When Missouri State coach Paul Lusk recruited Austin Ruder, he saw Ruder score lots of points. Most important, he scored the right kind of points.
Guarded jump shots. Quick-release jump shots. He didn’t need to be the biggest player or the most athletic to get his points.
“Some guys score high school points,” Lusk said. “Some guys score college points. The shots that he made translate to college basketball. If he’s open, it’s up and in in a split second.”
Ruder, a 6-foot-4 freshman guard, was averaging 8.4 points entering Saturday’s game against Northern Iowa, making 42.1 percent of his threes. The Missouri Valley Conference is depending on players such as Ruder to carry it back to a more prominent position in the future. Bears fans can look forward to a future with Ruder and sophomore guard Marcus Marshall, out for the season with a knee injury. Marshall led the team in scoring with an average of 14.3 points over 12 games.
If you are moping about the Valley’s power ranking (RPI), consider that, perhaps, help is on the way. Several teams are relying on freshmen and sophomores and hoping that short-term pain turns into a long-term gain.
“This league has always been about juniors and seniors and fourth- and fifth-year guys,” Southern Illinois coach Barry Hinson said. “You're not going to be good in this league until you get the fourth- and fifth-year guys.”
The strength of the MVC youngsters rests in the backcourt, where several players are positioning themselves as future stars. That goes beyond Wichita State sophomores Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet.
Loyola freshman Milton Doyle averages 15.8 points, tops among newcomers in the MVC, 4.4 rebounds and 3.5 assists. Evansville sophomore D.J. Balentine leads the MVC in scoring with an average of 23.2 points and is fifth with an average of 3.9 assists. Evansville freshman Duane Gibson averages 4.2 assists, third in the MVC.
“(Doyle) does so much for us,” Loyola coach Porter Moser said. “It’s just not scoring. He’s getting better and he’s got a high ceiling.”
Southern Illinois sophomore Anthony Beane is flourishing since moving to point guard, averaging 24.0 points and making 56.9 percent of his shots in five games before Saturday’s game at Indiana State. Northern Iowa sophomore Wes Washpun averages 9.0 points and 3.7 assists. Indiana State sophomore wing Khristian Smith averages 11.4 points.
The Valley’s crop of young big men is not as deep nor as prominent. But there are post players with potential.
Illinois State freshman center Reggie Lynch leads the MVC in blocked shots at 2.4 a game. Evansville sophomore Egidijus Mockevicius leads the conference by making 60.8 percent of his shots and is tied for first with an average of 7.9 rebounds. SIU’s Bola Olaniyan and Bradley’s Xzavier Taylor are capable of good rebounding games when not saddled with fouls.
Six of the Valley’s 10 coaches are in their third season or less at their respective school, meaning that those programs are still very much in transition periods. Their early recruiting classes are still a season or two away from maturing. The career path of these freshmen and sophomores — and the addition of talent to the rosters — will determine if the MVC is capable of producing NCAA Tournament at-large teams.
His story is similar to many of the other coaches in the National Collegiate Baseball Hall of Fame. Stephenson received word of his induction last week. He thought of coaches such as Miami’s Ron Fraser and Rod Dedeaux at Southern Cal, both men who helped the sport grow.
“Rod Dedeaux was a pioneer and a great ambassador at a time when no one really thought much about baseball,” Stephenson said. “On the East Coast, Ron Fraser really got things going.”
WSU’s rivalry with Oklahoma State helped the sport grow in the Midwest. Stephenson found out just how much those games mattered when he attended a Garth Brooks concert in 1997 at the Kansas Coliseum. He met Brooks backstage and he told Stephenson he didn’t miss a WSU-OSU game in Stillwater from age 13 until after college.
“That was something special,” Stephenson said.
Stephenson will join those coaches and others on June 28 in Lubbock, Texas.
"It's a great credit to the many, many, many players over the 36 years who gave so much effort and sacrificed so much to try to be better players and better teammates,” he said. “I’m humbled by it because there are no people in the hall of fame who don’t deserve it.”
Marshall flew to the network’s headquarters in Bristol, Conn., for a full day of interviews and camera time. He talked to Seth Greenberg and Jay Williams on the college basketball set. He talked to Mike Wilbon and Tony Kornheiser on PTI. He talked to Freddie Coleman for his radio show.
“The people there were very much accommodating and really wanted to hear our story,” Marshall said. “I think I was on seven shows, television, radio and did some interactive deals.”
Marshall flew Wednesday morning and back Wednesday night. It was another busy day in the midst of busy season. He enjoys getting the word out on Shocker basketball and particularly liked the chance to talk with Greenberg, a friend from the coaching fraternity.
“I hope it’s good for our program,” he said. “To be honest, it’s exhausting. It’s tiring to say the same thing over and over and over.”
Kellen Marshall, Marshall’s son, WSU senior associate athletic director Darron Boatright and members of the Klee Watchous family, who supplied the plane, joined the trip. So did an uninvited guest in a costume — Wu-Shock.
Boatright wanted Wu-Shock along, so he told ESPN as they boarded the plane.
“I’d rather have them say ‘No,’ than say ‘You should have brought him,’ ” Boatright said.
ESPN didn’t shoot one of its well-known “This is SportsCenter” commercials with Wu. Boatright said an outside group does that work for ESPN. However, the people at Bristol got a good look at Wu and Boatright hopes that pays off in the future.
“I thought the exposure would be good for us,” he said.