Having covered Missouri State basketball going back to the days of Charlie Spoonhour more than three decades ago, I’ve seen players come and go. Nothing quite like this year, though.
With the transfer portal seemingly offering an immediate path to greener grass – or more playing time — you can almost picture a turnstile instead of doors on the Bears’ locker room entrance in Great Southern Bank Arena. Eleven departures (two were seniors out of eligibility) and 13 additions (two are walk-ons) since the season ended plus three returnees.
We all will need a scorecard at the home opener in November.
The common hot take is how the transfer portal — and its brother in arms “NIL” (Name Image Likeness) — is going to ruin schools in mid-major leagues like the Missouri Valley Conference.
Time will tell. But after sitting down with Missouri State men’s basketball coach Dana Ford earlier this week, I came away feeling optimistic about the future of the Bears’ program.
Make no mistake. Ford is not doing cartwheels of celebration over an age in which players are basically free agents and schools from Power 5 conferences can use the Valley as a feeder system for talent.
Ford does not like everything about the portal, especially how some players listen to “influencers” and eagerly jump ship. Some of those players, instead of finding a promised land, wind up without a seat in the game of musical transfer chairs.
“I always say, if you’re entering the portal, my only advice would be you’ve got to pick the closest thing to a sure thing,” Ford said, noting that many players in the portal remain without a new school as summer nears.
Meeting the new age head-on
From his perspective, Ford decided to meet the new age head-on and aggressively attempt to use the portal to his program’s advantage. The Bears, at least on paper, will have a roster that should make a run at a league championship.
Point guard play figures to be much-improved, along with depth and overall athleticism. It’s a new age and Ford is doing what it takes to not only stay relevant, but upgrade the program.
“We always say you can look at it as a problem or a predicament,” Ford said. “With a problem, you try to fix it, right? You look for solutions. This is just our predicament. This is what it is now. We’re just looking for what’s the positive outcome for us.”
While the Bears lost big man Gaige Prim to graduation and high-scoring Isaiah Mosley to the portal, Ford prepared for the offseason with a plan and has carried it out.
“We knew that if we just lost Gaige that maybe we could plug a few holes and stay a little bit consistent to where we were,” Ford said. “But we knew if we lost both, that we were probably going to have to kind of recreate ourselves a little bit. And that’s ultimately what we did.”
Looking in the rear-view mirror, he said it’s probably a miracle both players returned for the past season. The duo went on to earn first-team all-Valley recognition and lead the Bears into the National Invitation Tournament, breaking a 10-year postseason drought.
Ford said some of the other departures into the portal this offseason did surprise him. Without naming names, he said a couple of the decisions were especially shocking.
“The only reason I say that is because you would like to think that guys would understand the bigger picture, meaning the value of being a Missouri kid going to Missouri State and having an opportunity to cross that (NCAA Tournament) bridge that we haven’t crossed since ’99,” Ford said.
Recruiting at a higher level
Those departures just meant more roster spots available to fill.
“Missouri State’s had some really good basketball players in its history, including a couple that we just had on this past year’s team,” Ford said. “But — and I know, it sounds crazy — we can almost recruit a higher-level recruit now.”
Maybe not directly out of high school or junior college. But what the portal takes away, it also potentially gives.
“In the past we could probably never get on the phone with a four or five star recruit,” Ford said. “We’ve had some conversations this past spring with five-star recruits that just weren’t happy at their Power Five. And so what we said was, all right, we can’t catch every raindrop, but … we have this new opportunity to go after guys that we couldn’t get or even get on the phone with just because maybe they just were caught in a numbers game and they just wanted more playing time.”
Like newcomer James Graham, a four-star out of high school who transfers from Maryland. Graham figures to be a big part of the new-look Bears in 2022-23, along with the assorted others coming into the program as DI or junior college transfers, or from high school.
Ford said he will continue to seek high-ceiling high school talent which can develop and blossom in the Missouri State system, but is realistic that those players might explore moving on at some point.
That’s just the reality of where things are. Coaches will either adapt or be left behind and eventually fired.
Just as Spoonhour successfully reinvented his Bears teams with junior college transfers annually, there are different ways to achieve results in different eras. Steve Alford developed four-year cornerstones such as William Fontleroy and Kevin Ault, who helped lead the Bears to the 1999 Sweet 16.
