A basketball coach watches his team play
Coach Dana Ford is pleased with the talent and depth of his new-look roster entering his fifth season at Missouri State’s basketball coach. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

OPINION |

We’re rapidly closing in on the start of another Missouri State basketball season and there’s a wonderful sense of anticipation regarding both the Bears and Lady Bears.

During the annual media day on Thursday inside Great Southern Bank Arena, it was a good thing that name cards sat in front of the various player interview stations. Bears coach Dana Ford begins his fifth season with 14 new players.

For the Lady Bears, there’s also been a sizable roster shakeup but the biggest change of all is the boss. Beth Cunningham has settled in as the new coach after a whirlwind last seven months.

“In some ways it feels like yesterday was my introductory press conference and now the season is right around the corner,” Cunningham said.  “I feel we’ve accomplished a lot in a short amount of time. 

“We had a lot to do, even just filling a roster, putting a staff together, teaching a new system offensively and defensively.”

Bears fourth, Lady Bears sixth in preseason polls

Those allegedly in the know voted the Bears fourth and the Lady Bears sixth in the respective Missouri Valley Conference preseason polls. Neither Ford nor Cunningham claimed to pay much attention to that and just as well.

These days, with roster makeovers more common than not, it’s going to be almost impossible to predict anything with accuracy. Even Ford said nobody really knows who has what, behind the top three on the men’s side of Drake, Bradley and Southern Illinois. Those programs have the least roster turnover.

One thing Ford and Cunningham agree upon is they like their rosters about midway through preseason practice. Of course, a wise Missouri State coaching legend once told me that everyone loves their team in October. 

Will they love their team in February? If so, then you have something, the late, great Charlie Spoonhour once said.

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Bears rebuild out of necessity

Ford’s thorough re-making of the Bears roster came after a multitude of transfers, including leading scorer Isaiah Mosley, from a 21-win team that reached the National Invitation Tournament. While he’s gone on record as being no fan of the transfer portal, Ford has gone about trying to make the most of it.

Honestly, while the loss of Mosley was disappointing but not surprising, the roster re-tool was refreshing. Despite the win total, fans never seemed to warm to last season’s team after an opening-night loss to Southeast Missouri State. 

As several players joined Mosley in seeking new opportunities, Ford and staff went to work and landed transfers from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Maryland, Georgia, Akron and Colorado State. Ford talked Thursday about finding the right fits for the program and smiled about the prospect of achieving that goal.

“They’re a tight group already,” Ford said. “With the buy-in they have to believe, they have to want to be a part of it and you have to be selling a good product. We feel like we are. This group is a fun group to coach.”

This Bears team will be deeper

Ford said this will be different in a couple of ways, most notably a more diversified offense instead of relying on a couple of guys to score most of the points. Defensively, a deeper roster should lead to more aggressive, full-court defensive pressure.

A woman poses for a picture, holding a basketball on her right hip
First-year Missouri State Lady Bears coach Beth Cunningham is preparing her team for the season opener, Nov. 7 against Missouri. (Photo: Missouri State Athletics)

Refreshingly open and unprompted, Ford said pleasant surprises thus far include the overall play of freshmen Damien Mayo and N.J. Benson, playmaking at guard from transfers Matthew Lee and Alston Mason, versatility of transfer Jonathan Mogbo and perimeter shooting from transfer Dalen Ridgnal.

Donovan Clay, one of the Valley’s best overall players and one of only three roster returnees, has been outstanding and appears poised for a big year. Clay and Mayo would be starters, as of today, joined by a combination of five upperclassmen. There are various combinations of big and small lineups to choose from.

Areas of concern

Disappointments include the lack of physical toughness and defensive rebounding, plus some shaky decision making on 3-point shots.

“But it’s early,” Ford said, a reminder all in the college hoops world should heed until the holiday season.

While the threat of losing top players to transfer never is going away in modern college athletics, Ford said he’s happy with a roster that seems all-in on being a Bear. It seems more like taking over a program in Year One, but Ford is OK with that.

“My wife, if she was here, she could answer this — but this is the best I’ve slept in a long time,” Ford said. “I don’t have any worries about our group. We’re looking for good kids who want to be great teammates who are tough and coachable. I love our roster.”

Ford won’t stop players from transferring

Players currently are allowed one transfer, but can petition for immediate eligibility for another. Ford said he won’t stand in the way of any players who decide, down the road, they want to leave.

“If guys ask me to let ’em transfer, I’m not gonna try to change their minds to stay,” he said. “If guys don’t want to do what they’re asked to do and that causes them to want to transfer, they’re going to transfer.”

Well wishes for Art Hains

Ford began his media-day time by recognizing one of the program’s best-known people who will be sidelined, perhaps for quite some time. Veteran play-by-play voice Art Hains is in a Lincoln, Nebraska, medical rehab facility battling devastating effects from what is believed to be West Nile Virus.

“The only negative currently with our program is the situation with Art,” Ford said. “It’s looking like it’s going to be his first season, since before I’ve been alive, that he won’t be calling Bears basketball games. We all love Art, near and dear to all of our hearts. 

“One of the things I’ve talked to our team about is having an appreciation for what we get to do, every day. I think that goes for all of us. We’ll miss Art. Hopefully, when he’s back, he has something to be excited about and be proud of.”

Key Missouri State basketball dates

Nov. 2 — Lady Bears exhibition game vs. Missouri S&T, 6 p.m. at Great Southern Bank Arena

Nov. 5 — Bears exhibition game vs. Newman University, 7 p.m. at Great Southern Bank Arena

Nov. 7 — Lady Bears season opener vs. Missouri, 6 p.m. at Great Southern Bank Arena

Nov. 9 — Bears season opener vs. Missouri S&T, 7 p.m. at Great Southern Bank Arena

Dec. 3 — Bears Missouri Valley Conference opener, vs. Bradley, 7 p.m. at Great Southern Bank Arena

Dec. 29 — Lady Bears Missouri Valley Conference opener, at Indiana State, 3 p.m.

March 2-5 — MVC Men’s Tournament in St. Louis

March 9-12 — MVC Women’s Tournament in Moline, Illinois

Lyndal Scranton

Lyndal Scranton is a Springfield native who has covered sports in the Ozarks for more than 35 years, witnessing nearly every big sports moment in the region during the last 50 years. The Springfield Area Sports Hall of Famer and live-fire cooking enthusiast also serves as PR Director for Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, co-hosts The Sports Reporters on Jock 96.9 FM, 99.9 FM and 1060 AM on Monday mornings with Ned Reynolds and is co-host of the Tailgate Guys BBQ Podcast. Contact him at Lscranton755@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @LyndalScranton. More by Lyndal Scranton