ST. LOUIS—Although they lost in the quarterfinals of the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament, the season is not over for the Missouri State Bears.
Following a 20-loss season, second-year coach Cuonzo Martin turned things around quickly this season by overhauling the roster.
The result was a 20-12 record, and a likely berth in the National Invitation Tournament.
“With seven new players, that helps. But for the rest of us, we got another year under our belt,” said sophomore forward Kyle Weems, who along with senior Justin Fuehrmeyer were the only returning players with any significant experience.
It’s the first 20-win campaign for the Bears since the 2006-07 season, as they notched their 20th victory Thursday night against Evansville. The Bears went 3-0 versus Evansville this season and is 4-0 against the Purple Aces all-time in the MVC Tournament.
While a loss to No. 2 seed Wichita State in the quarters still stings, the blow is softened with the prospect of a postseason tourney.
“It’s an honor,” Weems said. “Coach always tells us that tomorrow’s not guaranteed. We came in here with our eyes set on one prize, to be celebrating around 3 o’clock on Sunday.
“We fell short, so now it’s the next step. Whatever that step is, we’re going to compete, battle and stay together.”
Before his second season at Missouri State, Martin said there were things he had to improve upon as a coach from year one.
“They key as a coach is to understand the flow of the game, and your opponent,” Martin said. “You can learn a lot against your opponent—how they coach us, when they call timeouts. The second time around, you kind of know what your opponent’s running.
“You know the players. You know the coaches. Just actually going through it is key.”
Martin said getting a chance to further the season will be “a blessing.”
“It’s a great opportunity for our guys,” Martin said. “And when you have basically the whole roster coming back, those guys will get more reps under their belt. We came here to win this tournament and came up short, but anytime you can continue to play is always a bonus.”
Martin added that building a program the right way is also a key element to finding success as a coach.
“As far as the program from last season to this season, you’re trying to build a foundation,” Martin said. “When you’re trying to build for the long haul, you’ve got to have the right guys and have some substance to it.
“The wins will eventually come, but you’ve got to have a foundation. You don’t want to be in a situation where you win a couple of years, then four or five guys get into trouble off the court. You’ve got 15 or 18 wins, then you lose a couple guys, and next season, you’re down to 11 or 12. That’s not how you lay the foundation of a winning program.”
A focus on defense has also been important to turning around the program. Martin said his staff has worked harder to find “quality guys” more than the most talented basketball players. That’s not to say he’s willing to forgo success to recruit a good guy.
He admitted that his team exceeded expectations with 20 wins this season.
“With so many new guys, you really don’t know what you have until you actually go through the season,” Martin said. “Kyle Weems was still adjusting to college basketball. But the new guys really came in, competed and bought what we were selling as a staff.”
This article can also be found at The Alton Telegraph .