When Missouri State coach Cuonzo Martin first saw his team's 2010-11 Missouri Valley Conference schedule last summer, he admits he thought someone in the league office might be pulling a prank at his expense.
A Missouri State team that had lost 17 of 18 league games on the road the previous two years began this season with a gauntlet that would have intimidated even the top programs in the nation. Among the Bears' first five league games this season were road dates at Northern Iowa, Creighton and Wichita State, each projected to finish in the top four in the Valley this season.
"Someone asked me why didn't I call the commissioner and complain about the schedule being like that," Martin said Monday. "It really didn't bother me because I knew we had to play them at some point. It wasn't an ideal way to begin league play, but I knew we had the pieces to be competitive."
Martin looks wise for not arguing that the schedule should be changed because the Bears have exceeded even his expectations. A narrow 59-56 win at league favorite Wichita State on Sunday night enabled surprising Missouri State (13-3, 5-0) to claim sole possession of first place in the Valley, a game ahead of three teams tied for second place.
Asked how a team that looked so inept away from home the past two seasons could have won perhaps its three most challenging Valley road games, Martin credited several factors for Missouri State's improvement.
He cited a tactical change the coaching staff made to forgo crashing the offensive glass on the road in favor of getting back on defense. He cited the team's increased maturity starting four seniors and a junior who have experience in big road games. And most importantly, he cited the higher level of talent on the roster compared to when he arrived in spring 2008.
"When I first took over the program, we were rebuilding," Martin said. "It wasn't like there was a lot in place. We were more or less starting from scratch and trying to build it and it takes time to get it to the level you want. But when you're trying to get pieces, you're also teaching guys to be confident, how to play hard and how to win on the road."
It would have been difficult to predict Missouri State's sizzling start to conference play as recently as two weeks ago when the Bears were wrapping up a solid but hardly sensational non-league slate. Missouri State won eight games against overmatched competition but it lost all three true road games it played, falling by four at Tennessee, by 12 at Tulsa and by 14 at Oklahoma State.
The turning point came at Northern Iowa on Dec. 29 when Kyle Weems sank a three at the buzzer to give Missouri State a 58-57 road victory. Wins over Illinois State, Creighton and Evansville followed, setting up last Sunday's first-place showdown at Wichita State.
The plodding tempo favored Missouri State, yet the high-scoring Shockers roared back from an 11-point deficit to take a short-lived one-point lead with four minutes left in the second half. It was then that senior guard Adam Leonard buried a crucial three, regaining a lead the Bears never again relinquished.
"Guys were excited about the win, not only the players but the staff," Martin said. "The previous two years we had opportunities to win the game at Wichita State but unfortunately we didn't get the win. When you work so hard to achieve certain goals and then have the opportunity to see those goals come through, it's a great feeling."
A first-place Valley team would typically be a strong contender for an at-large NCAA tournament berth, but poor results in non-conference play may make it difficult for require even the league champ to win Arch Madness this season.
Even so, Missouri State takes pride in being atop the standings. The Bears are thrilled with where they stand heading into a home game against Southern Illinois on Wednesday night.
"For our program, to be 5-0 and to win the road games with the level of competition we've faced, that's big for our guys," Martin said. "Northern Iowa, Creighton and Wichita State, you don't just walk into those places and expect to win games."