No bubbles or bracketology for me

Judging be the e-mails and calls to local sports talk radio shows as well as tweets by fellow Missouri State fans, I’m a lot less interested in this whole bubble watch and bracketology thing. I’ve paid as little attention to it as possible. Spoiler Alert: The Bears are highly, highly unlikely to be included in the 2011 NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship Tournament when the bracket is announced in a couple of hours.

I’m not saying they shouldn’t be, just that they won’t. The highly-trusted Joe Lunardi has said as much, so it’s likely a done deal, right? It’s not because Missouri State’s a bad team, or doesn’t have a pretty good resume. It’s because MSU is a mid-major, and the selection system seems to be pretty regularly manipulated to ensure the high majors fill the brackets.

At one time, 20 wins was the magic number as far as NCAA resumes go. But there’s MSU with 25 wins, on the outside looking in. USC has 19 wins and is assumed to be in. Then I learned that your RPI has to be low, or you won’t get in. MO State is sitting at 44. The last four in, according to Lunardi? St. Mary’s (46), Clemson (55), Virginia Tech (60) and USC (68). Missouri State owns three of the five best RPIs to be left out of the NCAA Tournament – including the No. 1 spot (21, back in 2006). We know the RPI is a hot steaming load.

Top 50 wins are important, supposedly. This, too, skews towards the big boys, who are often reluctant to schedule mid-majors in non-league play and certainly don’t want to play them on the road. The signature wins this season for Clemson and VA Tech? All of them are conference opponents. Clemson is 0-5 against the Top 50. VT is 2-4. The knock against MSU is that even though they don’t have any really bad losses, they don’t have any really good wins. The Bears lost a close one at Tennessee, a projected 10 seed, early in the year. That win may have helped boost the resume, but it’s no guarantee.

This season should sit as a learning moment for Missouri State. They’ve got 20+ wins and a good RPI. They showed an ability to win away from home. They don’t have any horrible losses. These are all good things. But there’s no marquee win. There’s no body of work against Top 50 RPI teams. The non-conference schedule strength is kinda weak – though no worse than some teams that are in. *coughMissouri’sIs297ButMissouriState’sIs195cough*

It’s time to schedule up. Pat Hill put Fresno State football on the map with an “Anyone, any time, any place” mentality. You’re going to take some lumps, but you’re also going to increase the chance of picking up a marquee win. Don’t always hold out for a home-and-home. Take some 2-for-1s. Take some neutral floor games. as Ric Flair says, “To BE the man, you’ve got to BEAT the man! Whoooo!” Go beat the man, Bears.

–QCFM

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Friday Soundtrack, or Fight for vict’ry

It’s Game Day.

Arch Madness – the Missouri Valley Conference’s men’s basketball tournament – tipped off last night in St. Louis and Missouri State joins the fray today, at noon, playing Southern Illinois for the right to advance to the semifinals.

That’s the inspiration for this week’s Friday Soundtrack. The song is best known as the “Missouri State Fight Song,” but it’s actual name is “The Scotsman.” It’s history was discussed in this thread over at MSU Bear Nation. Mighty MO State is the only school to use “The Scotsman” as its fight song, though my alma mater shares the song with Utah State University. That school’s Wiki page claims “The popular Scotsman song was composed by student Ebenezer J. Kirkham, class of 1918, though a similar song had been used by other colleges for at least a decade.” USU’s version of The Scotsman is arranged differently than MSU’s, and the Aggies use it as a supplemental song, not their primary fight song.

MSU’s version, meanwhile, was officially adopted in 1960, though it was likely used unofficially used prior to that, and the lyrics have evolved along with the name of the school.

That part kind of disappoints me. The original version has a charm to it and I like it better than what we sing right now. Today’s version involves too much spelling, in my opinion. I might be in the minority on this one. I’ve posted the original lyrics – which could be updated a little bit to say something like “True-hearted Bear from Missouri” – so you can make up your own mind.

LET’S GO BEARS!

–QCFM

“The Scotsman”

Show me the Scotsman
Who doesn’t love the thistle,
Show me the Englishman
Who doesn’t love the rose,
Show me the true-
Hearted man of Springfield,
Who doesn’t love the sport.

B-E-A-R-S, BEARS!

Way down where the
Ozarks zephyrs blow.

Arch Madness Bracketology

It ranks as probably the best gem the legendary George Wilson dropped on me during my years covering his College of the Ozarks Lady ‘Cats:

“It’s hard to beat a team three times in one season…then again, sometimes it’s not.”

