Missouri State might be peaking at the right time.
During a transitional season for the Missouri Valley Conference, where nine of the league’s top 10 players have graduated, the Bears have accumulated a deep and experienced team, ready to emerge as serious contenders.
The Bears return the Valley’s newcomer of the year in Dequon Miller, two all-freshmen team members in Jarred Dixon and Obdaiah Church, and one of the league’s most improved players in Chris Kendrix. And that's not to mention Ryan Kreklow, or the influx of three talented junior college players expected to make immediate impact.
Sixth-year head coach Paul Lusk has reason to be optimistic about this year’s team.
"We do have some guys back," he said. "We played some young guys last year that got recognized as all-freshmen. We had a sophomore in Chris Kendrix who was on the most improved team. We had a young man in Dequon Miller who was the newcomer of the year. So we feel pretty good about the guys we have returning."
The 2015-16 team won only 13 games, so Lusk knows the Bears may not be on anyone’s radar.
"We haven’t done anything. We have a lot to prove," he said. "I do like our group. I think we’ve got some guys with experience. We still have some youth on the team. We need our new guys to help us as well."
Increased competition at practice and a trip to the Bahamas have helped. The Bears have enough talented players that there is genuine competition for every spot in the starting rotation, and the 10 extra practices associated with the offseason trip helped his players fight for those jobs.
"There was great competition at every position and that is something we have not had," Lusk said. "This class that we brought in, in particular those three junior college kids, have fit perfectly. They work and they're excited to be here."
Last year’s freshman class of Church, Dixon, and Kreklow all made an impact, along with the transfer Miller. Lusk wanted to redshirt at least one of those freshmen, but injuries forced him to reconsider.
"We like our class we brought in a year ago," Lusk said. "Those guys played a lot. Hopefully with the growing pains, and they had success at times, and now they can be ready for this upcoming season."
This season’s newcomers include freshman Greg Williams, who was ranked as the ninth-best player from Virginia by verbalcommits.com, and the headliner of a trio of junior college players is Ronnie Rouseau, who was tabbed as a top-25 junior college player by Lindy’s.
Missouri State will be guard-heavy in the guard-oriented MVC, and it will be deep. Miller, Rouseau, Williams and Dixon could all start in the backcourt of most Valley teams. If veteran guard Austin Ruder can return from last season’s injuries, the Bears will have five starter-quality guards on the squad.
Williams and Kreklow are both listed as guards, but will likely play more at small forward. Kreklow buried 39 three-pointers last year in his reserve role, gaining something of a villain's status among other MVC teams.
The biggest question marks are up front, where neither Church (6.3 ppg, 6.1 rebounds per game), nor Kendrix (12.1 ppg, 4.8 rpg) stand taller than 6’7. Athletic newcomers Alize Johnson (6’9) and Jarrid Rhodes (6’6) add needed size and length.
The pieces are there for the Bears to compete, but as Lusk said, they haven't accomplished anything yet.