I'm not going to lie. Four months ago, I was worried about this basketball program. And it really didn't even have that much to do with the team on the court. I was happy about the new blood, I thought a low seed in the NCAA Tournament was at least plausible enough to aim for it, and I still thought Mike Anderson really might be able to put together some winning records here.
That said, I was worried about the program as a whole, meaning fans, attendance, money generated, etc. There had been two entire four-year classes ('04-'07, '05-'08) that had come to the university and graduated without seeing their team go to the NCAA Tournament. That hadn't happened since well before I was born. The thought of having a great basketball program was something of a joke (I think we even made some of those jokes on RMN in a football podcast way back when). I mean, hell, look at how hard we were struggling to find great, encouraging things to say about the team not that long ago. Even if we snuck into the tourney as a 10-seed or something, would anybody notice? That's the basketball version of making the Independence Bowl. Would a connection still have been made?
Now look at us. Again, I'm not necessarily talking about the 30 wins, the Sweet Sixteen, and the Big 12 Tournament title, though that's been absolutely fantastic. I'm talking about more than that. In just four months (and really, it's been less than three), this university has grown to love its basketball team again.
Everything that happened to connect Mizzou Football to its fans in the last couple of years--the personalities (Daniel, 'Spoon, MotherRucker), the sick athletes (Maclin, Willy Mo), the wins (I don't know if you've heard this, but we won 30 games in three years), the forever-memorable moments (Sod Reesing, the Cotton Bowl, Maclin's kick returns, Coffman's nunchuk thrusts), the SI covers--has happened to Missouri basketball. Personality? This team has DeMarre's hair, and Leo's humor, and Goose's self-deprecation, and Zaire sticking out his tongue, and JT Tiller's lack of regard for human life. Wins? This team has more wins than any Mizzou squad has ever compiled. Moments? How about the win over Kansas? Kim English's free-throws against Marquette? Zaire's drive against Texas? Laurence Bowers' SportsCenter dunks? Goose's clutch 3's in the Big 12 tourney? JT Tiller's jump balls against Kansas? Is that enough for you? How about the win in Stillwater? The absolute destruction of team after team in Mizzou Arena? JYD's timely putbacks? Hell, they even had a (regional) SI cover as well.
How far have we come? Four months ago, Zaire Taylor was a decent defensive point guard who didn't shoot enough. Now he's Mr. Coffee. Always Be Closing. Four months ago, Laurence Bowers was a thin, anonymous freshman forward with some athletic ability. Now he's the Party Starter. Four months ago, Kim English was a lovable gymrat who talked a big game but had plenty to learn about how to play college basketball. Now he's put together possibly the most successful, most memorable postseason performance ever for a Mizzou freshman.
And it goes on. Four months ago, Matt Lawrence was a much-maligned three-point specialist who, for long stretches of time, couldn't even seem to specialize in three-pointers. He was given the nickname of Grey Goose, and not necessarily as a compliment. Now he's GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOSE!! Four months ago, DeMarre Carroll was a scrappy player, fun to watch, but limited in size and shooting ability. Now he's JYD, a rangy, rugged all-conference forward in a conference full of great forwards.
Four months ago, JT Tiller was an intense, rather out-of-control guard who had brilliant stretches of defensive play among brainfarts and foul trouble. Now, he's not only Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, but (listen up, Marquette fans) also a ballsy, clutch shooter (see: two FTs against Marquette with 90 seconds left, go-ahead jumper against KU with 50 seconds left).
And then there's Leo. Four months ago, Leo Lyons was an enigmatic, moody, rather schizophrenic player who could be amazing one moment and pouting on the bench for most of a game the next. Now, he's Good Leo, an enigmatic, moody, rather schizophrenic player who has been amazing for most of his only NCAA Tournament, who never turned his brain off after getting pushed and hacked for a good portion of the second half against Marquette, and who persevered in the form of a clutch 3-point play and three big-time free throws in the last minute. Against heavy odds, Leo will end up being remembered for his play down the stretch of his senior season* instead of the suspensions and frustrating tendencies of his first 3.5 seasons.
* And for Leo Lyons' Planet.
And possibly most importantly, four months ago, Mike Anderson was a likable coach who brought an entertaining brand of basketball to Columbia, but who hadn't shown many game-coaching chops, had briefly let bad characters take over his program, and was already having his name come up in the "I'm not saying he has to win this season, but he might not get more than four seasons if Mizzou doesn't start to improve" type of speculation. No one knew if his style would work in the Big 12, if his program would be able to attract the caliber of athletes it would take to succeed with his style, if he would be able to guide Mizzou to the NCAA Tourney, or if the fans would ever come back en masse to Mizzou Arena.
Now, he's the subject of the "Other teams want our coach because he's so great" type of speculation. If there's a cloud in the Mizzou sky right now, it's because of the lingering (and small) possibility that he still may be coaching elsewhere next year. But that cloud is slowly dissipating, and besides...next year is next year, and memories don't go away. Missouri is back, and it is because of Mike Anderson.
I mentioned yesterday that when Missouri faces a game they're supposed to lose, I start getting defiantly confident as game time approaches. But despite my own confidence, I realize that when Missouri and Memphis tip off at 8:37(ish) tonight, it very well might be the last time we see Leo Lyons, DeMarre Carroll, and Matt Lawrence in a Missouri uniform. Hell, I doubt it, but this could be the last time we see Mike Anderson roaming the Missouri sideline. A lot could change after tonight, but what won't is the simple fact that Missouri loves its basketball again, and watching and feeling this unexpected connection this team's players and coaches--every single one of them--has been one of the most rewarding experiences I've had as a fan.
Once again, I'm not going to lie. I look at these pictures, and as they say, it gets a little dusty in my house. It's hard to believe that something so simple (sports team wins games, fans rejoice) could end up being so emotionally, and unexpectedly, satisfying as this 2008-09 basketball season has been. Win or lose tonight, the impact has been made. You truly never know when seasons like this will come about (if they ever will, or if they ever will again), and while you live your life as a sports fan full of hope and faith (and lots of frustration), you have to hold closely the great moments that do happen, and there's just no question that I'll remember every moment of this season for a long, long time. To DeMarre Carroll, Leo Lyons, Matt Lawrence, Zaire Taylor, J.T. Tiller, Kim English, Laurence Bowers, Justin Safford, Keith Ramsey, Marcus Denmon, Miguel Paul, Steve Moore, Jarrett Sutton, and Michael Anderson Jr., I salute you.
(Or as Norman Dale would say, "I love you guys.")
But all that said, why don't we keep this train rolling for another few games?