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Missouri State showing promise in season that’s been long in the making

Is the patience paying off?

NCAA Basketball: Missouri State at Wichita State Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports

Missouri State had an avalanche of preseason momentum.

Alize Johnson decided to pull out of the NBA draft, and then went on to be named MVP at Adidas Nations. Point guard Ronnie Rousseau also returned after leaving the team for personal reasons last January. And Paul Lusk added more pieces to an already-deep roster, like Howard graduate transfer J.T. Miller.

It all led to the Bears being tabbed the MVC’s preseason favorite, and that momentum would carry into the beginning year.

MSU picked up a solid opening night win at Western Kentucky, giving the Bears a road victory over a C-USA contender before the season was a day old. But the momentum finally hit a snag courtesy of North Dakota State on Nov. 17.

The Bison stonewalled the MSU offense over the final four minutes of a close game, leaving Springfield with a 57-54 win. NDSU has been a Summit stalwart, but losing a sluggish game at JQH Arena to a less-talented opponent didn’t seem right for this particular MSU team. And for a program that had thrown bushels of patience at Lusk, worry probably began to set in.

Three weeks later, the Bears are again looking like the Valley contender many thought they’d be.

MSU did lose to a good Georgia Southern team following the NDSU home hiccup. But since then, the Bears have reeled off six-straight wins and extended the winning streak on Monday night by returning the favor and knocking off the Bison in Fargo.

It was the back-end of a fruitful trip to the Dakotas. Last Saturday, the Bears beat South Dakota State — a team that had just won at Ole Miss and has since challenged Wichita State — in Sioux Falls. Over the six-game streak the Bears have been stout defensively, holding opponents to under 0.97 points per possession or less in each game.

That budding defense was especially nasty holding an explosive Jackrabbits offense in check. SDSU star Mike Daum scored just seven points on three-for-14 shooting, and his coach talked about why after the game.

“On the ball screens and transition that we usually run, they jammed the screens so they could stay attached to him so he didn’t have any room to move, and that was effective,” [Jacks coach T.J.] Otzelberger said. “We got him some touches in the interior and had a couple close looks he missed. We want him to be aggressive, and he wasn’t quite as aggressive as we’d like him to be, but (MSU’s) size and length is real and they make you take a little bit tougher shot than you’d like to.”

Johnson gets top billing and he should; he’s yet again averaging a double-double (13.7 PPG, 10.3 RPG) despite a rough start shooting the ball. But what makes MSU dangerous — in addition to its defense — is depth behind its NBA-bound star.

In a 10-point home win against Colorado State, Johnson didn’t score point. Yet the Bears were still able to build a massive halftime lead and then hang on late behind 20 points from reserve guard Ryan Kreklow and a solid effort from underrated forward Obediah Church (10 points, 8 rebounds). On the season, Lusk has gotten contributions from all over the roster, with eight players averaging 6.8 points per game or more.

To Loyola Chicago coach Porter Moser, those sheer numbers give the Bears an advantage.

“We’ve got to develop depth,” Moser said in an interview earlier this year. “We’ve got to get deeper because depth in this league is going to be a key and that’s why Missouri State is the preseason number one. Because they’ve got depth.”

Breaking through this year is crucial on many fronts for MSU. Lusk signed a five-year extension following the 2013-14 season, and since then has gone 20-34 in the MVC play, never finishing better than tied for sixth. This has led to growing anxiety in Springfield, especially after the Bears let an 11-4 start fizzle to 16-15 a year ago.

His athletic director — Kyle Moats — talked about the realities of the situation last February.

Moats said he doesn’t consider Lusk to be on the hot seat, but reiterated there are expectations.

“Every coach has to prove and perform, and Paul’s no different,” Moats said.

Lusk has performed on the recruiting trail, landing Johnson and another apparent JuCo gem — guard Reggie Scurry — this past offseason. He’s assembled arguably the MVC’s most talented and complete roster, and has a non-conference schedule set up for momentum. The Bears do not play a team from the Power 5, American or A-10, and only have one game against a top-100 KenPom team (Georgia Southern).

With non-league games remaining against Hampton, Oral Roberts and Wright State, MSU should enter MVC play with another gaudy record. That will lead in to what looks like a boom-or-bust winter in Southwest Missouri.

If the Bears can play well and get to their first NCAA Tournament since 1999, the makings of a consistent winner are there. No school in the MVC has a higher enrollment, and Springfield — like Wichita and Spokane — is the kind of market that can flood a program with support under the right circumstances.

The problem is that the circumstances have not been right. Average attendance fell from 7,050 in 2011-12, to just 4,185 last season. Will this be the year that those number start to climb and the patience pays off?

We may have an idea sooner rather than later, as the Bears start MVC play with three-straight games against the other likely league contenders. They open with Loyola at home on Dec. 22, then travel to Valparaiso on New Year’s Eve before hosting UNI on Jan. 4.

Should MSU avoid any slip ups before then and emerge from that stretch on the positive end, there will be plenty of reason to believe a season long in the making has finally arrived.