“I would highly discourage, moving forward, for anyone to think you’re gonna do it with four-year guys. You’re just not gonna do it,” Ford said. “You’re just not gonna do it in the Valley.
“I think it’s important to talk about this and people have to realize in towns like ours, in Valley towns, it’s not like it was 20 years ago. When I committed to Illinois State, I attended four straight years with two different coaches. Not once did the word transfer enter my mind and I’m not saying that’s right, wrong or indifferent.
“I wasn’t happy all the time. And if it was like it is today, and I was in that situation, I probably would have transferred. And I probably would have had to go down (to a lower level).”
NIL not a factor in the Valley
As for the NIL, where players can be compensated by outside entities, Ford said that has little impact for Valley schools because they never will be able to match the financial opportunities that are offered at the power-conference level.
Glancing at his new roster in his office earlier this week, Ford seemed pleased and mentioned that he’s confident in the physical and mental approach the new-look Bears will have. He mentioned improved point guard play, something that’s a must in the Valley.
Certainly, having so many newcomers will present a challenge in putting all the pieces together. It also provides a level of excitement, both for Ford and the fan base. Last season’s team, despite having starpower, never seemed to connect with fans if you take into account home attendance of only 3,747 in 16 home dates. That is the lowest, except for the pandemic season of 2020-21, since 1979-80.
Fresh starts aren’t always bad. There will be a level of intrigue with the team next season that we haven’t seen before.
“Every team is a new team. Every team starts over with new building blocks,” Ford said. “The challenge of next year’s team for us is learning them personally. Had we signed three new players, or as many as we did, we would have had new building blocks.”
To expedite the process, Ford said all his players will be required to be on campus this summer, for the first time since he’s been at Missouri State. Every allotted minute of supervision allowed by the NCAA will be spent working with the players.
There’s a lot of work to be done, starting with introductions. There’s no word if name tags will be needed the first few weeks.
“There are positives and negatives to everything,” Ford said. “And most often, there are way more positives than negatives.”
After an offseason of roster upheaval, all the coming and going appears settled. Once practices begin and the game lights go on, it becomes all about basketball.
“It’s still kids out there playing basketball and to me is kind of where I find my silver lining in all of this,” Ford said. “Championship teams are still made up of the same things: Discipline, toughness and a will to be great. Those things are still the same and what you try and look for.”
Bears newcomers at a glance
A look at the 11 signees and two walk-ons for the 2022-23 Missouri State basketball team.
- N.J. Benson (F, 6-8, 225, Mt. Vernon, Ill., Mt. Vernon Township High)
- Jonathan Dunn (F, 6-7, 190, Rogersville, Mo., Logan-Rogersville High, We Are United Prep)
- James Graham III (G/F, 6-8, 205, So., Milwaukee, Wis., Nicolet High, Maryland)
- Matthew Lee (G, 6-0, 160, Sr., San Juan, Puerto Rico, Dohn (Ohio) Prep, St. Peters)
- Alston Mason (G, 6-2, 169, So., Overland Park, Kan., Blue Valley Northwest, Oklahoma)
- Damien Mayo, Jr. (G, 6-2, 175, Fr., St. Louis, Mo., Link Year Prep)
- Jonathan Mogbo (F, 6-8, 215, Jr., West Palm Beach, Fla., Forest Hill High, NE Oklahoma A&M)
- Chance Moore (G, 6-5, 195, So., Brookhaven, Ga., McEachern High, Arkansas)
- Kendle Moore (G, 6-0, 155, Sr., Danville, Ill., Danville High, Colorado State)
- Dalen Ridgnal (F, 6-7, 225, Sr., Kansas City, Mo., Lincoln Academy, Georgia)
- Bryan Trimble Jr. (G, 6-2, 203, Sr., Kansas City, Mo., Sunrise Christian Academy, Akron University)
- Walk-ons: Tommy Pinegar (6-1, Springfield Greenwood High) and Kanon Gipson (6-4, Rogersville, We Are United Prep)
Bears returning players at a glance
- Donovan Clay (6-8, 223, Sr., Alton, Ill., Alton High, Valparaiso University)
- Dawson Carper (7-0, 255, Sr., Colorado Springs, Colo., Rampart High, University of Hawaii)
- Raphe Ayres, (6-5, 205, So., Arlington, Va., Vermont Academy)