partner or someone to go on a diet with.
“A lot of times, to go at anything alone can be tough,” Ragland said. “It just makes it easier. … Iron sharpens iron. He’s always been a great friend, a great coach and he’s going to be great as a head coach. Just to be able to check with him, and I’ve talked to every coach in the league, just to communicate.”
The consensus from MVC coaches is a respect for the work Ragland has done to this point. Some prognosticators already have the Purple Aces finishing at the bottom of the MVC again — the preseason conference poll will be announced in a few weeks — but coaches say they’ve been impressed and supportive of Ragland and his staff’s efforts.
“I see him working. I see him grinding on the road,” Bradley coach Brian Wardle said. “I think they’re committed to building that program up and hopefully they can do it. I like to see every Valley school do well, especially in non-conference. Just not when they Bradley.”
“He’s put together a great staff and I think he’s got people who really care about the university and people who care about Evansville,” Southern Illinois coach Bryan Mullins said. “Obviously the fan base is outstanding, so I know he’s gonna get that thing rolling.”
Ragland has talked about how being an Evansville native gives him an advantage in local recruiting, which has been echoed in the league. That combined with the program’s rich history could be a major help in getting the Aces back to relevancy after their 6-24 season.
“Certain jobs need people that understand how to be successful, and not all jobs are the same,” Missouri State coach Dana Ford said. “I think that he has a great understanding of how Evansville basketball can get back to its glory days. Having, I believe, grown up in that area, and he’s got recruiting ties, it can almost be considered a dream job.”
Storied programs joining the new-look MVC ‘adds to the competitiveness’
Ragland is in his third stint in the MVC, but this is his first foray as a head coach.
The league he’s entering is far different than the one he experienced in the past. During his time at Indiana State and Valparaiso, now-former MVC powers Creighton and Wichita State were atop the standings and battling for the Top 25 and NCAA Tournament bids. Yet, the MVC has remained a multi-bid league most seasons despite its turnover.
Loyola came and left for the Atlantic 10, and now there is an opening for a team to take the conference crown.
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Ragland enters a league again going through changes. Belmont, Murray State and Illinois-Chicago have joined after being in the Ohio Valley Conference and Horizon League. That creates the additional challenges of a 20-game MVC schedule (upped from 18) and new opponents to learn.
“You’re looking at a league that is very competitive and a storied league, but you add three teams and programs that are storied programs,” Ragland said. “It just adds to the competitiveness. It also adds to the depth of the league and it creates an opportunity for us to be a multi-bid league.”
While it’s not a new phenomenon, conference realignment has remained at the forefront of national attention. USC and UCLA’s impending move to the Big Ten has left the PAC-12 in limbo while others continue to experience defections.
With the widespread changes to the college sports landscape, the emphasis remains on getting better by expanding and bringing in stronger programs than those that leave.
“The most exciting thing is that we’ve added championship-caliber programs,” Ford said. “And those teams haven’t been that good because of the leagues they’re playing in, they’ve been that good because of the commitment to men’s basketball at each university. This is the first time I feel like our league has added better teams than what it lost.”
The Aces are preparing for the future, but that doesn’t mean they plan to struggle again this season
The NCAA transfer portal has changed college basketball. More than 1,400 players entered their names this offseason, meaning each DI team had an average of 3.9 test the waters.
Constant roster building has changed expectations at many schools. In the Valley, Missouri State must replace all-conference performer Isiaih Mosley (Missouri) while Illinois State lost Antonio Reeves (Kentucky). Just last month, newcomer UIC had standout Damaria Franklin jump ship to Memphis with basically no time to replace him.
UE ultimately lost six transfers, plus three others who either graduated or left the program. Shamar Givance (UTEP), Jawaun Newton (Southern Illinois), Blake Sisley (Wright State) and Troy Boynton (South Carolina) landed at other DI schools.
On the other hand, the Aces brought in Coleman from UNLV, Sekou Kalle from Akron and Kenny Strawbridge Jr. from Alabama State.
EU has nine new faces on its roster with the transfers and freshmen. They came together quickly after the late coaching change. Team chemistry essentially needed to be built from scratch.
Ragland seems confident despite the roster overhaul.
“For 19 years, I’ve been on a one-year contract,” Ragland said. “My responsibility to Marvin, he’s got one year to do it. So we’re not just going to say we’re preparing for the future and not take care of the present.”
He continued: “We’re going to try to be the best that we can be this year and we’ll do the same next year. They didn’t put the contract in front of me and say, ‘Coach, you can only win X games’ or, ‘You can’t fight for a championship.’ Sky’s the limit. They left a blank canvas.”