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Three questions for Missouri State (No. 3)

Missouri State guard Nafis RicksMissouri State must make, most likely, at least a six-game improvement to win the MVC title. The Bears went 8-10 last season. No team won the MVC with more than four losses since 1999. So that’s a big jump, one that gives me pause when thinking about MSU. The Bears will be a contender. Finishing first is another matter.

Fortunately for the Bears, that kind of jump is not unprecedented. Drake went from 6-12 to 15-3 in 2008 to finish first. Northern Iowa went from 9-9 to 14-4 in 2009. Evansville went from 9-9 to 13-5 in 1999. So teams do come from nowhere (in Drake’s case) and the middle of the pack (UNI and Evansville) to win the MVC title.

Thanks to Lyndal Scranton of the Springfield News-Leader for his help with the questions.

No. 1  Can the Bears win on the road?

MSU went 1-8 in MVC road games in 2010 and 0-9 in 2009. Last season, the Bears won at Evansville on Dec. 29 and then lost eight straight MVC roadies. For a team with a fearsome reputation for toughness, that’s bad. The Bears refused to play defense away from JQH Arena. They allowed 74.6 points in nine MVC road games. Northern Iowa – which has absolutely no interest in scoring 80 points – scored 84. Drake scored 88 and didn’t break 80 again in MVC games. Losing Keith Pickens, one of MSU’s best perimeter defenders, to a season-ending knee injury hurts.

2. Is Nafis Rick ready to play 28 minutes a game?

Ricks could be the pivotal player in the Valley race. Among MVC starters at point, only UNI’s Kwadzo Ahelegbe can match his strength and quickness. If Ricks can cut down on turnovers and make a few more jumpers, he can grow into a force. Outside shooting is his weakness – 22.2 percent from three-point range. He doesn’t have to make those, but he does need to make 10 footers when teams sag off him. Ricks averaged 18.8 minutes a game last season as he learned the Division I game. As a senior, he should be ready for more.

3. MSU hasn’t had a winning MVC record since 2007. Why are people so high on the Bears?

The Bears return four starters, led by forward Kyle Weems. Weems averaged 13.6 points and 6.2 rebounds. He led the Bears with 37 blocks and 49 steals. There isn’t anybody more well-rounded in the MVC. Senior guard Adam Leonard is an excellent three-point shooter who will benefit from Ricks’ improvement. Senior forward Jermaine Mallett is almost as versatile as Weems. The Bears own two experienced big men in Will Creekmore and Caleb Patterson. Pickens’ loss hurts depth and it appears at least one freshman guard needs to move into the rotation. This is a group that moved from 3-15 in the MVC in 2009 to 8-10 and won the Tournament in 2010. The trend is up.