Since advancing to the Sweet 16 in 1999, the Bears have not returned to the NCAA Tournament as the program has dwindled from a mid-major blueblood into college hoops obscurity.
Now Ford, Missouri State’s first-year coach, has the Bears fighting for a conference title at 10-7 in the MVC and 16-14 overall, one game behind Loyola Chicago and Drake. Although they’re practically the prototype of an average team, ranking No. 163 out of 353 Division I teams in KenPom, the conference title hunt has helped the fanbase in Springfield, Missouri, forget -- at least temporarily -- the disappointment of the last 20 years.
Metrics concur that this year’s Missouri State team is actually a bit worse than last year’s. However, the Bears have taken advantage of an historically mediocre Missouri Valley that ranks 17th out of 32 conferences in KenPom.
Bart Torvik’s analytics say Missouri State has a 12.5% chance of winning the MVC Tournament, an eight-year high going back to their last regular season title in 2010-11. 12.5% may not seem like the best odds, but it’s much better than what Ford, the fifth-youngest D1 coach at 34 years old, thought he was walking into when he took the job last spring.
Last year, Missouri State went 7-11 in the Valley after being picked as the preseason favorite. The Bears were bounced in the MVC Quarterfinals and then lost four of their top five scorers.
“My expectation was we were gonna really struggle because the league was at an all-time high with a team that just went to the Final Four,” Ford says. “I think we’ve made a lot of progression.”
The Bears opened the 2018-19 season at No. 196 in KenPom and bottomed out at No. 224 in early January, their lowest ranking in three years.
Ford says he sensed a shift after a Jan. 20 loss to Drake dropped the team’s record to 8-11 and 2-4 in the MVC. He and his players realized that the Valley is flat; there simply aren’t any dominant teams, and the cliche that anybody can beat anybody has never been more true.
“We realized there were only two times we’d been beat. The other times we beat ourselves,” Ford says. “There’s not one team [in the conference] that’s just going to beat you. So we said, ‘Well, let’s stop beating ourselves.’”
That was one revelation that came out of a long, almost therapeutic film session. Senior guard Jarred Dixon, one of four holdovers from former coach Paul Lusk, remembers players and coaches getting a chance to talk through their on-court problems and figure out their goals as a team.
“We weren’t selfish, but we weren’t focusing on the most important things, like playing team defense,” Dixon says. “It’s human nature to worry about scoring points and playing as individuals. When we finally started talking things through, asking each other face-to-face what’s going on, we really found our problems. Ever since then we’ve been playing our best basketball of the year.”
Three days later, the Bears gave league favorite Loyola an all-time beatdown, shooting 63.4% from the field in a 70-35 win. That night, the Bears began clamping down on defense and slowing the tempo. Starting with Loyola win, they went 8-2 in their next 10 games, ranking No. 59 in adjusted defensive efficiency and No. 351 in adjusted tempo during that stretch, according to Torvik’s T-Rank. And let’s not forget -- No. 77 overall.
“We don’t expect to change anything overnight,” Ford says, as if downplaying his own expectations.
OK, maybe not overnight. But a heck of a lot has changed in five weeks.
Ahead-of-schedule turnarounds have now become a trademark of Ford’s budding career. In 2014, he inherited a five-win team at Tennessee State as the youngest coach in Division I. Two years later, he had a 20-win team that reached the CollegeInsider.com Tournament.
Though Ford says he doesn’t see many similarities between his breakthrough Tennessee State team and this year’s Missouri State team, he used the same general philosophy when building both rosters: find high-character, coachable kids. It’s even better if they have Division I experience.
Searching for an “infusion of talent,” he signed six transfers last summer, four of whom were eligible to play immediately.
“Most fan bases and administrations don’t give you a lot of time to win,” says Ford, who had seven Division I transfers play for him at Tennessee State. “We’re not living in a day and age where you can get freshmen, build them up to be seniors, and get four years to get it done.”
South Florida transfer Tulio Da Silva leads the MVC Newcomer of the Year race with junior college transfer Keandre Cook close behind. Texas Tech transfer Josh Webster, leading the MVC with 5.1 assists per game, has given the Bears a true point guard, allowing returning seniors Dixon and Ryan Kreklow to play to their strengths off the ball.
Ford got the infusion of talent he wanted, and it’s brought the Bears their first winning conference season in eight years. If they defeat Drake on Saturday and get some help with Bradley beating Loyola, they’ll also secure their first conference title since 2011 and at least a NIT bid.
Whether or not the eight-year conference title drought ends on Saturday, the Bears ultimately have their sights on the MVC Tournament next week, where they can end their 20-year NCAA Tournament absence.
“Even if you win the league, you see all across the country, the champion doesn’t always win the conference tournament,” Dixon says, “Our league has been crazy this year, so we know everyone’s gonna be gunning for everyone trying to get that NCAA Tournament bid.”