Mizzou Basketball Preview 08-09: Part One

Over the next three days, we'll take a look at the upcoming Mizzou Basketball season here at RMN.  For Part One, we've called on Mizzou Basketball historian (and raconteur) Michael Atchison, author of True Sons, and easily the smartest participant in RMN's weekly Rock M Roundtable (yes, that's like saying he's the thinnest kid at fat camp...or the best football team in the Big East...regardless...).  Here's his treatise for 2008-09.

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Welcome to Bizarro Mizzou.  When I was in school (an era we old-timers like to call “the day”), football was something to be suffered through, a seasonal gauntlet ranging from sunburn to frostbite, in hopes that November would bring a sucktacular Kansas or Kansas State team to town, and with it, a chance to tear down some goalposts.  Autumn’s end, though, brought promise of a warm gym on a cold winter’s night, where Norm Stewart’s squad would serially dismantle opponents en route to a Big Eight title.

How things have changed.  After two straight championship-caliber seasons and three straight sellouts, Gary Pinkel’s football Tigers are the undisputed campus kings, and the basketball team, mired in a half-generation of unfulfilled promise, scandal, and occasional ineptitude, has slid the slippery slope from love to hate to indifference, prompting many to wonder, should I even care?

The answer:  Yes.  You.  Should.

Let’s go back, way back, to those looking-glass days of March 2006, when the University of Missouri managed to botch the firing of a coach who, by acclimation, desperately needed firing, and later announced a press conference, prompting genuine speculation over whether the school would be terminating an athletics director or hiring a basketball coach.  It was unprecedented, yet unsurprising for a uniquely cursed program.  From Paige Sports Arena to NCAA probation to the Norm Stewart Court fiasco to the reign of terror surrounding He Who Shall Not Be Named (let’s call him Ickyray Emonsclay), Mizzou basketball gave birth to Snyder’s Law, a particularly virulent strain of the one named for Murphy:  Everything Will Go Wrong.

Then came Mike Anderson’s hiring, and the great exhale.  A championship pedigree.  A history of success as a head coach.  A skeleton-free closet.  Finally, the Quin Snyder era was over.

Or was it?

While watching Mike Anderson make his first remarks as coach – “My goal is to win the national championship,” he said.  “I can get it done here” – I had an eye on the roster and a bad feeling in my gut.  One of the great recruiting tools for any new coach is the honeymoon period of hope, when he can sell talented kids on what he did at his old school and what he’ll do at his new one.  But hope isn’t worth jack without vacant scholarships, and between probation-imposed reductions and a roster full of underclassmen, Mike Anderson had precious few.

So he muddled along for two years with disgruntled Snyder holdovers and stop-gap juco players with varying levels of talent, low levels of engagement, and undesirable assist-to-misdemeanor ratios.  Anderson bears part of them blame here – some of his junior college recruits were the worst offenders – but it’s clear that he inherited a poisoned program.

Now, though, is a new day.  Only Matt Lawrence and Leo Lyons remain from the former regime (they each played one year under Snyder), but both have been remade as players in the years since.  And, finally, Anderson has remade his roster, stocking it with the kind of high-energy, ball-hawking athletes that brought him success at Alabama-Birmingham.  While he still lacks the blue chip talent to take the Tigers over the top, he finally has the pieces in place to fully implement his style of play, the possession-churning, turnover-causing spread defense.

There are seven newcomers on this team, and each fits a position in the Anderson plan.  Forget point guard, shooting guard, etc.  The new crew includes a waterbug distributor (Miguel Paul), a long-limbed disruptor (Zaire Taylor), two stop-and-pop zone extenders (Marcus Denmon and Kim English), a pair of pogo-stick slasher/rebounders (Keith Ramsey and Laurence Bowers), and an immovable-object paint patroller (Steve Moore).  This group doesn’t give Anderson much experience, but it does give him lots of options.

Still, the present depends primarily on two returning seniors.  While veterans Matt Lawrence and J.T. Tiller steady the squad and add to the perimeter permutations, and Justin Safford is another big body to throw into the hopper, the team will go as far as the frontcourt duo of Leo Lyons and DeMarre Carroll can carry it.  Through two exhibitions, Lyons has killed opponents softly, while Carroll has produced with more panache.  Through two exhibition games, they’ve combined to average 29 points and 11.5 rebounds per game.  They’ll have to continue down that road (with even better rebounding numbers) for Missouri to meet its goals.

What should those goals be?  Hopefully, win a game or two in the upcoming Puerto Rico tournament, beat Cal and/or Illinois in December, and jell as a team before conference play starts.  Then, opportunity awaits.  The league’s coaches picked Missouri to finish seventh, but they rank schools from the conference’s southern half first, second, third, fifth, sixth and tenth.  Maybe the south does have five of the league’s six best teams, but given the Big 12’s unbalanced schedule, the odds of all five finishing in the top half are beyond remote.  Someone from the northern territory is going to put itself into NCAA contention simply by being better than a year ago.  And Mizzou, with four returning starters, is poised to be that team.  Nebraska lost Aleks Maric.  Colorado lost Richard Roby.  Iowa State lost Jiri Hubalek, Wesley Johnson and Rahshon Clark.  Kansas State lost two draft picks and four of its top five scorers.  And though Kansas returns the best guard (Sherron Collins) and the best big man (Cole Aldrich) in the league’s northern half, no one else on the roster has played meaningful minutes at the Division One level.  It’s no great leap to think that the Tigers could win seven or eight games against northern opponents.  Win at home against Texas Tech and pick off just one other team from the south, and Mizzou stands a chance to dance.  Winning ten games in the Big 12 all but punches the Tigers’ ticket.

I’m a confessed and unrepentant Pollyanna when it comes to Mizzou basketball.  The old days hardwired me to always believe that good things were just around the corner.  And I believe that now.  Remember how you put your faith in Gary Pinkel years back, and then saw that faith rewarded? 

It’s time to believe in Mike Anderson.

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