Head men's basketball coach Paul Lusk gives a preview of the Evansville Purple Aces ahead of the Bears' matchup at JQH Arena on Wednesday, Jan. 14.
Paul Lusk, widely regarded as one of the best young head coaches in the nation, is in his fourth season as Missouri State's sideline boss.
Lusk, whose recent, guaranteed, five-year contract extension will run through March 31, 2019, led the Bears to the first 20-win season and postseason appearance of his tenure a year ago and returns four starters from that squad for the current campaign.
In addition to MSU's return to league prominence, Lusk was recognized with distinguished honors. He finished third in the MVC Coach of the Year voting and was named a finalist for the 2014 Skip Prosser Man of the Year Award. The Prosser Award is presented annually to honor those elite coaches who not only achieve success on the basketball court but who display moral integrity off of it.
Lusk's Bears played four top-10 ranked teams in his third season and parlayed that experience into manufacturing the eighth-best turnaround in the NCAA Division I ranks. MSU improved by a +9.0 margin in the span of a year, the third-best improvement in MSU history as well.
After losing top player Marcus Marshall for the season with a knee injury suffered against No. 6 Wichita State on Jan. 11, the Bears fought to find their identity at times down the stretch, but tied for fourth place overall in a competitive Missouri Valley race. All told, nine MSU opponents played postseason games in 2014-15, including four in the NCAA field, with the Bears going 7-7 against postseason clubs.
Senior Jarmar Gulley earned second-team All-MVC honors in 2014, while classmate Nathan Scheer snagged MVC Scholar-Athlete Team honors for a third straight year. Likewise, local product Austin Ruder earned MVC All-Freshman team honors after he broke the Bears' freshman 3-point record (72), making him just the fourth freshman in Valley history to score 70 or more long-range shots in a season.
MSU advanced to the MVC Tournament semifinals for the first time since 2011, but the Bears' run in the 2014 CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament was short-lived with eventual champion Murray State clipping the Bears in come-from-behind fashion, 66-63, to end the season with a 20-13 ledger, including a 14-3 mark at JQH Arena. MSU finished 85th in the final regular-season RPI, making it the highest-rated team in Division I to not make the 2014 NIT or NCAA fields.
In 2012-13, Lusk fielded the seventh-youngest team in Division I basketball but led MSU to its 42nd straight winning record at home and the fifth-best turnover average in the nation (10.2). The Bears also set high-water marks for most games against ranked opponents with six and the best single-season scoring total for a freshman class in program history.
The rebuilding campaign saw the young club finish in the NCAA's top 200 in the final RPI and the top 100 in home attendance average, despite a final 11-22 ledger. And for just the second time in school history, the Bears landed the MVC Freshman of the Year in Marcus Marshall, who broke Blake Ahearn's MSU freshman scoring standard with 368 points in 2012-13. Marshall was the top-scoring freshman in the MVC and also landed a spot on the league's prestigious All-Newcomer Team. The squad's lone senior Anthony Downing was named All-MVC honorable mention, while Nathan Scheer earned a spot on the MVC All-Bench Team and MVC Scholar-Athlete first team. Christian Kirk was also a postseason honoree with MVC Scholar-Athlete second-team distinction.
The Bears' "Super Six" freshman combined for 855 points (25.9 points per game), which accounted for 43.5 percent of the team's scoring total. The MSU cubs were 18th nationally in freshman scoring percentage, 22nd in total points and 26th in points per game while combining to start 78 games in 2012-13.
The busiest road schedule in school history saw the Bears log 21,373 miles of ground and air miles that included a summer tour of Costa Rica and Thanksgiving trip to Puerto Vallarta Mexico. After a couple of last-second defeats in the Puerto Vallarta event, the Bears started the MVC schedule with a 3-1 record, including a 70-59 home win over rival Southern Illinois. MSU finished strong too, going 3-3 down the stretch to earn the No. 7 seed for the Valley Tournament and finish 7-11 in league games (6-3 at home).
