SPRINGFIELD, Mo. — In a state where college basketball talk usually begins and ends with the Missouri Tigers, a former directional school and teacher's college tucked near the Arkansas and Oklahoma borders is making a strong case to join that conversation.
Missouri State (21-6, 13-3) has eclipsed 20 wins for the second straight year under coach Cuonzo Martin and is tied for first place in the Missouri Valley Conference. The Bears are aiming for their first NCAA tournament bid since 1999, when Steve Alford led the school then known as Southwest Missouri State to the round of 16.
"There's no doubt in my mind we're a tournament team," Martin said. "But when you're a mid-major program, you have to do the necessary things to put yourself in that position."
For Missouri State, that means finishing the regular season strong. The Bears have three games remaining before their conference tournament. Their next contest is Saturday at Horizon League-leader Valparaiso in the annual BracketBusters showcase, an ESPN made-for-TV event designed to provide national exposure to mid-major programs.
One week later, Missouri State will host Wichita State in a game that could determine whether the school wins its first regular season Missouri Valley title since joining the conference nearly 20 years ago.
With an RPI of 47, a 6-2 record in conference road games and a four-point, early season road loss to then-No. 23 Tennessee, Martin's squad appears to be on solid ground for a postseason bid to the expanded 68-team tournament field, barring a late-season collapse.
But the Missouri State program is no stranger to NCAA snubs come March. The Bears hold the dubious distinction of having three of the best five RPI ratings ever among teams denied an at-large selection, including a 25-win Alford team in 1997.
Missouri Valley teams have a well-earned national reputation as giant-killers come March. Northern Iowa shocked top-seeded Kansas last year; Bradley, as a No. 13 seed also knocked off Kansas in 2006; and Southern Illinois advanced to six straight NCAA tournaments starting in 2002.
But folks in southwest Missouri can recite the school's storied hoops history chapter and verse.
There are the two straight NAIA titles in 1952-53, including a team that defeated Indiana State in the semifinals with just four players after a rash of teammates fouled out.
Then came a successful move to Division II, with four national runner-up finishes from 1959 through 1974. Two of those losses came at the hands of teams led by future NBA stars, Earl Monroe and Marvin Webster.
And before moving to the Missouri Valley, Missouri State advanced to the NCAA tournament in five of six years from 1987 through 1992 under coach Charlie Spoonhour.
Basketball has played an outsized cultural role in this rural part of the state where few high schools were large enough to field football teams, said Missouri State announcer Art Hains, who has spent 30 years with the school.
"This is a school and a region that cares a lot about basketball," he said. "Basketball really has been part of the culture for many, many years."
Martin's first team in 2008-09 was just 11-20, but the Bears improved to 24-12 last year, culminating in four straight wins and a championship in the inaugural CollegeInsider.com postseason tournament.
The Bears start four seniors alongside conference-player-of-the-year candidate Kyle Weems, a 6-foot-6 junior forward from Topeka, Kan., who averages nearly 17 points and seven rebounds a game.
The team is hardly one-dimensional, though. When Weems was held scoreless in the first half against Drake on Tuesday night, Missouri State's bench helped pick up the offensive slack until the Bears star responded with a more typical performance in the second half.
With more than 20,000 students, Missouri State has a prominent academic presence but clearly plays second-fiddle to the state's flagship university in Columbia.
School boosters sought a name change for more than 20 years before they were able to persuade state lawmakers to relent in 2005, with the most vocal opposition coming from University of Missouri leaders.
And efforts to convince the Big 12 Conference school to schedule a home-and-home series have gone nowhere, former player and coach Bill Thomas said.
"We would love to be able to play them every year," said Thomas, a member of the school's two NAIA title teams. "Of course, they're not going to play us, and I understand why. They have everything to lose, and nothing to win."
Freshman forward Nathan Scheer, who was named the St. Louis area player of the year as a high school senior, suggested that several years of continued success will make Missouri unable to ignore Missouri State as a potential opponent.
"I hope we would get the chance (to play the Tigers)," he said.
Martin is more content to let his team float under the radar. At least until the third weekend in March.
"We don't have to get caught up in who knows about us, who reads about us," he said. "As long as we're doing the things we need to be successful, that's fine."
Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company