Missouri State Bears: Stopping the Bleeding (for now)
Guest Report – Neil Harrington
(Springfield, MO) – It was supposed to be THE year for the Missouri State Bears. For the first time in team history, they began the preseason as Missouri Valley Conference favorites — with a roster filled with veteran players, including the ‘MVC Preseason Player of the Year‘, Alize Johnson.
Johnson showcased his variety of skills at the Adidas Nations event during the summer, winning Most Valuable Player — beating out the likes of future NBA lottery picks Michael Porter Jr., Bruce Brown, Mikal Bridges and, Yante Maten. It’s possible he may earn a first-round NBA Draft selection himself, with the Boston Celtics fond of the versatile Johnson.
To begin the 2017-18 campaign, the Bears lived up to all of the hype, starting the season 13-3 and 3-0 in in the MVC — boasting one of the best rebounding marks and defensive squads in all of College Basketball.
Then the unthinkable happened, the Bears ultimately fell apart, nose-diving from first to tied for seventh in the MVC standings — 15-10 (5-7 in MVC) going into Tuesday’s game against the Indiana State Sycamores.
As those of you MVC faithful are aware, finishing in seventh place gets you a (dreaded) date with a Thursday night game to kick off the MVC tournament (Arch Madness) — where no such MVC team in the history of that event has ever made it further than the semi-finals.
How does a team with so much talent, experience, and promise, start spiraling out of control? Confidence is one reason, with the team losing its swagger somehow — you can see it on their faces during huddles during the game and body language expressing as they leave the court.
Horrendous offense. For a team that shoots poorly from behind the arc, the Bears sure do attempt an abundance of three’s. Their primary strength is getting the ball into the paint, to their workhorse, Johnson. They’ve neglected such strategy and are settling for low-percentage shots in the process.
Their guard play has been sporadic, with a lack of efficiency and leadership lacking from players who typically provide a stable presence. Jarred Dixon, Ronnie Rousseau III, and J.T. Miller are as talented as any guards in the MVC. Its time they play up to their potential.
Guard play is vital to the success of any championship caliber team, with Loyola (Chicago) displaying that in spades. Freshmen Mustafa Lawerence has been a recent spark for the Bears, taking over as the team’s starting point guard, where he seems to be the answer to their ball handling and leadership woes.
The weight of the world is on their shoulders; Coach Lusk has even admitted such in recent interviews. The key to getting back on track is playing steady, and for the love of the game. Loosen up fellas; it’s just basketball.
Where did the defense go? The before mentioned tenacious defense has lost its growl, with Loyola-Chicago torching the Bears for nearly 100 points (97) this past Saturday evening.
Freak injuries, due to a “cutting-edge” recovery treatment, sent both Reggie Scurry and Abdul Fofana to the sidelines. Fofana is out for the remainder of the season, while Coach Lusk hopes to get his top bench player in Scurry back by the MVC tournament.
The primary reason for the Bears struggles, however, begins and ends with the head coach, Paul Lusk. Off the court, he’s one of the kindest men you’ll ever meet. Rousseau III attributed Lusk to “saving his life,” during personal affairs last season, which led to him leaving the team — revealing these details in a recent interview with legendary Bears play-by-play broadcaster Art Hains.
But, on the floor, Lusk has been average, at best. Over the years, he’s been outcoached by the likes of Greg Marshall (Wichita State), Ben Jacobson(UNI), and even former MSU head coach Barry Hinson (Southern Illinois). During his seven-year tenure at MSU, things just have not clicked.
Lusk has never boasted a winning record in MVC play, with his best being 9-9 on two occasions (2012 and 2014). The furthest his teams have advanced during Arch Madness is the Semifinals (2014, 2017).
Something has to give, and if Lusk cannot right the ship and get the Bears to the NCAA tournament, then it’s time for the Bears to move on. Luckily, there are many games left in the season, and Lusk has a team capable of flipping the switch.
Finally, some good news for the Bears, after Tuesday night’s trip to Terre Haute, Indiana. For the first time in months, the Bears finally put together a complete game. The Bears led from start to finish, handling the talented Sycamores 81-62.
Johnson paved the way, with 28 points, eight rebounds, five assists, and four blocked shots. He didn’t have to do it alone, with his teammates stepping it up as well.
Team defense was the key, which generated easy baskets on the other end. It looked like the Bears team that routed Summit League leader South Dakota State towards the end of Non-Conference play — which seems like an eternity ago.
Editor: Neil Harrington is a Springfield resident and writes for CalltothePen.com and DorkSideoftheForce.com. He is a free-lance reporter for both NCAA sports and minor league baseball. You can follow him on Twitter His views are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of ValleyHoopsInsider.com.