In his debut season at Missouri State in 2011-12, Lusk guided the Bears to a share of third place in the Missouri Valley Conference, tied a school record for most road wins and finished 16-16 overall with arguably the toughest non-conference schedule in the program's history.
Close calls and tight finishes became the team's calling card in 2011-12 with five overtime games and 17 games decided by single digits. MSU's 12 single-digit losses were the most in the MVC and program's most since 2002.
Lusk's inaugural campaign was also highlighted by a 4-0 start that included one-sided road wins at Nevada and Arkansas State. The Bears began league play with a 12-point win at No. 19 Creighton, the team's first Top 25 win since 2008 and first-ever road win over a ranked opponent. The Bears came within an eyelash of beating Big East power West Virginia in the Las Vegas Classic and also had No. 18 Creighton on the ropes in the final seconds of a home game at JQH Arena on Jan. 18 in two potential season-changing decisions.
Juco transfer Anthony Downing went on to earn a spot on the 2012 MVC All-Newcomer Team, and Michael Bizoukas, a one-year senior transfer from DePaul, led The Valley in assists and assist-to-turnover ratio. The team's six returning lettermen were also widely publicized in 2011-12 as senior Kyle Weems closed out his career as the program's No. 2 career scorer while earning All-MVC first team honors and becoming a finalist for the Lou Henson Mid-Major National Player of the Year Award. Fellow senior Caleb Patterson was honored with MVC Most-Improved Team honors, and the team placed two veteran players -- Isaiah Rhine and Nathan Scheer -- on the MVC Scholar-Athlete second team. Between, Downing, Jarmar Gulley and Bizoukas, the Bears claimed MVC Newcomer of the Week honors eight times, the second-highest total by one school in league history.
The 42-year-old coach came to Missouri State after seven seasons as an assistant coach at Purdue. When Cuonzo Martin accepted the MSU job in 2008, Lusk was promoted to Boilermakers' associate head coach under Purdue's top man, Matt Painter, a position he held until coming to MSU.
Lusk was named by FoxSports.com as one of the nation's top 25 high-major assistant coaches in the summer of 2010. In April 2011, Lusk was inducted into the Illinois Basketball Hall of Fame. After his first year at MSU, CollegeSportsMadness.com named Lusk its 2012 MVC coach of the year after taking the Bears from a predicted sixth-place finish to tie for third.
During his tenure on the Purdue coaching staff, Lusk helped guide the Boilermakers to five consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances with a collective 129-45 ledger during that span. He first came to West Lafayette in 2004-05 as an assistant under then-coach Gene Keady and stayed on board at Purdue when Painter took the coaching reigns in 2005-06.
Before moving to Purdue, he spent one season on Painter's staff at Southern Illinois in 2003-04, a campaign that also culminated in an NCAA Tournament berth, a No. 15 national ranking and a 25-5 overall record.
Prior to that, he spent one season as head coach at (Division III) University of Dubuque in Iowa. His head coaching debut came on the heels of three seasons at Division II Missouri Southern State in Joplin where he was an assistant under coach Robert Corn. The Lions were 71-21 in that span (1999-2002) with an NCAA Tournament appearance in 1999-2000. His coaching career started with a one-year stint as an assistant at Southwestern Illinois College in Belleville where coach Jay Harrington's Blue Storm finished 19-12.
The native of New Baden, Ill., began his playing career at Iowa in 1990 where he spent two years before he found a home at SIU under coach Rich Herrin. He helped guide the Salukis to three straight NCAA Tournament trips (1993-95), earning All-MVC second-team honors in 1994 with a 15.2 scoring average as a junior. As a senior, he earned a spot on the Valley Scholar-Athlete and All-Tournament teams and finished his career with 1,666 points.
He went on to play professionally both in the United States and Argentina and earned two different invitations to the Phoenix Suns' training camp.
A 1995 graduate of SIU-Carbondale, Lusk and his wife Melanie have a daughter, Maddie, and a son, Jack. The couple both earned their Masters of Science in Education from Missouri State in December 2000.