SPRINGFIELD, Mo. -- The memory is faded, but no less bitter now. In fact, if you look close enough, you can almost see the exact moment when hearts were ripped from chests.
"There are really no words to describe what you feel like," the retired athletic director said. "It crushed us all."
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Put it this way: How would you like to invite the nation into your home for the biggest moment of your life, then have it turn into an America's Funniest Videos moment? It has happened here at Missouri State.
"We didn't think. We weren't guessing. It was a celebration," the former coach said. "Everybody was in a great mood. We knew we were going."
... to the NCAA Tournament. Except Missouri State didn't. Not in 2006, when the Bears became bracket martyrs for all the world to see. Not with a CBS camera aimed at the team that Selection Sunday. Overall, Missouri State hasn't been in the bracket since 1999 -- 12 long years. Sure, programs have been absent from the bracket for longer periods. It's the way it has all gone down for the Bears. Three times since 2000 this clean-living, hard-working program tucked into the southwest corner of Missouri has been left out of the tournament with an RPI in the top 36.
The one that sticks with Barry Hinson, the former coach, and Bill Rowe, the former athletic director, is the one that's still the record. In 2005-06 the Bears went 20-8 in the regular season, finished tied for second in what was then the best mid-major conference in the country and were left with jaws hanging. CBS was there to chronicle a celebration. It ended up with what turned out to be one of the low points in the program's history. The Bears of that season were the team with the highest RPI (No. 21) ever to get left out of the tournament.
The NCAA selection chairman will tell you the Ratings Percentage Index is only one part of the selection process. But here in Springfield, no one can tell them why they can't get over the hump.
"Every time, this time of year I'll be working out on a treadmill," said Hinson, now director of basketball operations at Kansas. "They'll flash up the top 10 teams never to get in the NCAA Tournaments. Three of those were my teams."
Judging by Hinson's passion pouring through the cell phone, the hurt hasn't subsided yet. The three close calls eventually cost him his job in 2008.
"I think we've gotten what we deserved the last 12 years," said Tom Strong, a retired local attorney and former member of the school's board of governors. "If you don't have the players, and the program has kind of resigned itself to being average, that's what you are."
Still, in 2000, Hinson's first team at Missouri State was 34th in the RPI before finishing 23-11. The 2006-07 team beat Wisconsin, lost to Oklahoma State in overtime ... and still didn't get the NCAA call. None of those hurt more, though, than that nationally televised letdown five years ago.
"It's a tough blow to the stomach that takes a long time to get over," Rowe said. "Candidly, we're not over it yet."
|Nafis Ricks took alternates paths to get to Division I. Now he's trying to help Missouri State find its way back to the NCAAs. (US Presswire)|
"It's almost like a curse," forward Will Creekmore said. "We want to be the team to break that curse."
How hard, though, can mere basketball be at this point? The current coach has beaten cancer. The point guard's brother was gunned down. The institution fought for a name change to get out of directional school jail -- for 19 years. So if you're wondering about the level of angst here, the past has a hell of a lot to do with the present.
"They're just ballgames," third-year coach Cuonzo Martin said. "You give yourself the best chance of winning. If it doesn't work out, you move forward. Every competitor hates losing ballgames, but I've been through worse."
Martin has "April 20, 1998" burned into his memory. That was the day the former Purdue star was declared cancer-free. The recovery from non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma ended long ago, but the experience has taught him to take life as it comes. Trying to get on the right side of the tournament bubble beats the heck out of being told by an Indianapolis doctor at 2:30 in the morning that the baseball-sized mass in your chest is "life-threatening."
"It's almost like I try to block it out," said Martin, who was playing in Italy when he flew back to the States to be examined. "I see the scars on my body. That's the only time I think about it. It's hard for me to actually say the word. I struggle saying it -- the word -- cancer.
"I don't know why."
Maybe the answer is on the floor. Martin's vision is beginning to take shape in his third season. The mentally and physically strong Bears are 22-7 after a 76-58 victory at Southern Illinois on Wednesday. Leading scorer Kyle Weems, a Topeka, Kan., native, grew up playing on the same AAU team with several current Kansas players. The Jayhawks, though, never were interested in him. Senior guard Nafis Ricks is originally from Philadelphia, by way of Johnson County (Kan.) Community College in suburban Kansas City. Martin said it was the best thing for his player to get away after Ricks' brother Michael Cole was shot and killed in a neighborhood dispute almost 10 years ago.
"Life moves on, people die every day," said Ricks, a criminology major who wants to start a mentoring program. "I have a lot of friends who have been murdered, but that doesn't stop my focus."
Everyone in the Valley seems to have an underdog story. Martin put in his time -- eight years as an assistant under Gene Keady and Matt Painter at Purdue. There were four years playing in Italy. And the cancer. At age 38, he finds himself in a league that was once considered that best mid-major. Progressive commissioner Doug Elgin, for a while, had schools adhering to a mandate to schedule nonconference games against teams in the RPI top 150. That leads to years like '05-'06, when four teams made it. Missouri State did not make it, and there was no fifth.
Maybe the answer is in the state house, where Missouri State waged a bitter battle for two decades to change its name. It made sense. Southwest Missouri State just didn't sound big-time. A political blockade came from in-state big brother, the University of Missouri-Columbia. One filibuster against the change lasted five days.
"We would call a kid in Texas and say, 'Hey, I'm coaching Southwest Missouri State,' " Hinson said. "The kid would say, 'Are you Division I?' Anytime you had that multi-directional name, you just had that lack of respect immediately."
The name change finally came in 2005. That hasn't helped the current reality. With the Valley down, it looks like the winner of the conference tournament next week will be the lone NCAA participant. For the past three years, it has been a one-bid league. Missouri State and Wichita State are the only Valley teams in the RPI top 100. Let the cutthroat battle begin.
"This is really a possession-for-possession conference," Weems said. "You might not have necessarily big-time power forwards and centers. But you've got a whole lot of people who want to win. They've got that one goal -- put that banner in the rafters."
The Valley is traditionally a guard league. The best big men are elsewhere, at power-conference schools or in the NBA. It's also a league where the best teams grow up together. The season, Martin has four senior starters and Weems. They endured an 11-20 season in 2008-09, Martin's first at the school. Last season the Bears went 24-12 and won the first CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament.
It has been a good fit -- Martin, Missouri State and the mission. Watch close, you'll see a lot of Keady -- a lot of fight -- in these Bears.
"That's the blueprint; that's what we're trying to be, is Purdue," Creekmore said. "Eventually Coach is going to have this program at the top of the Valley."
It would settle, for the moment, for a spot somewhere in the middle of the bracket.