Let it sink in for a second, then note this: If Wichita State or Missouri State are going to cut down the nets at Scottrade Center March 6 and accept the Missouri Valley Conference’s automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, they’re going to have to beat as many as two teams for the third time this season. It’s not as easy as it sounds.

Or is it?

Let’s take a look:

Adam Leonard - Missouri State

To the victor go the spoils, and for Missouri State that means a bracket that includes two of the three worst teams in the league, a No. 4 seed that is fading after the loss of a key player, and a No. 5 seed that hasn’t won a game away from home in two months.

But there are some that feel this is the harder of the two brackets, specifically because of that No. 5 seed, Creighton. The Jays went just 5-5 down the stretch (5-4 in Valley games), but they lost at Wichita on a buzzer beater and clipped UNI in the regular season finale. Greg McDermott is a quality head coach and his boy, Doug, is a legit weapon as a freshman. They also played Missouri State tough in Springfield, leading the whole way – by double digits at some points – before fading down the stretch and losing on a last-second layup by Valley Player of the Year Kyle Weems. Can a team that’s 3-10 on the road and 3-7 in games decided by 5 or fewer points really make a title run?

The bigger question, though, is can Missouri State beat them three times in one season?

Creighton might be better equipped than No. 4 Northern Iowa, who has suffered since losing 6-foot-9 brute and weird-beard aficionado Lucas O’Rear to a broken ankle back on Feb. 2. The Panthers are 1-6 since then, winning by 10 at Bradley Feb. 15. They had won 8 in a row – including at both MSU and WSU – before the injury. They, too, seem like a long-shot to pull an upset (but don’t tell that to ESPN).

Missouri State has some added incentive to beat UNI – the Panthers stole a 60-59 decision from the Bears on a late rebound foul…a play Weems and the Bears have not forgotten. MSU and UNI split their season series, but that was at full strength.

No. 8 Southern Illinois and No. 9 Bradley round up the northern half of the bracket. Missouri State swept both of those teams in the regular season, though it wasn’t always easy. The Bears fared better on the road both times.

David Kyles - Wichita State

Wichita State, meanwhile, will have to wrap up two sweeps and avoid getting swept if they want to win the Valley tournament for the first time since 1987. The second-seeded Shockers are 8-0 against their side of the bracket. They’ll open with either No. 7 Drake or No. 10 Bradley, a pair of teams I’m glad are on the other side of the bracket. Drake is a puzzler. The Bulldogs went 5-5 down the stretch, scaring the bejeesus out of MSU and beating both Creighton and Northern Iowa. But they also got housed by Bradley, 90-64, in the regular season finale. Which Drake team shows up is anyone’s guess. Bradley, meanwhile, features the league’s top scorer, in Andrew Warren. The Braves – like the Bulldogs – split their last 10, with Drake and CU being the only wins of note.

If the Shockers finish up a sweep of either of DU or BU, it’s on to a more challenging foe: No. 3 Indiana State or No. 6 Evansville. ISU figures to be a dangerous team. The Sycamores were red-hot to open league play, winning 7 of their first 8 Valley games, and are perhaps the pound-for-pound hardest working team in the league. But the Sycamores dropped a 93-83 triple overtime decision at Wichita State on Jan. 22, a loss that seemed to – pardon the expression – shake the Trees. Indiana State is just 5-5 since that loss. They dropped the rematch with WSU 70-54 and lost to Evansville 66-63, both on their home floor. ISU, it seems, is in the opposite position of WSU. The Sycamores were swept by both teams they’ll need to beat in order to advance to the finals.

Evansville is 2-0 against Indiana State this season, winning 64-59 at home. The Aces have been hard to figure this season, going 1-4 to open league play, then winning 7 of their next 9 – including a 77-65 triumph over Missouri State. But just when the Aces seemed to have it going on, they went 2-5 down the stretch, managing to beat only wounded Northern Iowa and ninth-place Illinois State.

If the good Aces show up, it’ll be hard for Wichita State to beat them three times in one season. But,then again, if the good Aces show up…

So let’s say both Missouri State and Wichita State survive and advance. Then we have another sweep/no-sweep scenario on our hands, and this is a case – unlike some in the earlier rounds – where it’s gonna be a whale of a lot harder to beat a team three times in one season. The Bears and Shockers have played a pair of classics this season, with Missouri State besting Wichita both times. Adam Leonard hit go-ahead 3-pointers in both games, one with 3:37 to play at Wichita and one with 49 seconds to play in Springfield. Wichita led or was tied with MSU in the final four minutes of both games, but never could find a way to bury the Bears.

