As Christmas approaches, Missouri State basketball fans probably are feeling a little mixed about what their respective teams have gifted them so far this season.
On the men’s side, the Bears take a 5-7 record into the holiday break. We’ve seen some play right out of a neatly wrapped package with a pretty bow on top and some resembling the proverbial coal in the stocking.
For the Lady Bears, things weren’t so good early in the season, but new head coach Beth Cunningham’s squad takes a 5-4 record and three-game winning streak into the holiday, giving fans reason to smile.
For both teams, an uneven first portion of the season has not been a surprise considering rosters stocked by newcomers. Coach Dana Ford’s Bears had a mind-boggling 14 new players when practice began, so growing pains were sure to occur.
Win raised expectations for new-look Bears
The Bears raised expectations early with a 75-51 home-court thumping of a good Middle Tennessee State team, but lost four in a row prior to Sunday’s home win over Central Michigan.
The loss of point guard and designated on-court leader Matthew Lee, in the season’s second game, was a big blow and it has shown. Already a team seeking its identity, the loss of Lee was bigger than most realized at the time.
Ford has used 13 players with 12 of them averaging 10.8 or more minutes. All 13 have started at least once. Depth can be a blessing or a curse with most coaches preferring to narrow things to an eight or nine-man rotation to better define roles and cohesiveness on the court.
Looking for 8- or 9-player rotation
Look for that to happen as the Bears continue on the road to March, beginning with next Wednesday’s Missouri Valley Conference game at Northern Iowa. An intriguing home game follows on New Year’s Day against preseason favorite Drake.
“We’ll study our analytics and see who’s playing well together,” Ford said following Sunday’s 79-58 victory over Central Michigan. “We ended up shortening the rotation tonight, but that happens as the season goes on.
“As we get deeper into the conference, it’ll continue to shrink. It’ll ultimately get down to eight or nine guys, at the most, but right now we feel that we’ve shrunk it from 12 to 10.”
Bench players step up big
Which eight or nine Bears will that be? That’s yet to be determined. A turning point might have come in the second half of a Dec. 16 game at Oral Roberts, in which Missouri State fell behind 60-37.
Ford pulled his starters and inserted Dalan Ridgnal, James Graham, Jonathan Mogbo, Damien Mayo Jr. and Raphe Ayres. Those five played the final 16 minutes and the Bears rallied to briefly take a lead before losing 80-77.
Those five also started the next game, against Central Michigan, and provided solid, defense-first play with good movement and sharing of the ball on offense. Mogbo, a strongly built 6-foot-8 junior college transfer who missed two games during the losing streak, gave the Bears a solid presence in the post on both ends.
“That first group, defensively, they do a good job,” Ford said. “Offensively, being able to play through Mogbo a little bit helps us.”
Mayo, an impressive freshman guard, has shown signs of being a defensive presence on the perimeter. Ayres, one of just three holdovers from last season’s 21-win team, is an ultimate team-first guy who’s willing to lead the team in floor burns.
“I try to do whatever the team needs me to do,” Ayres said. “Typically, that’s being a glue-guy for the most part. Just make the right play and try to be a leader as much as I can out there.”
It will be interesting to see how the playing rotations and roles evolve from here. Donovan Clay, one of the league’s most versatile players, and offensive-minded Chance Moore could still be two of the most important players in the Valley before it’s settled.
Selfless play will be key
Ford’s pre-Christmas theme, before Thursday’s scheduled home game with Sam Houston State was canceled due to the winter storm, was about a selfless approach.
“The message for our team right now is that it’s amazing what you can accomplish when no one cares who gets the credit,” Ford said. “We have a lot of guys who are credit-worthy, but it probably won’t be the same guy every night. When we totally buy into that, that’s when we’ll become the best team we can be.
“That’s the sign of a great team, right? Selfless service, no caring who gets the credit. That’s kind of where we are right now. I can see some of that starting to grow.”
Cunningham shows steady hand with Lady Bears
That approach already has taken root for the Lady Bears, who clearly have momentum before a two-game road trip to open Valley play next week.
Cunningham has shown a steady hand in guiding her team, which has held opponents to an average of 55.3 points during the three-game winning streak.
The sign of a good coach is a team that’s clearly ascending and that’s what is happening with the Lady Bears. Sydney Wilson, the most-experienced player, is healthy after missing time early in the season and she’s excelling across the board.
Sophomore post player Kennedy Taylor, a transfer from Colorado, could be a star in the making. She’s the Valley Newcomer of the Week, averaging 15.3 points and 6.7 rebounds during the winning streak.
“We’re vastly different than we were from the beginning of the year,” Cunninghagm said following Wednesday’s 55-48 victory over Little Rock. “We’ve continued to make great strides. I’m really pleased with where we’re out.
“We’ll come back hungry and ready to get after conference play.”
Conference play is what it’s all about for both the Bears and Lady Bears. No team in the league, on either the men’s or women’s side, has set itself up for NCAA Tournament at-large consideration. It’s all about continuing to improve and contend for a regular-season title before making a multi-day run in the league tournaments.