By TOMMY REZAC
St. Joseph Post
KANSAS CITY - Missouri Western made nice strides in the 2020-21 season, coming off of an 18-win mark the season prior.
In the face of a COVID-season filled with adversity, the Griffons got off to their best start in over a decade, and won six of their last nine games to end the year, earning an NCAA tournament bid for the first time since 2010.
It wasn't the desired ending, as Washburn ended the Griffons' season with a 72-46 defeat in the Central Region tournament in Aberdeen, SD. Still, second-year head coach Will Martin is grateful for what his team achieved last year.
"We're extremely grateful for last year," Martin told St. Joseph Post at MIAA Media Day in Kansas City. "But, we're also aware that we need to get a lot better. The first round of the NCAA tournament is not our mission, and it's going to take a lot of work to get past that. There's a lot of good teams in this league. There's a lot of good teams in this region."
Missouri Western, picked third in the MIAA by the league's media and fifth by the coaches, look to be a contender within their league and region again this season. The Griffons return six of their top eight scorers, and will especially lean on their three senior leaders.
"In terms of our team, it starts and ends with our seniors," Martin said. "Caleb Bennett, Tony Chukwuemeke and Q Mays. Those guys have done a tremendous job of establishing a new standard this year and making sure everyone else falls in line."
Bennett, a Lafayette St. Joseph graduate and Lehigh transfer who averaged 11.6 points and 3.3 rebounds per game last year for the Griffons, is excited to see what the team can do - both with their returning talent, along with the addition of five new freshmen and two transfers.
"We're definitely excited about this season," Bennett said. "We definitely think that everyone on our team is a big contributor. We're 17 (players) deep, so every day we try to challenge ourselves as well as the person who's on the other end of the court."
Martin says each senior leader has their own leadership style. With Mays, it's a lead-by-example approach. With Chukwuemeke, it's hounding on younger players who don't show up on time to early-morning practices.
With Bennett, Martin says the other players have a natural respect for him, given what he has done in his past high school and collegiate career.
"He's a St. Joe guy, he's a St. Joe legend," Martin said of Bennett. "He kind of wears that, and people respect him because of his game and what he's done. Not just here at Missouri Western, but at Lafayette High School. He's played Division I basketball, so his leadership is different, too just because of the aura he brings."
The Griffons added two transfers in Samford forward Luke Champion and Catawba (N.C.) forward Anthony Peacock in the offseason.
A 6-foot-8 forward, Champion comes from Division-I Samford in Birmingham, Alabama. He has four years of eligibility left.
Peacock, also a 6-8 forward, will have two years of eligibility remaining. He played at Division I Hartford College, averaging five points and five rebounds per game before transferring to Quincy CC, where he averaged 23.7 points and 14.6 rebounds per contest.
Peacock battled injuries last year at Division-II Catawba, averaging five points and 2.5 rebounds in 11 games.
Another player Martin is excited about is junior Reese Glover, who started 23 games last season for Missouri Western and averaged 10.8 points a game, but also grabbed 22 steals and doled out 25 assists.
"His worth and value is not shooting the basketball," Martin said about Glover. "It's who he is as an individual. It's the leader that he's capable of being. He's still trying to figure that out a little bit. He's made enormous strides. He's a super, super intelligent basketball player. He doesn't get nearly the credit he deserves on the defensive end."
While there's lots of familiar faces on the floor, there's several new ones on the coaching staff. Three, in fact. Martin hired assistants, Jon Hood, Perry Stevenson and Damon Jones in the offseason.
Hood and Stevenson are former Kentucky basketball players who played for the Wildcats at the same time when Martin was a team manager.
Jones comes to MWSU after coaching at Grand Rapids Christian High School in Michigan. He spent the 2019-20 season in the NBA G League, working in player development and basketball operations for the Grand Rapids Drive. He was also a basketball operations intern for the Detroit Pistons in the NBA prior to that.
"I didn't have the personal relationship with (Jones) that I had with Perry and John," Martin said. "I can't always say this about everyone that I work with, but I consider (Jones) a close friend now. Even just after a few months of being able to work with him. So, I'm extremely blessed with a great staff. They make my job easier."
Missouri Western opens the 2021-22 season in the Small College Basketball Hall of Fame Classic at Civic Arena in St. Joseph on Nov. 6 and 7. The Griffons face Embry Riddle on the 6th, and St. Thomas Aquinas on the 7th.
They'll then get to play Minnesota State and Henderson State in the Central Region Challenge Nov. 12 and 14 at the Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City - the same venue where the MIAA tournament will be held March 2-6 after being confined to Bearcat Arena last season.
Q Mays, who looks to take on a greater starting role this season following the transfer of top scorer Tyrell Carroll, is excited to have several opportunities to play in big games in big venues after being confined to a conference-only schedule last year.
"We're very excited to get down (to Kansas City) and play down here," Mays said. "Get the feeling of those rims before we get to the MIAA tournament. We're looking forward to that. We know we have a couple of big first games at Civic Arena, and then we head down here. So, preparing for those things each day. We're making sure everyone is locked in on the same page."
You can follow Tommy on Twitter @TommyKFEQ and St. Joseph Post @StJosephPost.