The road to March: Expectations are heavy as Bears quickly find out

It’s a long road to March and there will be ups and downs. How a talented Missouri State basketball handles the journey will determine if the program’s NCAA Tournament drought will end.

By Lyndal Scranton

SPRINGFIELD, MO. – The 2019-20 Missouri State Bears tipped off the long journey to March on Tuesday night and quickly were served up a giant slice of humble pie. Preseason expectations? They can be heavier than soggy sacks of cement.

Arkansas-Little Rock, a 21-loss team a season ago, came into JQH Arena and took a 67-66 victory. It was not a fluke. The Trojans outplayed and out-executed the Bears.

Coach Dana Ford’s Bears are an overwhelming favorite to win the Missouri Valley Conference and return the program to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 21 years. Twenty-one years? Twitter and monitor reviews weren’t a part of college hoops back then.

Who knew that March night in New Jersey back in 1999, when Danny Moore and William Fontleroy were dueling No. 1-ranked Duke in the Sweet 16, such a drought awaited. Five of the players on this season’s roster weren’t even born the last time the Bears went to the NCAA Tournament and the other nine were infants or toddlers. Coach Dana Ford was 14 years old. The News-Leader’s Missouri State beat writer and one-man sports staff Wyatt Wheeler was five.

There have been many near-misses and some downright futility during that span. It shows how difficult it is for a mid-major to break through, though for a school with the basketball resources of Missouri State there’s no excuse for such a prolonged absence from the NCAA tourney.

So is this the season the frustration ends? The talent is there. So is the coaching. But before planning a balloon party on Selection Sunday, there’s work to do. It took less than 40 minutes under game lights for that reality to sink in. This is not fantasy basketball. Talent alone does not prevail. The transfer-heavy Bears haven’t played together much – and it looked like it.

Ford accepted all the blame. While his team led for 36 minutes, this was not a “heartbreaking” loss. The defense was poor. The offense relied too heavily upon the 3-pointer.

“It would be a heart breaker, if we deserved to win,” Ford said. “We need to look ourselves in the mirror as coaches and put a better product out on the floor.” Later in his post-game news conference, Ford added, “this game was a big, big coaching error.”

The 1998-99 Bears didn’t have a smooth ride to glory even though it was loaded with the necessary parts: Moore one of the best bigs to ever play in the MVC. Fontleroy and Kevin Ault a perfect backcourt complimentary pairing. Ron Bruton a tough-as-nut power forward. Ken Stringer a glue-type on and off the floor and Allen Phillips a sharp-shooting sixth man.

Other bench guys – Ryan Bettenhausen, Scott Brakebill, Matt Rueter, Eric Judd and Paul Murans – knew their roles to a T.

That team, just as the current crop of Bears, had tall expectations entering the season. It nearly didn’t live up to them. There were numerous disappointments along the way as Coach Steve Alford’s team fell short of a regular-season title (19-9 overall, 11-7 in the league) and lost six games by three or fewer points or in overtime. It went to Arch Madness as the No. 3 seed, behind Evansville and Creighton, then nearly lost a stunner in the quarterfinals.

It took Fontleroy’s regulation-beating 3-pointer – which as the years go by grows in legend and now some will tell you it was launched from near Busch Stadium – to send that game against Indiana State to overtime. The Bears eventually prevailed by one, as the Sycamores’ missed an open jumper at the final horn.

Even then, the Bears fell to Creighton the next day in the semifinals. In the week ahead, until Selection Sunday, there was gloom.

“This to me was by far the lowest part of the whole year,” Moore said on Tuesday. “We knew we lost a lot of games of late. Most were close and to Evansville and Creighton. But all we could do is just sit and watch while other conference tournaments were going on. Our hope was that our RPI continued to stay high enough for an at large bid. I remember rooting for the teams we had already beat.

“And our practices during that time were very low spirited practices along with some team bickering.”

Fortunately, Alford’s team had done just enough in the nonconference (including beating Missouri in the Preseason NIT) to nab one of the final at-large spots. Moore said the pressure the team had carried around most of the season lifted like sunshine melting heavy fog when the team saw “SMS” early in the Selection Sunday show.

“At this point in time, we felt invincible,” he said. “We didn’t have to play anymore conference teams and we just assumed we would win the first two games. We even changed our team break from “Bears on 3” to “Beat their A$$ on 3” compliments of Ken Stringer. It worked.”

They went on to become a team of Missouri State hoops legend, beating Wisconsin and trouncing Tennessee. The Bears played No. 1-ranked Duke, with six future NBA players, tough in the Sweet 16.

“We gave Duke a good game, but in the end they were better,” Moore said, before adding, “to this day people still remember the SMS Sweet Sixteen men’s basketball team.”

So now we will watch as the 2019-2020 Bears pursue their version of a dream season, an opportunity to become a team remembered 21 years and beyond next March. How will they handle the expectations and challenges that all championship-quality teams must navigate?

Moore has been there and done that. His advice:

“1 – Enjoy the pre-season hype, but know you have to work extra hard because you now have a big target on your back. Every MVC team wants to beat the number one ranked preseason team.

“2 – Don’t underestimate the power of team chemistry. The Bears may have the best MVC team but if the team isn’t on the same page, you won’t win. Remember everyone on the team has a role. Not everyone is going to score 20 points a game. And once everyone buys into their role, a collection of good players will turn into a good team.

“3 – Ride the highs, because there are going to be lows. The confidence that you gain with winning games will help get you through the lows when you are losing games.

“4 – Don’t let the lows derail your team. Every year you see good teams fall apart once they start losing. Players start fighting with each other, coaches start panicking; but the good teams stay the course and bring each other up after losses.

“5 – Finally, have fun! The motto work hard, work smart, have fun is a very good saying. Be sure to enjoy the moment at times. College flies by so be sure to take a moment to look up at the crowd and soak it all in, even if it is just for a minute.”

Spoken like a man who’s jersey should be hanging in the JQH Arena rafters. But that’s another subject for another day.

For now, the current-day Bears must respond to their first stumble. Stay tuned. It’s a long road to March.

Lyndal Scranton covered Missouri State basketball for the Springfield News-Leader from 1989-2015. He’s now PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway and co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Show Podcast – but still pays attention to Bears basketball.

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