Missouri State comes to the Winthrop Coliseum to face Randy Peele's Eagles this afternoon at 2, and Peele knows one thing for sure.
The Bears (3-1) are the best team his team has faced in this young season, and, as he told his players before Friday morning's practice, "it's not even close."
"They are better than anybody we've played," Peele said, "so it's a great opportunity for us, but we have to be on top of things."
The Eagles (3-1) are coming off three difficult games in the Paradise Jam against Illinois-Chicago, Georgia Tech out of the Atlantic Coast Conference and Baylor of Big 12. The Eagles won the first two impressively and lost 62-54 in the finals.
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To say coach Barry Hinson's Bears are better than that threesome is high praise.
"Those guys really know how to play," Peele said, referring to their physical defense, relentless rebounding and, most of all, their ability to play as a team, something Peele has been trying to reinforce with his players throughout preseason practice, two scrimmages and four games.
He told them he spent Thanksgiving Day watching a lot of basketball and saw some teams with a lot of talent waste it by not playing together.
"Good teams find ways to get easy baskets," he said. "The teams I watched that didn't execute were just hoopin', just runnin' around. We can't do that."
This afternoon's game is the first in a brutal four-games-in-10-days stretch that sees the Eagles play at East Carolina on Wednesday, at West Virginia next Saturday and back home Dec. 4 to play Akron.
"In those four games," Peele said, "great things can happen for this program, but every one of them is going to very, very tough."
Starting today with a team Peele and his veterans know.
The Eagles went to Missouri State and won 77-66 last February behind Michael Jenkins' 25 points, a loss the Bears remember all too well and plan to use as motivation this afternoon.
"Toward the end of the game they were laughing at us and having a good time," senior Dale Lamberth told the Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. "So we have to take that as motivation going there."
Shane Laurie said, "it's tough to forget those kind of losses."
The Bears, who finished 22-11, lost three starters from that team, but Peele thinks they're better than they were a year ago.
The Bears have been picked to finish third in the Missouri Valley Conference behind Southern Illinois and Bradley. Being third-best in that league usually means an NCAA Tournament berth.
Since a season-opening road loss at Toledo (57-53), the Bears have beaten Harding (86-67), UNC Greensboro (79-52) and St. Louis (60-56), all at home.
Drew Richards, a 6-9, 246-pound center, and Spencer Laurie, a 6-1 guard, started against Winthrop last year. Richards is averaging 11 points and 4.3 rebounds, but Laurie has been coming off the bench.
Deven Mitchell, a 6-5 senior who Peele called "a beast on the glass," leads the Bears in scoring (17.0) and rebounding (7.3) and teams with the 6-5 Lamberth (15.3 points, 5.8 rebounds) to give the Bears a quick, aggressive tandem at forward.
The last couple of days in practice Peele has emphasized the necessity of blocking out and getting on the glass, and, most of all, keeping the Bears off the free throw line.
Missouri State has made more free throws (52) than opponents have attempted (41). The only time they didn't outscore a team at the line came at Toledo, when they got to the line just seven times.
"The team that gets to the line," Peele said, "is the team that will win."
Peele could be at least one big man down today. Andy Buechert, the 6-9 junior college transfer, has not practiced because of ankle and Achilles tendon problems and might not play.
And Peele expects the Bears to apply the heavy duty defensive pressure, a trademark of Missouri Valley teams, they brought last February.
"We won by 11 and it looks like we executed really well," Peele said, "but they defended us pretty good and we shot really well."
The Eagles hit 14-of-27 3-pointers, including 7-of-12 by Jenkins.
The Eagles will have point guard Chris Gaynor, who was back at practice Friday and Saturday after taking Wednesday off to nurse a bruised left thumb. Gaynor had 11 points, four assists, two blocks and two steals against the Bears.
Today's game will be the next step in the learning process for the Eagles.
"In terms of growth," Peele said, "I've been very pleased with the progress so far, but we're not where I want to be."
And he'd also like his players to understand no pats on the back are in order for finishing second at the Paradise Jam, that the Eagles haven't "done anything" yet.
"I want to see a little bit of an edge," he told his players. "I want you to be (upset) that you didn't win that championship."
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