Given a third look at them, odds are Wichita State will finally pull it off because it’s hard to beat a team three times in one season…but, then again, sometimes it’s not.

–QCFM

 

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)

Is close the new normal for Missouri State?

Will Creekmore

It's going to take heroics like those shown by senior post Will Creekmore for Missouri State to wrap up a conference championship. There are no cakewalks in the Valley.

It’s been a couple of days now, but I wanted to share some thoughts on Missouri State’s close shave at Drake. The Bears – tell me if this sounds familiar – struggled, and actually trailed a good portion of the game, before rallying to win. The final score was 73-70.

Not the result a lot of people expected considering Drake entered the game 3-6 in Missouri Valley Conference play. But the Bulldogs were scrappy, fed their hot hands and found ways to stay in the game.

Get used to it, Bears fans. This is the new normal.

Conference play is By Any Means Necessary time, and the Valley is no different. In fact, the Valley is even tougher, considering its conference tournament is one of the first played each year. That means the teams pack 18 league games into just a couple of months. Missouri State will play its slate in just 60 days, averaging a league game every 3.3 days. The Bears have four days off between the win at Drake and a home game with defending Valley champ Northern Iowa, their biggest break since they had six days off between games with Arkansas State and UNI in December.

It’s a grind, and everyone is subjected to the same schedule. Winning down the stretch is just as much about grit and determination as it is talent. The Bears are now 4-1 in Valley games decided by 3 points or less, a testament to their grit.

There’s also the bulls-eye factor. Missouri State is in first place. They’re getting Top 25 votes. They’re being mentioned as a potential at-large team. They are the team to beat. Nobody in the Valley will hit the floor in awe of the Bears and they will all step it up a notch to try and beat the league leaders.

One more thing that will play a role down the stretch is something I haven’t heard much in the local media: There are no secrets at this point in the season. This is what happens in conference play: I know what you’re gonna do, you know what I’m gonna do, so let’s go see who does it better. There are no surprises right now. Opponents have a scouting report on every Bear – even the freshman – by now and know how they like to shoot, catch, dribble, defend, etc. Like Chuck D of Public Enemy said, “It’s not a matter of skills, but a battle of wills.”

The win is the thing from now on for Missouri State. Be it three points or 30, they just need the W.

The Homestretch

Mighty MO State is closing in on its first-ever Valley regular season title, still leading second place Wichita State by one game with eight to play. Indiana State has faltered recently, losing at WSU in multiple OTs before letting a big lead slip away in a home loss to Evansville. The Trees are now two games back, as is always-dangerous Northern Iowa. Here’s a look at the contenders and what they have left.

1. Missouri State (9-1): The Bears still have schedule on their side. MO State plays five of its last eight league games at home, with trips to Evansville (5-5), Illinois State (2-8) and Southern Illinois (4-6) remaining. That’s not a UNI-WSU-CU swing by any stretch of the imagination, but there are also no nights off. MSU is in the enviable position of controlling its own destiny. All they need to do is win.

2. Wichita State (8-2): It’s been pointed out that the Shockers, the preseason Valley favorite, may have lost some of their edge at home. WSU is perfect on the road in league play, but lost to both MO State and UNI in The Roundhouse and needed triple overtime to stop Indiana State. WSU has four home games and four road games left, including trips to UNI, Indiana State, and Missouri State. In other words, the Shockers can help themselves on the court.

3. Indiana State (7-3): Is the magic starting to fade for the Sycamores? They gave the Shockers all they wanted before finally succumbing, but followed that up with a puzzling home loss to Evansville. The Sycamores need a win – fast – or their momentum might be gone. Easier said then done. The Sycs have five road games left to play, visiting Creighton, Illinois State, Missouri State, Southern Illinois and UNI. They also have a visit from Wichita State so they, like the Shockers, can help themselves in the race for first place.

4. Northern Iowa (7-3): The Panthers worry me as much as any of these other teams (and I would throw Southern Illinois into that group). The Panthers have toiled quietly in the shadow of Indiana State’s hot start and, after a 1-3 start, have won six straight league games. True, four of those games were at home, but they got a great road win at Wichita State. The Panthers are well coached and talented, and their game this Sunday, Jan. 30, at Missouri State could be epic. A win for Mighty MO State puts them on step closer to wrapping up the title. A loss? Then it’s Katy Bar the Door.

–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)