A basketball player tries to dribble around a defender
Alston Mason, a sophomore transfer from Arkansas, was a breakout player for Missouri State this season. Mason averaged 9.9 points overall, but 14.6 over the final 12 games. (Photo: Missouri Valley Conference)

Opinion |

The NCAA Tournament is a glorious basketball-viewing experience, the best of reality television as an unheralded team like Furman — making its first tourney appearance in 43 years — can take down a recent national champion like Virginia.

Twenty-four years ago, No. 12 seed Missouri State was a big part of the madness by beating fifth-seeded Wisconsin 42-31 in the most-beautiful, ugly game in school history. Two days later, the Bears took No. 4 seed Tennessee to the Charlotte woodshed, 81-51, to reach the Sweet 16.

As part of the News-Leader’s team coverage of the Bears’ trip to New Jersey a few days later and pairing with No. 1-ranked Duke, the content we produced was extensive. I’ll always remember Jeff Majeske, our sports editor at the time, talking about it in historical terms.

“This is something that might not happen again for a long time,” Majeske said.  

Majeske was talking in terms of the Sweet 16. We all figured the Bears would be back to the NCAA Tournament on a fairly regular basis. But that 78-61 loss to Duke and its four future first-round NBA draft choices, televised on CBS in prime time on a Friday night, is the last time the program has been on college basketball’s biggest stage.

Keep an eye on the transfer portal

What happens over the next few weeks will go a long way toward determining if Missouri State breaks the long drought a year from now — on the 25th anniversary of the Sweet 16 team.

The Bears have a terrific nucleus of talent eligible to come back next season and be the foundation of a team to remember. But don’t blame Coach Dana Ford or anxious fans if they click a link to the transfer portal several times a day.

The goal is not to see names like Donovan Clay, Alston Mason, Chance Moore, Matthew Lee, Damien Mayo Jr., N.J. Benson, James Graham and Dalen Ridgnal in the rapidly growing list of college basketball free agents.

Clay is the team’s best all-around player, Mason a rapidly-improving guard who learned to run the point and Moore perhaps the most-talented player on the team. Lee was the veteran point guard lost in the season’s second game. Mayo and Benson were freshmen who flashed huge upside. There’s plenty to like about next year’s roster, but … 

Two Bears hopped into the portal this week, including dunking and shot-blocking machine Jonathan Mogbo, a key contributor to a 17-15 team that was built basically from roster newcomers a year ago. Losing many, if any, more would be a major blow. 

Bears have a chance to be Valley contender

The best case would be if everyone returns and Ford uses the portal to his advantage, adding three or four players ready to contribute a combination of 3-point shooting, rebounding and shot-blocking. If that happens, I can see the Bears among the favorites to compete for a Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title in what probably again will be a one-bid league.

For a program that’s had several near misses in returning to the NCAA Tournament (2000, 2004, 2006, 2007, 2011), the breakthrough is due to occur sooner than later. Perhaps it will happen in 2023-24, Ford’s sixth season. 

Meanwhile, keep one eye on the portal and the other on this year’s tournament where mid-majors rise up and make memories. For some, it might be the last time they’ll do so for a generation. You never know.

A basketball coach talks to her players during a timeout.
Beth Cunningham led Missouri State’s Lady Bears to a 20-12 record and WNIT appearance in her first season as head coach. (Photo: Kevin White, Missouri State University)

Lady Bears make eighth straight postseason trip

Meanwhile, Springfield’s college basketball season came to a close on Wednesday with the Missouri State Lady Bears falling 74-65 at Nebraska in the Women’s NIT. Missouri State finished 20-12 in what has to be considered a success in Beth Cunningham’s first season as head coach.

Inheriting a roster returning only one player (Sydney Wilson) with significant experience, the Lady Bears made notable progress from the start of the season to the finish. They won 20 games for a sixth straight season and went to the postseason for the eighth straight time (excluding the 2020 pandemic postseason, which was canceled). 

With sophomore Kennedy Taylor (12.3 points, 8.5 rebounds) and MVC Freshman of the Year Jade Masogayo, the Lady Bears have a dynamic duo to start with for Cunningham’s second season.

Drury women wrap up successful season a little sooner than hoped for

Good things continued on the women’s side at Drury, as the Lady Panthers won their seventh straight Great Lakes Valley Conference championship. Unfortunately, the postseason again ended earlier than Drury had hoped as it lost to Grand Valley State in the semifinals of a loaded Midwest Regional.

The Lady Panthers finished 31-2 and will say goodbye to their three top scorers — Kaylee DaMitz-Holt, Alana Findlay and Terrion Moore. But for a program that reloads, look for Coach Amy Eagan’s team to again be nationally prominent next season as GLVC Freshman of the Year Reese Schaaf takes on a bigger role.

A basketball player shoots the ball
Kaylee DaMitz-Holt and the Drury Lady Panthers won a seventh straight Great Lakes Valley Conference title. DaMitz-Holt averaged a team-leading 16.4 points. (Photo: Drury University Athletics)

It was a rough year on the men’s side at Drury, as coach Chris Foster’s youthful team finished 9-19. Freshman Logan Applegate led the team in scoring.

Evangel men excel again

Over at Evangel, good things continued as the Valor (23-9) went to the NAIA National Tournament for the second straight season under coach Bert Capel and won a game there. Senior Josh Pritchett was named Heart of America Athletics Conference Player of the Year. 

Overall, it was an interesting college basketball season for Springfield schools. Hopefully, next season will be even better.

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 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