Already down its starting point guard DeShaun Cooper for the year, Northwest Missouri State's men face the unsettling possibility of going through a portion of their second half conference schedule without top post threat Dillon Starzl as well.
The 6-8 junior center injured his knee in the first half of Saturday's 60-50 loss to Central Missouri and did not return to the game. An MRI taken Tuesday revealed a knee sprain that might cause him to miss Thursday night's home game with second place Northeastern State and additional one's beyond that.
"I don't think it's anything serious," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Ben McCollum. "He'll be back eventually. It's just a matter of when. Either way it's going to be tough because he hasn't practiced. Even if he comes back on Thursday, he's not going to be 100 percent. When you lose DeShaun—your best scorer— and Dillon who then becomes your best scorer, it becomes a little more difficult, a little more tricky. We just have to come together and see if we can get a win."
The injury comes at an inopportune time both for Northwest and Starzl who had become the MIAA's most consistent and efficient inside scorer.
Before Saturday, Starzl had strung together six consecutive double-figure scoring games and shot 60 percent or better in all of them.
Starzl ranks second in the MIAA with a .625 shooting percentage, and the only player in front of him—Lindenwood's Brett Thompson—has taken 56 less shots. Starzl is also averaging career-highs in points (13.9 ppg) and rebounds (5.1 rpg).
"He's one of the best in the league," said McCollum. "That's tough because not only is he one of our best scorers and sealers, he's one of our best post defenders. If he's on the post against somebody, they generally will not score. You don't have to double the post against somebody. You don't have to rotate a bunch. It's just one-on-one, see if you can score on them."
Starzl's loss was felt in the second half at UCM when the Bearcats scored just 17 points in the final 17:11 and gave up nine offensive rebounds.
Secondary posts Kyle Schlake and Grant Cozad aren't as powerful as Starzl, and had a much tougher time keeping UCM's bigs off the glass.
"The Matt (Webb) kid was able to push Schlake around a little bit," said McCollum. "You can't push Dillon around. He only averages five rebounds per game, but his guy will not get a rebound and that's where he's so good. He allows Schlake to kind of roam and get defensive rebounds without having to box out a ton. Now, Schlake has to box out and that's a totally a different type of role."
Page 2 of 3 - As long as Starzl is unavailable, Cozad (6.9 ppg) and Schlake (4.9 ppg) will likely both start and play significantly more minutes.
Both will be challenged on the defensive end right away by Northeastern's State Jermaine Bransford who averages 15.6 points and leads the MIAA in rebounding with 10.1 per game.
"I think defensively they'll be able to fight him a little bit," said McCollum. "I don't think he's like Matt (Webb) where he's so physically imposing, but I think he's a lot more athletic and so it will be tough. It's going to take a lot of support from everyone on the team to be able to stop him."
Can't do it without her
Partly because of Northwest Missouri State's roster composition and even more so because of her large intangible set, Northwest Missouri State junior point guard Monique Stevens has arguably become the team's most indispensable player.
A 5-3 native of Australia, Stevens beat out Victoria Naylor for the starting point guard job in preseason.
Naylor's subsequent departure and the absence of another primary ball-handler on the roster has forced Stevens to play the second-most minutes behind Ashleigh Nelson.
Despite sporadic offensive production, Stevens has solidified that position nicely with her enhanced ball-handling, defensive and passing abilities.
Stevens is averaging a league-high 4.5 assists per game and ranks second in the MIAA in steals with 2.2 per game.
She's also believed to be Northwest's team leader in charges taken.
"She doesn't have to score to have an impact on the game," said Northwest Missouri State head coach Mark Kellogg. "She's doing a great job. She's our only true point guard, so we rely on her a lot. She makes us go offensively and defensively without a doubt."
Stevens' value to the Bearcats became readily apparent late in the first half of Saturday's 60-52 loss to UCM when she had to go to the bench with two fouls.
The Jennies closed the half on a 10-0 run to pull within two points, sucking the momentum away from Northwest.
"That hindered us quite a bit," said Kellogg.
NSU's Gipson set to return
An unusual and intriguing sub-plot surrounds Northwest Missouri State's women's game with Northeastern State Thursday night at Bearcat Arena.
The Riverhawks (13-5, 8-2) are coached by Randy Gipson who was Northwest's original choice to replace Gene Steinmeyer as head coach.
Gipson accepted the job and then backed out a day later, forcing Northwest to re-open a search that netted Mark Kellogg.
This will be Gipson's first appearance in Maryville since his stunning decision to return to NSU in late March.
Page 3 of 3 - Going into the game, Kellogg considers the storyline to be a non-issue.
"I'm not going to talk about it with my team," said Kellogg. "I don't know how they feel. It won't even be brought up with us. It's not going to affect me one way or the other. (Randy) is a great guy. He couldn't be any nicer. We talked briefly at the coaches meetings last spring, so I don't anticipate it being any different."
Omaha WR commits
After shoring up the quarterback position for the future, Northwest Missouri State has added to another need area on offense.
A week before National Signing Day, the Bearcats secured a commitment from 6-3, 186-pound wide out Bryce Sheard of Papillion La-Vista High School in Papillion, Neb.
Sheard received interest at the Division I level and was offered by FCS South Dakota State.
In his final two years at Papillion La-Vista, he caught 108 passes for 1,798 yards and 22 touchdowns. As a senior, he had a career-high 60 grabs.
Sheard is described on Rivals as "a well-rounded receiver with "great hands" and "outstanding ball skills" who is best utilized on fade routes in the end zone.
His athletic ability shows through in his track numbers.
Sheard led the state last year in the triple jump by over two feet (47-6) and finished second in the high jump (6-9).