Wichita State may be a unanimous Missouri Valley favorite, but the Shockers know there'll be no easy glide to a 2013-14 men's title.
"There will be many, many games where we may struggle to win and probably a handful we lose," Shockers coach Gregg Marshall said Wednesday during the league media day at Loyola, the Valley's newest member, in Chicago "It's a very balanced league and very difficult to win on the road."
Wichita State, which reached the Final Four last season, received all 40 first-place votes in a preseason poll and landed two players on the all-league preseason team, including senior forward Cleanthony Early, tabbed as preseason player of the year.
"We're a unanimous pick to win it but I hope people keep expectations in check," said Marshall, 139-70 entering his seventh season in Wichita. "Our goal is to win as many games as we can, hopefully win the conference tournament and get into the NCAA tournament and let the chips fall where they may."
Wichita State returns eight letter winners from a 30-9 team that had NCAA tourney wins over then-No. 1 Gonzaga and Ohio State.
Early topped the Shockers with a 13.9 point average and scored 24 points against eventually national champion Louisville. He understands the challenge ahead.
"The target on my back got bigger but my heart got bigger, too," Early said.
The Shockers, the first MVC team in the Final Four since Larry Byrd-led Indiana State qualified in 1979, also have sophomore shooter Ron Baker (8.7 points) on the preseason first team and return junior Tekele Cotton (7.3 points). Marshall said the NCAA run has energized the Shocker fan base.
"The university and the community and the support that we've had is really unbelievable," he said. "They're really embracing our program and there's not going to be an empty seat in Koch Arena this year."
Indiana State was picked to finish second followed by Northern Iowa, Missouri State and Bradley.
"We've been in three straight postseasons for the first time in school history," Sycamores coach Greg Lansing said. "But we told the guys they can't be looking at the finish line because this is a league where you don't play good every night you're going to get beat."
Indiana State returns senior guard Jake Odum, the program's first regular season all-conference first team member since 2001. He averaged 13.6 points and 4.6 assists per game. Also back is preseason honorable mention Manny Arop (12 points).
Northern Iowa has two starters back from a team that had its fifth straight 20-win season. Returnee Seth Tuttle, a preseason first-teamer, averaged 11.4 points good for second on the Panthers.
Indiana State was voted women's favorite over Wichita State. Top returnee Anna Munn, a senior guard, averaged 14.5 points and hit 72 3-pointers.
The defending champion Shockers earned an NCCA tournament bid for the first time last year and feature preseason player of the year Alex Harden, who averaged 11.2 points, was the league's top defender and MVC tourney most valuable player.
"We're coming off a sensational year in the Valley," MVC Commissioner Doug Elgin said. "We hope to build off that momentum we established last year with multiple (postseason) tournament bids on both the men's and women's side."
The MVC lost Creighton to the reconfigured Big East but added Loyola -- a 16,000-student Catholic institution -- bringing the Chicago market into the conference mix for the first time.
"We were very impressed with this university when we made our initial visit last April," Elgin said. "We think it is going to be a win-win partnership for both the institution and the conference in the years ahead."
The Ramblers are delighted to be aboard.
"If we're going to revive our strong heritage of basketball, create a new era and get back on a national stage there's no better way to do it than to enter a conference that has that same rich tradition," said Grace Calhoun, Loyola's athletic director. "To us, we felt it was a no-brainer."