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June 9, 2011Some schools enter a coaching search seeking a fresh start. Others want as smooth a transition as possible.
Missouri State fell into the latter category and found an ideal way to build on the momentum Cuonzo Martin had established before Tennessee hired him away. The Bears replaced Martin with one of his longtime friends.
Martin and Paul Lusk worked together as Purdue assistants from 2004-2008, but their connection began long before then. Lusk and Martin played youth league baseball against each other while growing up in the St. Louis area, even though time has played tricks with their memories of those days.
"He was a very good pitcher, and I actually hit a home run off him," Lusk recalls. "He'll tell the story that he hit one out on me, but that's impossible because I was never a pitcher. I was a first baseman and third baseman."
Martin remembers it different.
"He might have hit one out, but it wasn't on me because I was catching," Martin says. "I wasn't a very good pitcher. But he loves to tell the story that he hit one out of the ballpark on me.''
Missouri State is counting on this former home-run hitter to develop into the school's second straight home-run hire.
The Bears couldn't have asked for much more from Martin. After losing 20 games in Martin's debut season, Missouri State went a combined 50-21 over the next two years and won its first Missouri Valley Conference regular-season title this past season.
Lusk, 39, now must try to pick up just where his friend left off. Although Lusk went 2-23 in his only previous season as a head coach - at Division III school Dubuque (Iowa) in 2002-03 - he otherwise has an ideal background for this job.
He knows the Valley well after playing on three NCAA tournament teams at Southern Illinois and working one season as an assistant at his alma mater. He grew up as the son of a longtime high school coach and knew from a young age that he wanted to continue in the family business. Lusk also served an apprenticeship for one of the nation's top coaches while working on Matt Painter's staffs at Southern Illinois and Purdue.
It can't hurt that Lusk still talks or exchanges text messages a few times a week with his predecessor.
"For Coach Martin to get promoted to Tennessee was great," says Missouri State senior forward Kyle Weems, the reigning Missouri Valley player of the year. "For us to get his friend, that's even better. There's not a whole lot more you can ask for in a process like that, to get a great guy just like the one you've already had."
If only Lusk would've inherited last season's team. The group he puts on the floor this winter won't bear much resemblance to the squad that reached the NIT last season and won the CollegeInsider.com Tournament in 2010. Weems is back for his senior season after leading Missouri State in scoring (16.0) and rebounding (6.9), but he's the only returning starter.
"There are a lot of unproven players on the team," Lusk says. "I think it will be important for those guys to step up. I think a lot of times in coaching, coaches always wonder about what they don't have and what a player can't do. I'm trying to be consumed with the players on the roster."
At least he's inheriting a program that's on top of the conference. Lusk encountered a much different situation when he joined Painter at Purdue in 2004.
Purdue went 7-21 in 2004-05 - with Lusk and Painter working as assistants to Gene Keady - and was 9-19 the following year in Painter's first season as head coach. The Boilers have won more than 20 games and have advanced to at least the second round of the NCAA tournament in each of the five ensuing seasons.
"Matt is one of the best coaches in the country, and I've just taken an awful lot from him," Lusk says. "The thing that really makes me proud is that when we got to Purdue, we were in last place. We just rolled our sleeves up, went to work and were able to get out of that hole and get back to winning conference tournament championships and conference championships."
Painter believes his protege can have similar success at Missouri State. Before joining forces at Purdue, the two worked together in the Valley while helping Southern Illinois win a conference title in 2003-04.
"He's a hard-working guy who has a good rapport with players," Painter says. "He's very diligent in recruiting. He does a good job of evaluating talent. He's a great teacher of the game of basketball. He's a well-rounded coach in a great situation at Missouri State."
The situation at Missouri State certainly has improved the past few years. There may be a lack of experience on the roster, but there is no shortage of confidence around campus. Missouri State has posted winning records in nine of the past 10 seasons, and the Bears' success over the past two seasons erased the memories of that 20-loss campaign in 2008-09.
The program already is headed in the right direction. Lusk now needs to keep it moving forward as the Bears aim for their first NCAA bid since 1999.
"There's a winning culture in place here," Lusk says. "Cuonzo has established that. He instilled that in the program. These guys know how to work and like to work. It's a great accomplishment to win the Valley championship, but we still haven't achieved our goals. Our goals are to [both] win the Valley championship and try to get to the NCAA tournament and try to play as long as you can play."
Even if the coach has changed and the lineup isn't quite the same, everything else about Missouri State basketball under Lusk should look familiar. Lusk and Martin both learned from Painter and have styles that fit the Purdue model. Missouri State should continue playing man-to-man defense and making the most of its opportunities to push the ball up the floor. That strategy has worked well at Purdue and helped Martin build Missouri State into a winner. No wonder Missouri State went back to that source once again.
"I thought it was the right choice," Martin says. "He's well-qualified. He has passion. He's going to do the right things and recruit at a high level. His guys are going to get degrees and have successful careers. I thought he was a great hire for Missouri State."
Steve Megargee is a national writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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