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

Advertisements

Who were those Bears?

Guh!

This photo, courtesy of the Evansville Courier-Press, pretty much somes it up, right?

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.

–QCFM

Required Reading

Loss to Evansville drops Bears into second place in MVC (Springfield News-Leader)

Aces hit their stride, stun Missouri State 77-65 (Evansville Courier-Press)

Okay, that one stung a little bit

Indiana State courtstormers

This didn't seem silly at all. Who doesn't storm the court after beating an unranked team in January?

It had to happen eventually, and this was a pretty crummy way to go. In some ways I prefer a loss by 10 points than one like Missouri State suffered at Indiana State to break the Bears’ nine-game winning streak.

I’ll save my dissertation on “A foul is a foul is a foul” for a later post. Instead, let’s just spin this loss for a bit.

Spin 1: That’s probably the best place for a road loss. There are no “good” losses for MO State as far as an NCAA at-large resume goes, but if they were going to stub there to somewhere, this might have been the best place. Indiana State’s overall record isn’t good, but they’re off to a hot start in Valley play and are unbeaten at home. Not too shabby…and definitely a lot less shabby than having tripped up at Drake (8-11, 3-5), Evansville (9-9, 3-5), or Illinois State (8-11, 0-8). There’s still a trip to Southern Illinois on the schedule (10-9, 4-4), which is the second best place for a road loss.

Spin 2: Ha ha ha, Wichita State! The Shockers, the preseason Valley fave, have now lost two at home and are still a game back of the Bears (and now, Indiana State). WSU’s title hopes have taken a big hit now, as has their hopes for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament.

Spin 3: Mighty MO State is still in awesome shape. Yep, still tops in the Valley – though now tied – almost to the halfway mark. MSU survived a brutal early-season Valley schedule with a 7-1 record, and if you’re a Bears fan you should be ecstatic about that. One loss? Really? With trips to UNI, Wichita, Creighton, and Indiana State? Boss. The schedule is a lot less daunting from here on out. They don’t play a single road game against a team with a winning Valley record (though SIU might be there come Feb. 23) and they get six of their last 10 league games at home.

Things aren’t so awesome for Indiana State and Wichita State. The Sycamores must visit JQH Arena for a rematch with the Bears and still have to visit WSU, Creighton and SIU. They only play four of their last 10 Valley games at home. The Shockers, meanwhile, have one game to make up and still have to visit MO State and play Indiana State twice. WSU has a 5/5 home/road split down the stretch, but the five away include trips to MSU, Indiana State, SIU and UNI. Ouch.

Spin 4: The RPI only absorbed a flesh wound. The Springfield News-Leader’s Lyndal Scranton just tweeted that the Bears’ RPI fell only three spots, from 36 to 39, according to WarrenNolan.com. It coulda been worse, right?

Annoyed, not concerned. That’s how I’d describe my feelings about the loss to Indiana State. Good things are still out there for this Missouri State team, but they’ve got to take care of their business. They’ll get back to work at that Saturday night against Creighton.

–QCFM

Required Reading:

Sycamores snap Bears’ nine-game winning streak (Springfield News-Leader)

Post-game thoughts on Bears’ defeat (Springfield News-Leader)

Indiana State defeats Missouri State, 70-69 (Terre Haute Tribune-Star)

Senior class powers Mighty MO State past Wichita

Leonard flashes some D

Better known for his shooting, senior Adam Leonard pesters a Wichita State Shocker Jan. 9. Mighty MO State's 59-56 win at WSU showed off the strength of the Bears' senior class. (Photo courtesy of The Wichita Eagle)

It’s been more than 24 hours and I am still riding the buzz achieved while sitting in my car, in my brother’s driveway, with my brother and his wife, listening to Missouri State knock of Wichita State 59-56 Jan. 9. It’s their first win there since 2007 and – at 5-0 with wins at Northern Iowa, Creighton and Wichita – puts the Bears squarely in control the Missouri Valley Conference race.

The Bears’ last win at Wichita came Feb. 20, 2007 (71-65), which is a long time ago. So long, that none of the current Bears were on the team back them. None of them knew what it felt like to come out of the Roundhouse with a win, or even the kind effort it really takes to escape their intact. Now they do.

And while Wichita Eagle columnist Bob Lutz is lamenting the Shockers’ lack of a go-to guy, Bears fans know they have a senior quartet that is nails under pressure.

MO State’s double-digit lead was gone. Completely. Whittled away from 10 in just under six minutes. That stretch saw the Bears turn it over twice and shoot 0-for-7 from the floor. Now Koch Arena was rocking at what some Shocker fans say is the highest volume they’ve ever heard. It would’ve sent a lot of lesser teams melting into a puddle. Not Mighty MO State.

Coach Cuonzo Martin called timeout and drew up a play for his offense that didn’t go exactly as planned, but the Bears made it work. Jermaine Mallett found fellow senior Adam Leonard with just enough space in the left corner to get off his shot and – despite failing to draw iron a couple of times in the first half – Leonard didn’t hesitate. He cast off from long range with a defender closing in and buried the go-ahead 3-pointer.

