Missouri State long ago left the skeptics in their maroon-colored dust. The Bears won home games, then they won road games. Then they won Missouri Valley Conference games.
"They are absolutely for real," Illinois State coach Tim Jankovich said. "I don't think its really that fair that they have a turnaround like that. It just would be a lot better, just speaking for ourselves, if it would have been much slower. It's really disheartening for me."
Jankovich, of course, is joking. A little.
Missouri State (12-2, 2-1 MVC) is shaking up the conference after finishing last — by four games — in 2009. The Bears were picked ninth in the preseason poll. Coach Cuonzo Martin impressed enough that people expected improvement. Nobody expected this.
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Wichita State (13-2, 2-1) travels to JQH Arena tonight to face the Bears. MSU is 8-0 at home with wins over Auburn, Tulsa and Illinois State. Their losses are on the road to Arkansas (in overtime) and Northern Iowa.
"They're very tough," Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall said. "They're as aggressive and tough and physical a team as we've played all year."
That's no surprise after watching the Bears last season. They embarrassed the Shockers during a 68-55 win last season in JQH Arena with their rebounding, shot-blocking and dunking. They always played hard, even during losses.
This season, MSU added skill with newcomers and kept playing hard. Junior guard Adam Leonard, a transfer from Eastern Kentucky, averages 13.2 points and makes 42.1 percent of his threes. Forward Jermaine Mallet, a juco transfer, averages 10.0 points and 5.4 rebounds. Center Caleb Patterson, a transfer from Colorado, averages 7.4 points off the bench.
"That's three outstanding players that completely change the face of the that team," Jankovich said.
The biggest constant is sophomore Kyle Weems, a 6-foot-6 forward from Topeka. He averages 15.1 points and 5. 8 rebounds. Last season, he made 28.1 percent of his three-pointers. This season, he is making 48.5 percent.
Weems' influence extends beyond those numbers. Martin credits him with helping blend the two Division I transfers, two junior-college transfers and three freshmen with the returners.
"Weems is our main guy," Martin said. "He's a very passionate guy. Guys like to be around him."
With Weems setting the tone for working hard and playing together, the Bears progressed quickly. They play like a team that's been together for years — MSU leads the MVC in turnover margin (plus-3.57) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.3).
"You don't have to watch them very long to know that they're for real," Northern Iowa coach Ben Jacobson said. "The thing that stands out is their unselfishness. They're a very good passing team."
Hannah on a streak _ WSU guard Clevin Hannah leads the nation in free-throw accuracy at 95 percent.
He started a streak of 26 made free throws in the first half of the game against TCU on Dec. 12. For the season, Hannah is 38 of 40. He missed the other free throws against Alcorn State on Nov. 30.
With Hannah leading the way, WSU ranks seventh nationally and first in the MVC at 77 percent.