I’ve mellowed a bit in my 30s. I don’t get as worked up about my favorite teams as I used to (though I still really don’t like Wichita State). That said, I’m incredibly bummed about Mighty MO State’s 77-65 loss at Evansville Feb. 2.
This was the bad loss that the Bears had to avoid. All the good Karma they built up during the regular season is likely gone. Yeah, they snapped UNI’s homecourt winning streak, then went into the Roundhouse and knocked off the Shockers. Good things. But how could any Bears fan win a “What has MSU done to deserve an at-large bid?” argument with this loss at UE. I don’t care that the Purple Aces have now won four in a row. This is a game that Valley-championship, NCAA-caliber teams need to win.
But what’s really frustrating about the loss is that I didn’t recognize these Bears. Maybe that was because I had to watch it out of the corner of my eye while attending to a sick toddler, but a couple of things popped out at me as out of character:
1. Turnovers. Taking care of the ball has been a crucial part of Missouri State’s success. They coughed it up an above-average 15 times to UE, including some unforced errors (one was a traveling call in the lane that wiped off a bucket). The Aces made good use of those miscues, scoring 22 points off turnovers.
2. Weems Drought. Yes, the Valley Player of the Year in waiting finished with 16 points and 10 boards. That’s to be expected. The unexpected was his silence over the game’s final 16 minutes. He is Mr. Clutch for the Bears. They need him.
3. O-for-Leonard. For the first time in 38 games Adam Leonard failed to make a 3-pointer. Okay, whatever. That happens. People have off nights. What hurts is he was 0-for-3 from inside the arc and failed to get to the foul line. Leonard is a good ballplayer and a key offensive cog. When it’s not happening from the perimeter, he’s got to find a way to contribute somehow, and the foul line is a good place for him to do that. Oh, and he also fouled out.
4. Defense? The 77 points UE scored is the second-highest total allowed by MSU all season, second only to the 84 Oklahoma State posted in early December. What’s more troubling, though, is how they got them. The Aces scored 30 points in the paint in the first half alone. There are only 20 minutes in a half, so they scored more than a point in the paint per minute in the first half. The finished the night with 42, more than half of their offensive output. While the Bears were heaving up well-contested looks in the second half, the Aces were consistently getting good looks at the rim. Unacceptable for a team that prides itself on defense.
It’s even more unacceptable when you realize the Aces’ own Dunking Dutchman, Pieter van Tongeren, is the only player on the UE roster listed above 6-foot-9. MO State has three of them, in Will Creekmore (6-foot-9), Isaiah Rhine (6-foot-10) and Caleb Patterson (6-foot-11). There’s no way the Bears should get outscored 42-20 in the paint.
Missouri State is now up against it if they want to win the regular season Missouri Valley Conference championship – something Bears’ play-by-play legend Art Haines feels will be enough to get an at-large bid. The Bears must win out now, including a win over Wichita State on the final night of the regular season.
If the Bears can do that, they will either be tied with the Shockers or Northern Iowa for the regular season title (WSU and UNI square off in Frostbite Falls Feb. 12). Mighty MO State, with the sweep, would hold the hammer against the Shockers. If UNI is even with the Bears, then it goes to a comparison of non-conference schedule strength as calculated by The RPI Report. That may not end up well for the Bears.
But that’s getting ahead of things a bit. Missouri State needs to get its swagger back. They need to rediscover the identity that had them sitting pretty in first place just days ago. Of course, MSU coach Cuonzo Martin is way ahead of me, telling Haines on his post-game radio show that the Bears need to “get back to the basics.”
“It’s that simple,” said Martin. “Just doing what we need to do to be successful. It’s not so much getting caught up in ‘let’s win a Valley championship,’ but just playing the way we’re capable of playing, and then the championships will come.”
Mighty MO State is back home Saturday, Feb. 5, to host Indiana State. Tipoff is 2:05 p.m.