“That play was not really drawn up for me, but Kyle set a good screen and Will (Creekmore) had a good re-screen,” Leonard told the Springfield News-Leader. “I let it fly and made that shot. I was 3-for-13 before that. It didn’t matter in my mind. I hit the shot and we moved on.”

Creekmore, another Bears senior, then came up with perhaps the defensive play of the game, going up with his left hand to block a shot by Wichita big man J.T. Durley, then going across the lane to collect the ball and prevent the Shockers from getting a second-chance shot. In fact, Wichita State didn’t hit another field goal the rest of the night.

Nafis Ricks, the Bears’ fourth and final senior, hit one of two free throws later on to push Missouri State’s lead back to 2 with 24 seconds to play.

In all, MSU’s senior class combined for 37 points, 2o rebounds and 9 assists. WSU’s own five-member senior class (only four of whom played) went for 25 points, 21 boards and 2 assists.

Not to get too far ahead of things here (there are still 13 Valley games to play, six of them on the road), but we’re seeing the makings of a championship team. Great senior leadership, a legit star player (Kyle Weems), key role players (freshman wing Nathan Scheer, junior post Caleb Patterson, great defense, and clutch shot making.

And the nation is starting to notice, too. The latest Bracketology has Mighty MO State an 11 seed in the West Region, the Bears got a pair of votes in the latest Associated Press Top 25 and the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25 has MSU third, behind St. Mary’s and Gonzaga.

But the NCAA Tournament is not a given. The case can be made that the Valley is a one-bid league this year, and if Wichita State finishes the season strong and wins Arch Madness, the Bears could be left out again come March Madness.

Of course, the only way to make sure that doesn’t happen is on the court. Next step is Wednesday, Jan. 12, when Southern Illinois visits JQH Arena.

–QCFM

Required Reading:

Valley road leads Bears to first place (Springfield News-Leader)

Bears have set themselves up for title run (Springfield News-Leader)

Missouri State defeats Wichita State 59-56 (The Wichita Eagle)

Bob Lutz: Shockers lack go-to guy in crucial stretch (The Wichita Eagle)

Scheer brilliance will be key for Mighty MO State

Missouri State freshman Nathan Scheer

Freshman Nathan Scheer's shooting was a big key for Missouri State in a win over Evansville. Let's hope it's a recurring theme. (Photo courtesy of Missouri State University Photographic Services)

Whew.

It had all the makings of a trap game, and it certainly lived up to it. Missouri State struggled for about a half, then used a 9-0 run early in the second half to take out Evansville 65-50 in a Missouri Valley Conference game Jan. 7 at JQH Arena. Now comes the much-anticipated showdown between preseason No. 1 pick Wichita State (13-2, 4-0) and No. 2 Missouri State (12-3, 4-0), Sunday, Jan. 9, 7:35 p.m. Winner has the inside track on the Valley’s regular season championship.

That showdown may have lost some luster had it not been for freshman Nathan Scheer, who poured in a career-high 14 points thanks to 4-for-5 shooting from 3-point range. Three of those treys came in the first 11:05 of the second half to help the Bears put the game out of reach. The first one came early, following a pair of buckets by Kyle Weems, to push MSU’s lead to 8. The third came with 8:55 to play and, after UE had closed to within 7, put the Bears up by double digits to stay.

It’s not an surprising performance for the 6-foot-4 wing, who had the rep of a good shooter, but it’s an important one for Missouri State. Everyone knows about the Bears’ returning talents, and they will all draw plenty of attention from Valley defenses. So here’s your potential X-Factor. If he’s on – or even if he just becomes a legitimate threat – other teams will not be able to slack off him to pay extra attention to guys like Weems, or Adam Leonard, or Jermaine Mallett. Scoring depth will be crucial in a stretch run, and Scheer just might be the answer.

Valley teams will be taking notice. His presence was a factor in the win at Creighton, and now his shooting has been a factor too. Let’s see how the freshman handles the bright lights of the Valley.

Now comes the showdown. No doubt this one is huge, but, as MSU play-by-play legend Art Haines pointed out, the Bears are playing with house money. They’ve already picked up wins at Creighton and UNI, the two teams picked right below MSU and WSU. Any team in the Valley take a 2-1 record on that road swing, so the Bears have nothing to lose (sorry for the cliche).

But they have to play like it. Missouri State has trailed at halftime in two of its four league wins, and led by a combined three points in the other two. This is clearly a second half team, and that’s okay…but not at Wichita State. This is the league’s toughest road environment, bar none, and an early deficit in front of a vicious, fired up, Wichita crowd is a recipe for disaster. Coach Cuonzo Martin and his squad have got to figure out a way to be close, or even ahead, at the break. There will be no wiping out an 11-point deficit on the road tomorrow night.

–QCFM

Required Reading:

Scheer delivers as Bears top Aces (Springfield News-Leader)

Missouri State pulls away from Evansville Aces in second half for 65-60 win (Evansville Courier & Press)

Photos (and interview): Weems paces MSU past Aces (TAGsgf.com)

Highlights, from KSPR 33: Bears trump Aces for 4-0 Valley start