Why the Missouri State Lady Bears should be NCAA Tournament-bound for years to come
The Missouri State Lady Bears are coming off one of the best seasons in program history that featured an unexpected Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament.
With the amount of youth that was on the roster, the Lady Bears' Cinderella run this season was earlier than expected.
Now that it happened, there's reason to believe the Missouri State women's basketball program is capable of putting together postseason runs for years to come.
Some players on the team are already saying to look out for the Lady Bears next year. Here are some reasons why you should believe them.
Kellie Harper could be the next legendary MSU coach... if she stays
Lady Bears head coach Kellie Harper became the second MSU women's basketball coach to reach a Sweet 16.
The other? The legendary Cheryl Burnett.
Harper is already in rare company and she appears to be in a position to have success over at least the next three seasons with a possibility of more to follow.
The only catch is that she will have to stay.
Harper's name has floated around vacant head coaching positions, including one at Tennessee where she helped lead the Lady Volunteers to three national championships as the team's point guard. If she doesn't get offered the Tennessee job, there's still a possibility of her being offered a high-level job at a different program.
Meet Jackson Harper:The son of coach Kellie Harper has grown up with the Lady Bears
But if she does stay, she is set up for sustained success that could lead to her name being mentioned with MSU's legendary coaches such as Burnett, Spoonhour and Guttin.
The defense Harper had her team playing in the NCAA Tournament was able to contain some of the top offenses in the country. Harper had her team's offense not panicking while knocking down big shots during the biggest games of the season.
MSU's success has started with Harper. With her as head coach, it has a better chance of continuing.
Stacked sophomore, junior class entering 2019-20
The returning roster will feature 13 players who contributed to Missouri State's Sweet 16 as young players.
Now, they'll have that experience and should get better going forward.
Young stars such as Jasmine Franklin, Abby Hipp and Brice Calip are capable of leading the Lady Bears to Missouri Valley Conference titles and NCAA Tournament appearances.
Role players like Sydney Manning, Emily Gartner, Elle Ruffridge and Sydney Wilson are also capable of improving and eventually breaking out.
The young players on the roster offer plenty of length at the MVC level. The team's length and effort helped play a role in containing teams like DePaul and Iowa State in the first two rounds of the tournament.
Going forward, this group will be the reason for any of the Lady Bears' success over the next three seasons.
Another year of Alexa Willard
The Lady Bears are going to want to take advantage of their final year of Alexa Willard in 2019-20.
Willard is coming off a season that earned her honorable mention recognition by the MVC. She was First Team All-MVC in 2018.
The lengthy guard is capable of being one of the top scorers in the league. She showed she was capable of hitting big shots in the MVC Championship and the first and second rounds of the NCAA Tournament.
Willard averaged 12.3 points and 2.5 rebounds per game. She should be MSU's go-to scorer next season.
Jasmine Franklin could be a Lady Bears great
Missouri State's freshman star should be one of the best players in the conference going forward.
Franklin is on pace to be one of the better rebounders and shot blockers in program history.
She averaged 9.2 points and 7.6 rebounds per game in 2018-19 to go along with 47 total blocks. She should be near the top of the career rebounding record and blocked shots record come the end of her career.
At times during the tournament against DePaul, Iowa State and even Stanford, the freshman appeared to be one of the best players on the court.
Franklin should get better going forward and the MVC should be scared.
Return of Shameka Ealy
Missouri State's entire postseason run came without a starter it lost in December.
Shameka Ealy, who started in MSU's first 10 games, should return next season from a torn ACL.
Ealy averaged 5.9 points and 3.2 rebounds per game when she was healthy.
Her return will add more depth to an already deep roster.
Lady Bears should already be the MVC favorites
The success Missouri State had over the last few weeks combined with beating Drake two out of three times this season should have the Lady Bears as the preseason MVC favorites.
Drake should continue to be one of the better teams in the conference along with Northern Iowa.
The Bulldogs will return MVC Player of the Year Becca Hittner in 2019-20 along with another key contributor in Sara Rhine. The number of players MSU has returning should be favored to top what Drake has returning.
Missouri State proved in recent weeks it should be considered a Top 25 program by the season's end and possibly entering the 2019-20 season. If MSU were to slip in the MVC Tournament, then it should have an opportunity to claim an at-large bid if it is held in high regard throughout the season.
Wyatt D. Wheeler is a reporter and columnist for the Springfield News-Leader. You can reach him at 417-371-6987, by email at email@example.com or join the conversation on Twitter where his handle is @WyattWheeler_NL.