The future appears to be a lot brighter than the present for Missouri State's basketball team.
It's been a tough season for the Bears, who visit CenturyLink Center on Wednesday to play No. 21 Creighton. They lost one of their better players, Jarmar Gulley, to a season-ending knee injury in the summer. They've won six games, none against Division I teams in nonconference play.
The plus side? The team has just one senior, and a talented group of freshmen are getting some valuable on-the-job training. There have been signs of progress since Missouri Valley play started, with four wins in the first half of the conference season.
Missouri State coach Paul Lusk couldn't be blamed if he has one eye on the future while trying to get through the final weeks of this season. To Lusk, that would be the easy way out, and there is one reason he refuses to even think that way: senior guard Anthony Downing.
“You only have a chance to have one senior year,” Lusk said. “Unless you're in high school, and you flunk your senior year.
“Obviously, I think our future is bright, but we have games to play and games to win. Anthony Downing doesn't want to hear about next year, and we don't talk about it. We talk about getting better each and every day.”
Downing matched his career high with 26 points in helping his team post a 78-72 victory over Drake on Sunday. That game was significant because it marked the first time in program history that the Bears started four freshmen.
Marcus Marshall, Dorrian Williams and Gavin Thurman had been starting, and Lusk had to put Drew Wilson in the lineup as Christian Kirk was out with a concussion. Kirk, a 6-foot-7 sophomore, is listed as day-to-day for the Creighton game.
The Bluejays posted a 74-52 win over Missouri State when the teams met in Springfield on Jan. 11. Creighton star Doug McDermott scored 28 points in the second half to break open a close game.
The loss started the Bears on a four-game skid that they snapped with Sunday's win. Lusk points out that two of the losses came against the league's nationally-ranked teams in Creighton and Wichita State.
Another came on a buzzer-beating 3-point basket at Bradley, while the fourth was an eight-point loss at Indiana State.
“Creighton took us to the woodshed in the second half, but we've been pretty competitive with everyone,” Lusk said. “We gave Wichita everything we could give them but just couldn't deal with their strength inside.
“We were right there with the two road games we lost at Bradley and Indiana State. It's hard to keep telling these young guys to keep coming back to work the next day and to keep working to get better when things are not happening for you. We desperately needed that win yesterday so that we could feel good about ourselves.”
Missouri State's freshmen have combined to average 28.9 points per game and account for 48 percent of the team's scoring.
“Their young freshmen are playing like juniors and seniors,” Creighton assistant coach Steve Merfeld said. “That's certainly a credit to Coach Lusk and what he's been able to do to bring that team along.
“They've had some tough losses, but they continue to maintain their focus and have bought into what he's trying to get accomplished there. We had a very, very close game with them the first time until Doug McDermott got on a roll in the second half.”
Thurman scored 10 points off the bench against the Bluejays, and the 6-6 forward has averaged 15.3 points and 5.5 rebounds as a starter in the past four games. He is averaging 7.9 points for the season, while Marshall's 9.9 average ranks among the best by Valley freshmen this season.
“It's very impressive what Marshall and Williams have been able to do,” Merfeld said. “And Gavin Thurman has been tremendous. They're developing confidence, and things look good for them when you look into the future.”
As vital as the freshmen's contributions have been, Lusk said, Missouri State still heavily relies on its three most experienced players — Downing, Keith Pickens and Nathan Scheer.
Downing, who had 26 points in the Bears' upset of Creighton last season, is averaging 14.7 points per game. Pickens, a boot-tough defender, is averaging 5.6 points and 4.8 rebounds while playing through chronic knee pain. Scheer is one of the team's top 3-point threats.
“We've played some solid basketball since the start of league play,” Lusk said. “We're still struggling to score points. Our young guys are improving but continue to need production from those three upperclassmen. They gave it to us against Drake.”
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