Reflections on Missouri State’s basketball championship

 

Missouri Valley Conference Champions - Missouri State Bears (Photo courtesy Springfield News-Leader)

The date was March 1, 1990. I’d been 12 years old for all of one month when the Southwest Missouri State Bears defeated Northern Iowa 94-86 in overtime at Hammons Student Center to wrap up another Mid-Continent Conference championship. The Bears went to the NCAA Tournament that year, falling to North Carolina – my other favorite team as a kid – 83-70 to wrap up another great year of basketball in Spoon’s Temple of Doom. SMS, under the direction of Charlie Spoonhour, won its fourth straight conference title and advanced to the postseason for the fifth straight season – not bad for a program that had been in Division I for less than a decade.

“This is awesome,” 12-year-old me thought. “It’s always gonna be just like this.”

I had no idea.

That win over UNI was the Bears’ last Mid-Con victory. SMS left for the Missouri Valley Conference the following season and fit right in. The Bears went 11-5 their first season, finishing second in the league, and advanced to the finals of the MVC tournament. They didn’t win, but their 22-12 mark was good enough to get them into the NIT Tournament.

Next season was more of the same. The high-flying Rodney Perry-led Bears went 23-8 overall, 13-5 in league play (good enough for third) and upset Tulsa 71-68 to win the league tourney and get back onto the Big Dance floor for the fifth time in six years.

It would only happen one more time in the next 17 seasons. In the meantime, the Bears would never win another regular season conference championship. During that drought the school went through a name change, hired four university presidents as well as four head coaches and moved into a brand new arena.

So you’ll have to forgive me if I shed a few tears last weekend, after Missouri State held off Wichita State 69-64 to win the Missouri Valley Conference championship, the first MVC regular season title in 21 seasons in The Valley. I stupidly didn’t check a calendar when I agreed to cover a shift for a co-worker that day, so I didn’t get to witness history in person (something I’ll always regret), but I stayed up until the wee small hours Sunday watching the replay on ESPN3, reading every account of the game I could find on the Web, and living vicariously through fan photos and YouTube videos. And shedding a few tears – especially when I watched Bill Rowe, Mr. Missouri State Athletics, wipe a tear from his eye during the post-game celebration.

My oldest daughter is just a bit younger now than I was the last time the Bears were conference champions. The last time the Bears were in the NCAA Tournament, I hadn’t even started dating her mother. This has been a long time coming, and I have savored it for five days now. I’m still partying like it’s 1999. Or 1990.

–QCFM

Bears benefit from Martin’s bench moves

Courtesy Omaha World-Herald

Missouri State's Kyle Weems looks for an opening against Creighton's Doug McDermott in the first half. Weems finished with 14 points as the Bears ended the Jays' six-game winning streak. Omaha World-Herald photo by Jeff Beiermann

Forget the NCAA snubs, or the run to the NIT quarterfinals, or the 0-for-3 Valley tourney finals record. This moment, to me, crystallizes the Barry Hinson era at Missouri State University:

March 14, 2007. Missouri State hosts San Diego State in an NIT opening-round game. The Bears trailed 34-31 at the break, but Drew Richards opened the second half – as Hinson would say – runnin’ a fever. He scored six straight points and grabbed a defensive rebound…and was promptly subbed out of the game.

It was at that moment I turned to my brother and brother-in-law and said, “Why is Drew going out? He’s the only player that’s scored for us in the second half.” Some random stranger sitting in front of me turned around and said, “If you figure it out, would you please let the rest of us know?”

For all the things I liked about Barry Hinson, I never got his Xs and Os or his game management. The talent was always pretty good, because that cat could recruit, but his strange substitution patterns and inability to consistently put together good gameplans kept Missouri State Bears basketball from capitalizing on the Sweet 16 run of 1999. In this particular NIT game it was Nathan Bilyeu (whom I adore) that replaced Richards and managed a missed field goal, a turnover, and an offensive rebound before Richards returned to the floor 90 seconds later at the media timeout. The Bears led that game by six points with 7:26 to play, then fizzled down the stretch, getting outscored 20-10 and losing 74-70.

So I guess it was those kinds of failures that have conditioned me to not believe the hype about the 2010-11 Bears, now under the guidance of Cuonzo Martin. When the Bears fell behind to Creighton by 11 points early in the second half Jan. 3, I figured it was over. Maybe it’d end up a blowout, or maybe they’d rally, only to fall heartbreakingly short at the end. But this is Cuonzo Martin, not Barry Hinson, on the bench.

Martin pulled point guard Nafis Ricks off the floor, subbing in freshman swing player Nathan Scheer and moving sharpshooter Adam Leonard to the point. Over the next four minutes, a lineup of Leonard, Scheer, Will Creekmore, Jermaine Mallett and Kyle Weems battled the Bears back into the game. MO State outscored Creighton 15-9 and trailed just 42-40 when Ricks subbed back in for Leonard at the 13:34 mark.

That run put momentum squarely on the Bears’ side as they cruised to a 67-55 win in Omaha, a place where they had won just 3 times in 17 games (1-6 at Qwest Center), and it was the Scheer-for-Ricks sub that caught the eye of Creighton coach Greg McDermott. Dig this quote, given to the Omaha World-Herald.

“It took the one guy who really doesn’t shoot the 3-point shot off the floor and replaced him with Scheer. Now you’ve got Leonard, Scheer, Weems and Mallett standing on the perimeter. You’re worried about their shooters, and it was a good move by Coach Martin that we didn’t adjust to very well.”

And that, as I e-mailed to The High Road with Allen Vaughan yesterday, is why I’m aped about this Missouri State team. I can’t think of many games Hinson won – even though he had great talent – by out-coaching his counterpart. Not only is Martin showing he’s got serious chops as a bench coach, but his team has clearly adopted his even keel demeanor. The results so far have been very good, stealing two wins at the No. 3 and No. 4 pre-season teams in the Missouri Valley Conference and keeping MO State even with MVC fave Wichita State. Mighty MO State is now 11-3 overall, 3-0 in Valley play.

Speaking of which, Missouri State has a home game with Evansville – an Admiral Akbar game if I ever saw one – tomorrow night (Jan. 7) before visiting Wichita State Jan. 9. Barry Hinson’s Bears were 1-8 in their God forsaken gym. It’s time to end that streak.

–QCFM

Required Reading:

Bears get hot, rally past Jays in second half (Omaha World-Herald)

Bears take down Bluejays (Springfield News-Leader)

Notes: Leonard points way for Bears (Omaha World-Herald)

Jays say they lacked fight in loss to Bears (Omaha World-Herald)