Brice Calip, a sixth-year senior, first-team all-MVC and league defensive player of the year, gets to play in another NCAA Tournament as the Missouri State Lady Bears face Florida State on Thursday. (Photo by Missouri State athletics)

March is the best month of the year for a college basketball junkie. It’s even better when teams you closely follow are still playing. 

Missouri State fans, let the madness commence. The Lady Bears and Bears both have more basketball to play and that is something to celebrate.

After an anxious 24 hours, the Lady Bears received an NCAA Tournament at-large bid, albeit by the narrowest of margins. Missouri State will face Florida State in the “First Four” — new to the women’s tournament — on Thursday in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

The winner of that game, which tips at 8 p.m. on ESPN2, advances into the 64-team bracket as a No. 11 seed in the West Region and will play No. 6 seed Ohio State on Saturday.

Making it into the NCAA field is a terrific accomplishment for a Lady Bears team that lost two starting senior post players — Abby Hipp and Jasmine Franklin — to knee injuries before Christmas. 

Coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton juggled her remaining personnel and guided them to a 24-7 record — and into the NCAA Tournament for the third straight time (not including the COVID-canceled 2020 event).

The Lady Bears are challenged when shooting from the perimeter, shooting just 26.4 percent as a team. They’ll have to rely on defense to carry the day against an Atlantic Coast Conference team … but they at least have a chance to play on the biggest stage.

Less than an hour after the Lady Bears received their postseason reprieve, the men got one as well. The Bears were included in the 32-team National Invitation Tournament. They were paired with Oklahoma, the top seed in that portion of the eight-team bracket.

Gaige Prim and the Missouri State Bears face Oklahoma on Tuesday in the National Invitation Tournament. (Photo by Missouri State athletics)

There’s little time to prepare. The Bears and Sooners meet at 6 p.m. Tuesday in Norman, Oklahoma. The game will be televised on ESPN. 

Missouri State is no stranger to Oklahoma’s head coach, Porter Moser. He built Loyola into a Missouri Valley Conference champion before taking the Sooners’ job and guided them to an 18-15 overall record in his first season.

Oklahoma was listed as one of the last four teams out of the NCAA Tourney, during the NCAA Men’s Selection Show. It beat Baylor, a No. 1 NCAA seed, in the Big 12 Conference quarterfinals before losing a one-point decision to Texas Tech in the semifinals.

Many see the National Invitation Tournament as a consolation prize in comparison to the NCAA Tournament — and it is. But with 11 years between postseason play of any kind for the men’s program, this is notable progress.

Considering where the Missouri State men’s program was when Coach Dana Ford arrived in March of 2018, the NIT is a solid step in his fourth season — while acknowledging the NCAA tourney remains the goal.

Under Ford, the Bears’ win totals have been 16, 16, 17 and 23. They also have climbed in the KenPom.com rankings, considered by many the best metric to measure college basketball teams, each season going from 171 to 121, 88 and this season 63.

Making a run in the NIT is possible, with offensive standouts like Gaige Prim and Isiaih Mosley, though the pairing with defensive-oriented Oklahoma is daunting.  Winning this game would help soothe the sting of the Valley Tournament overtime defeat to Drake and set another building block for the future.

Tough ways to finish for Drury, Evangel

Two other Springfield college basketball teams saw their postseason runs come to an end over the weekend. The Drury women, ranked fifth in NCAA Division II and third in the Midwest Region, fell to Grand Valley State 74-69 in the regional semifinals. Grand Valley State was ranked sixth in the nation and No. 2 in the region.

Drury (32-5) posted its seventh 30-win season in program history and made the national tournament for the 19th time in the program’s 22 seasons.

The Evangel men, qualifying for the NAIA National Tournament for the first time since 2015, lost to Florida College 75-72 in a first-round game in New Orleans. Ladarron Cleveland’s 25-foot, contested 3-pointer with 3.1 seconds remaining broke a tie and lifted Florida College. 

The tough finish should not diminish the turnaround season that Evangel (22-10) had under first-year head coach Bert Capel. Even better times could be ahead for the Valor.

The week ahead

Two Springfield teams will be playing for state high school championships later this week at JQH Arena. In Class 6, the Kickapoo girls face Blue Springs South at 2 p.m. Thursday in a semifinal. In Class 5, the Springfield Catholic boys take on Jefferson City Helias at 8 p.m. Friday in a semifinal. 

Nearby Nixa has a Class 6 state semifinal date with Staley at 6 p.m. Thursday.

In non-basketball action coming up, Missouri State baseball is back in action at 3 p.m. Friday at Hammons Field against Kansas. The Bears (7-7 after a doubleheader sweep of Arkansas State on Sunday) plays host to Southeast Missouri State at 3 p.m. Friday, 2 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday.

After starting its season 13-1, Drury baseball has lost three in a row. The Panthers return home to US Baseball Park in Ozark for a series against Southern Indiana. Game times are 4 p.m. Friday, 1 p.m. Saturday and noon Sunday.

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