“Anytime a coach moves on because of winning, that’s a good thing.”
Missouri State Bears Basketball Head Coach Paul Lusk was asked a question during his introductory press conference in April regarding the state of the program, and responded with former Bears coach Cuonzo Martin in mind.
If the present is any indication of the future, Lusk won’t see the end of his five-year contract in Springfield.
The Bears burst out of the gate this season with two impressive road wins – 68-46 over a strong Nevada team, and 77-46 against an underrated Arkansas State squad. Caleb Patterson, who spent more time in Martin’s doghouse than on the court last season, has found new life under Lusk, and the 6-11 behemoth leads the team with 15.5 points per game. DePaul transfer Michael Bizoukas, a 6-1 fifth-year senior, has run the offense with a steady hand, posting 11 assists against just four turnovers. Late signee Anthony Downing is averaging 13.5 points per game off the bench.
All of this despite losing four starters (and the head coach) from a team that won 26 games and featured the Missouri Valley Player of the Year in forward Kyle Weems.
To say the Honorable Mention AP All-American Weems has struggled would be an understatement. Weems has missed 20 of his 26 field goal attempts, and hasn’t hit a three-pointer in seven tries.
“Weems' slow start is a combination of factors. He's being targeted by defenses like never before, and he's forced some shots so far,” said Lyndal Scranton, Missouri State beat writer for the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “With what I've seen from his supporting cast, Weems' scoring average may drop and wind up being around 13-14 points per game - but the team may be as successful this way.”
In the past two seasons, Weems has average roughly two points per game less in losses by the Bears, but this could prove to be the deepest team in the senior’s storied career. If he can provide solid senior leadership and act as a decoy while the inexperienced squad gels, Weems could pay large individual dividends for Lusk late in the season.
The new-look Bears will be thrown into the fire soon, with battles on the road in New Mexico, and against West Virginia and St. Mary’s on a neutral court, and home games against Tulsa and Oklahoma State. “The nonconference schedule is a good test and a good RPI booster for the Bears and for the Valley overall,” Scranton said. “Oklahoma State at home on Dec. 7 will be a rare chance for a Valley school to get a BCS team on its home court. The game at New Mexico on Dec. 3 might be the most difficult MSU will have out of conference.”
The emergence of Patterson could be labeled a “pleasant surprise” to those that aren’t familiar with the senior center, but Scranton knew it just took the right situation for Patterson to blossom. “Caleb Patterson is a guy who never has been the most self-confident player,” Scranton said. “One of Paul Lusk's first decisions as coach was to boost Patterson's confidence and attempt to make the big man believe that he was good - and needed for the team to have success.”
The non-conference record might not look pretty when Valley play starts in late December, but Lusk’s Bears will be battle-tested and ready to make a run at a repeat regular season championship. While the rookie coach will be partly learning on the job, he has senior leadership on the floor and the confidence of his team and administration. “Overall, I'd say Paul Lusk has been very much the right fit for this team,” Scranton said.
So far, the beat writer couldn’t be more accurate.
Check back often for more coverage as the Missouri Valley teams continue to beat up on strong opponents! Also, follow me on twitter at http://twitter.com/mvcexaminerjoe and use the hashtag #TheValleyIsBack
Thanks to Lyndal Scranton from the Springfield News-Leader for the contributions. The Valley has the best beat writers in the nation - here's a list of the writers from across the league!