ST. LOUIS – David Ragland arrives at the Missouri Athletic Club for Wednesday’s Missouri Valley Conference men’s basketball media day. He had a big smile on his face to express his excitement about the days ahead, as he often did in the rooms they entered. He wore the same purple tie as he did with the introductory news conference, the floral design partially hidden behind a black suit topped with a new purple belt.
He joked about not being defeated yet. After all, this summer is the time of the honeymoon.
Sitting in the wide entrance to the conference, Ragland recalled the message Buller coach Thad Matta gave about the state of college basketball before he left for the University of Evansville.
“At the end of the day, basketball is basketball,” Mata said. “Recruiting is recruiting, at the end of the day it’s the people you work with.”
Evansville Men’s Basketball: 3 on Aces Chemistry, Captains and New Commitment
Of course, the installation date was in the future. Media interviews with 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 fast approaching. Things are starting to get real. The first in-person media day since 2019 has been added pending the first official launch on September 28.
“We’re a week away from full practice and 20 hours a week,” Ragland said. Even though they are playing against each other, we get a better feel for our team makeup.
There were a variety of topics that Ragland and other coaches in the Valley addressed. Here are the three main talking points:
Missouri Valley Conference coaches are high on David Ragland to return the Aces to relevance.
Ryan Pedon recently spoke with Ragland. The new head coach at Illinois State and the new head man at UE have a great relationship and share the common ground of being a first-year coach in the new MVC.
“I’ve known David Ragland for a long time,” Pedon said. “He’s a great coach, he’s very well-respected in our business. He’s a friend, and that’s definitely not going to change.”
Ragland and Pedon went through similar struggles before their first seasons at the helm. Being able to talk and brainstorm with each other has been a great asset to each of them as they begin their head coaching careers. Ragland compares their relationship to that of people who go on a diet with an exercise partner or person.
“A lot of times it can be hard to go into anything alone,” Ragland said. “He just makes it easy … iron draws iron. He’s always been a good friend, a great coach and he’s going to be great as a head coach. It’s just to check with him, and I’ve talked to him. Every coach in the league is just to communicate.”
The MVC coaches’ agreement is a tribute to the work Ragland has done up to this point. Some projections already have the Purple Aces finishing at the bottom of the MVC — the preseason conference will be announced in a few weeks — but the coaches say they appreciate and support Ragland and his staff’s efforts.
“I’ve seen him work. I’ve seen him grind it out on the road,” Bradley coach Brian Wardle said. “I think they’re committed to building that program and I hope they can do it. I like to see every Valley school do well, especially not in conference. Not when they’re Bradley.”
“He’s put together a really good staff and I think he’s got people who care a lot about the university and care about Evansville,” Southern Illinois coach Brian Mullins said. “Obviously the fan base is fantastic, so I know he’s going to drive it.”
Ragland talked about how being an Evansville native gives him an advantage in local recruiting, which resonated throughout the league. That, combined with the program’s rich history, could be a big help in returning the Aces to relevance after a 6-24 season.
“Certain jobs require people who understand how to be successful and not all jobs are the same,” Missouri State coach Dana Ford said. “I think Evansville has a great understanding of how to get basketball back to its glory days. I believe, having grown up in that area and starting recruiting relationships, it could be considered a dream job.”
Legacy Programs Join New Look MVC ‘Increases Competitiveness’
Ragland is third in the MVC, but this is his first trip as a head coach.
The league he is entering is very different from his previous experience. During his time at Indiana State and Valparaiso, now former MVC powers Creighton and Wichita State reached the top of the Top 25 and NCAA Tournament bids. Yet, the MVC remains a multi-bid league despite the changes.
Loyola came and went in the Atlantic 10, and now there is an opening for a team to take the conference crown.
UE Men’s Basketball: Thoughts on Purple Aces: Chemistry, Captains and New Commitment
Ragland re-entered the league amid changes. Belmont, Murray State and Illinois-Chicago joined after being in the Ohio Valley Conference and Horizon League. That creates more challenges to learn about a 20-game MVC schedule (up from 18) and new opponents.
“You’re looking at a very competitive and storied league, but you add three teams and programs with streaks,” Ragland said. “It just adds competitiveness. It also adds depth to the league and gives us a chance to be a multi-bid league.”
While this is not a new phenomenon, conference realignment has been at the forefront of national attention. USC and UCLA’s move to the Big Ten has left the PAC-12 in limbo, while others continue to struggle.
With widespread change in the college sports landscape, the emphasis remains on expanding and bringing in stronger programs than those leaving.
“What’s really exciting is that we’ve added championship-caliber programs,” Ford said. “And those teams weren’t that good in the league they played in, the commitment to men’s basketball at every university was that good. It’s the first time I feel like our league has gotten better. It’s more teams than it’s lost.”
The Aces are preparing for the future, but that doesn’t mean they plan on struggling again this season.
The NCAA’s transfer portal has changed college basketball. More than 1,400 players entered their names this season, meaning each DI team tested the waters an average of 3.9.
Constant roster building has changed expectations at many schools. In the Valley, Missouri State must replace all-conference performer Isiah Mosley (Missouri) while Illinois State lost Antonio Reeves (Kentucky). Just last month, freshman UIC standout Damaria Franklin jumped to Memphis and had no time to replace him.
UE ultimately lost six transfers, and three others who 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, Seku Kale from Akron and Kenny Strawbridge Jr. from Alabama State.
UE has nine new faces with transfers and freshmen. After a late coaching change, they rallied quickly. Team chemistry essentially needs to be built from scratch.
Despite the roster overhaul, Ragland seems confident.
“I’ve been on a one-year contract for 19 years,” Ragland said. “My responsibility to Marvin, he has a year to do this. So it’s not just that we are preparing for the future and we are not waiting for the current situation.”
He continued, “We’re going to try to be the best we can be this year and we’re going to do the same next year. They didn’t put the contract in front of me.” Coach, only you can. Win X Games or, ‘You can’t fight for a championship.’ The sky is the limit. They left a blank canvas.”