As practice begins, UE basketball coach David Ragland back in familiar territory in the MVC

David Ragland shakes hands with a fan ahead of a community celebration ceremony where he was introduced as the new head coach of the University of Evansville Men's Basketball at Meeks Family Fieldhouse on campus Wednesday evening, May 25, 2022.
David Ragland shakes hands with a fan ahead of a community celebration ceremony where he was introduced as the new head coach of the University of Evansville Men's Basketball at Meeks Family Fieldhouse on campus Wednesday evening, May 25, 2022.

ST. LOUIS — The Missouri Valley Conference isn’t exactly uncharted territory for new University of Evansville men’s basketball coach David Ragland. His first season in charge of the Purple Aces will mark the beginning of his third stint in the league after serving as an assistant at Indiana State from 2010-14 and at Valparaiso from 2016-18 in addition to his time at Butler, Utah State, Vincennes, Northern Kentucky and Frank Phillips College.

However, this new job back in his hometown provides a new challenge for Ragland. For the first time at the Division I level, he is the man in charge. That was one of the main talking points sent his way during last week's MVC men's basketball media day at the Missouri Athletic Club.

“You become pretty much the CEO as a head coach,” Ralgand said. “Being an assistant, it was great. Just being in the gyms that we went in and playing the games that we played.

“Being the head coach, being at a storied program in a storied conference, we have high expectations for what we’re going to do. It’s a lot of hard work, a ton of commitment to make it happen, but we’re up for the challenge.”

MVC men's basketball: League coaches believe David Ragland can return the Aces to their glory days

MVC basketball sees major changes

The MVC has changed greatly since Ragland’s final game at Valparaiso, even more so than his stint in Terre Haute. Conference realignment has brought Belmont, Murray State and Illinois-Chicago to the conference while it took Loyola elsewhere. Coaching staffs have changed, some multiple times over. Former powers Creighton and Wichita State are long gone.

When the Blue Jays and Shockers were in the league, it wasn’t uncommon for the Valley to send multiple teams to the tournament. Since WSU left for the American Athletic Conference after the 2016 season, the MVC only has been a multi-bid league once, in 2021.

The hope now, for Ragland and the other 11 MVC coaches, is that the new additions maintain the league as one of the best among mid-majors because everyone benefits when multiple teams are showcased in the Big Dance.

“That’ll be something that we’ll get to in this conference with the way that we’re all scheduling games,” Ragland said. “We added three really good programs and teams. We’ll get to a point where it’s Top 25 teams and a multi-bid league.”

To add to the changes since he last was in the conference in 2018, Ragland and the Aces need to adjust to the nuances that come with name, image and likeness deals. Some have argued that this makes schools like UE more likely to be competitive while others have said this gives more power to larger programs. How a new staff navigates this movement is another important piece to the years ahead.

Ragland and his staff have maintained the most important aspect of this rebuild is bringing in the right people to fit the program. The other things, such as NIL and winning, will follow.

“We made a point — recruit and bring back good players that are even better people. You win championships with championship people,” Ragland said. “All that stuff is constant. … That’s how we’re going to build it — people first.”

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Returning players will be crucial to Ragland’s efforts in turning UE around and moving it back to the days of playing in the postseason. That might seem like a stretch for the immediate future, especially coming off a program-worst 6-24 season that led to former coach Todd Lickliter and his staff getting fired.

The Aces haven’t played in the postseason since their 2015 CIT championship and haven’t been in the NCAA Tournament since 1999 when assistant coaches Marcus Wilson and Craig Snow were on the roster as players.

Head Coach David Ragland, left, gives instructions to Zaveion Chism-Okoh, right, during an exercise at the first UE Men's Basketball summer practice at Fifth Third Bank Practice Facility in Evansville, Ind., Tuesday, June 21, 2022.
Head Coach David Ragland, left, gives instructions to Zaveion Chism-Okoh, right, during an exercise at the first UE Men's Basketball summer practice at Fifth Third Bank Practice Facility in Evansville, Ind., Tuesday, June 21, 2022.

Only five of UE’s 15 players are returners as 10 newcomers have come aboard as freshmen or transfers. When practice officially begins Wednesday, exactly one week after media day, Ragland needs the support from his returners, particularly from Antoine Smith Jr. and Blaise Beauchamp, who made the trip to St. Louis and are likely to play major roles in Ragland’s first season.

“I talked about my own personal experiences in this conference, how that helps,” Ragland said, “but also having players that have been in the arenas and have made the road trips helps immensely.”

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Being back in the Valley, particularly at UE, is exciting for him. It’s a league and program he knows well. He learned a lot from his previous stints in the league, and now he gets to put those lessons into place in the city he grew up in.

“I think the biggest thing is the makeup of our league. There are good players (and) really good coaches, so your game prep has to be on point,” Ragland said. “And then just knowing the arenas. I think in other stops that I’ve been at, Utah State for instance, that was the first time every time walking into a new arena. And then having some familiarity about every team in the conference.

“It just helps. You’re not always trying to find your way through stuff. There is some kind of stability.”

This article originally appeared on Evansville Courier & Press: Evansville basketball coach David Ragland in familiar territory in MVC