For a day that marked the coming of basketball season, the mood in JQH Arena fell short of excitement and landed closer to agitation.
Last Thursday, both Missouri State basketball teams hosted their media day. Earlier that morning, the Missouri Valley Conference preseason polls were released. The men’s team? No. 1. The women? No. 2.
Both rankings shocked their respective coaches.
In Dana Ford’s first year as head coach, the Bears went 16-16 and lost in the first round of the conference tournament to Bradley — the eventual tournament winner. That .500 record was an achievement for the Bears after a struggling start to the year. MSU was 6-8 going into the conference part of the season and then went 2-4 to start MVC play.
After losing to Drake on Jan. 20, Ford and squad completely flipped their playing style. Moving to a more slow-paced offense and high-impact defense, the Bears stunned MVC favorite Loyola 70-35 just three days later.
Despite the first-round tournament loss, a .500 record and losing three key starting seniors, the Bears were picked as the favorite to win the Valley — and Ford wasn’t necessarily pleased.
“I am surprised because I think that you have to really have an understanding of not just the hype but you have to have an understanding about what it takes to win a league,” Ford said.
This team is not the same as last year. Not only are three vacant guard spots, but the team has more power readily available in the front court.
Last year, forward Tulio Da Silva spent a lot of time as a center in a four guard system. With the addition of transfers Gaige Prim and Lamont West, Ford said Da Silva will have more of a chance to play as a forward.
The ability for transfers like Tyrik Dixon, who will fill in the point guard position left behind by Josh Webster, to make an immediate impact is something Ford said he is excited for. He also said the depth of the bench with the freshmen will give this team a different feel than last year’s. Last year, most of the starters were playing most of the game. Ford said this year, he expects several players to get more minutes and allow others to produce more in fewer minutes.
On the women’s side, the pick for No. 2 in the Valley was what first-year head coach Amaka Agugua-Hamilton described as “disrespectful.”
“It adds fuel to the fire,” Agugua-Hamilton said.
Despite an entirely new staff, the team itself lacks much change. The Lady Bears lost two players — Danielle Gitzen, a senior last year, and Dariauna Lewis, who transferred to Alabama A&M last year — from last year’s roster and picked up a sole freshman. The other 12 members of the team all are the same.
Players like Alexa Willard, Brice Calip, Abby Hipp and Jasmine Franklin helped the Lady Bears on a Sweet 16 Cinderella run.
Drake, the No. 1 pick in the preseason poll, made it to the NCAA tournament on an at-large bid, but lost in the first round to Mizzou. The Lady Bears defeated No. 24 DePaul and No. 13 Iowa State — on their home court — before losing to No. 6 Stanford in the Chicago Regional.
Not being picked first is giving MSU a chip on their shoulder, according to Hipp.
Regardless, the Lady Bears have a target on their back. For a team that started 1-7 last year, they know they have what it takes to win a conference championship and make a run into the tournament.
The men’s team joins them with that target on its back, even if Ford said he finds the outcome surprising. After Loyola’s 2017 NCAA run, the Ramblers had a target on their back, along with a preseason favorite selection for the 2018-19 season. Now, with the No. 1 vote, the target moves to Missouri State.
So, in short, this season will be one full of chips and targets for both Bears basketball teams. I believe we have exactly two weeks from now until the first tip offs… 14 days and counting… See you all then.