Unless otherwise noted, all photos via The Trib.
Looking back, it doesn't seem that odd. Mike Anderson takes over the Mizzou Basketball program in 2006, takes a couple of years to bring his players into the system, and in years #3 and #4, Mizzou is back to being an NCAA Tourney-caliber program. Simple, right? Only, if you lived through it, it could not have seemed less probable not too long ago. And the players who helped Mizzou to both climb to unexpected heights and maintain stability a year later could not have come to Columbia with lower expectations.
Some time in the next 18 days -- possibly as soon as this afternoon -- we will have seen J.T. Tiller, Zaire Taylor and Keith Ramsey play in a Mizzou uniform for the last time. And while they haven't exactly been All-Americans in their time at Mizzou, there is absolutely no doubt that the program would not be where it is without them.
It started with Tiller. A UAB commit when Anderson took the Mizzou job, he followed his chosen coach to Columbia, committing in April 2006. Tiller was not tremendously highly-regarded, but from day one, there was no question who he was and what he might do.
Tiller's strength is his motor and his do-whatever-it-takes attitude. He has a couple of state championships under his belt and he played a big part in that. Oftentimes he had the challenge of guarding the team's best player and generally lived up to the challenge. That is his best attribute. He'll really defend. There aren't a lot of high schoolers that do anymore. Tiller does and does it well.
Sure enough, from day one, Tiller was a pitbull. He couldn't control himself half the time, and he didn't have much offensive game, but his defense and intensity were as notable as his likability.
In conference play during his sophomore year, when Athenagate knocked out half the roster and there was no leader to be found, Tiller provided easily the most exciting moment of the season, scoring a career high 20 and willing Mizzou to a home upset win over Michael Beasley, Bill Walker and Kansas State. His kamikaze three-point play and celebration brought happiness to a fanbase starving for it. DeMarre Carroll's ankle was not yet 100%, nor was Leo Lyons' brain, but he tried his damnedest to provide leadership, even as only a sophomore.
Then came 2008-09. Carroll was the heart of the team, but Tiller was the soul. He won defensive player of the year, and despite a wrist injury that hampered him over the season's final month, he willed himself to a higher level, making free throw after free throw and defensive stop after defensive stop, and when Mizzou needed its A-game in the Sweet Sixteen against Memphis, he brought them to an A+. He was tenacious and unstoppable, and he brought Mizzou to within one game of its first Final Four.
His senior season has been hamstrung by everything from injury, to rust, to shooting slumps, to bad luck, to unpaid parking tickets. But with the postseason looming on the horizon, Tiller has once again stepped up. He has averaged 12 PPG, 5 RPG, and 4 APG in the last five games, shooting 51% from the field (3-for-5 from 3-point range!) and 79% from the free throw line. While he will need offensive help from his friends if Mizzou is going to make more noise in the tourney this year, there's no question that we are going to see the best version of Jesus Tyrannosaurus for the rest of his time in black and gold.
Before the 2007-08 academic year began, Mizzou fans caught wind of a potential transfer coming to Columbia, and they (myself included) really could not have been less excited. Even the MUtigers.com write-up was only semi-impressive.
"We are certainly happy to have Zaire come aboard," Head Coach Mike Anderson said. "He gives us size and depth in the backcourt, along with versatility both offensively and defensively. We feel like he can develop into a defensive stopper for our program, a guy who can guard another team's top perimeter scorer. We liked Zaire's athleticism and above all, we feel like he is a player that does all the little things that can help a team be successful."...
The versatile guard enjoyed a strong freshman campaign for Delaware in 2005-06, earning Colonial Athletics Association All-Rookie honors with averages of 6.8 points and 3.2 rebounds in 25 starts (30 games). Known for his passing ability and defensive prowess, Taylor led Delaware with 112 assists (3.7 apg.) and 68 steals (2.3 spg.) and his 3.3 steals per contest paced all Colonial Athletics Association performers. Taylor opened his freshman season with 22 points against The Citadel, the most ever by a Delaware freshman in his debut and the sixth-highest scoring total by a UD freshman in school history. Taylor was also named CAA Rookie of the Week on Jan. 3, 2006, and later scored 17 points, grabbed a career high eight boards, had five assists and four steals against Drexel on Feb. 11.
We're giving a scholarship to a guy who averaged 6.8 points per game at Delaware? Really? Even as we got to see him in action a little bit before the 2008-09 season, the only platitude I could manage for him in our Rock M preview was "Jason Horton + better defense - a bit of quickness + likeability." Atch only came up with "long-limbed disruptor." In his first 13 games in black and gold, he managed just 4.3 points per game, shooting 27% from 3-point range and offering little of the upperclassman leadership Mizzou needed.
But Mizzou fans would start to learn about Mr. Big Shot's sense of The Moment.
Just three years after losing his scholarship, his apartment, and just about everything he had upon announcing his intention to transfer from Delaware ... just two and a half years after arriving in Columbia ... just fourteen months after looking like a role player at best, Zaire Taylor is Mr. Coffee. With his game-winning shots over Texas and Kansas, he brought the 2008-09 to a different level, and with more game-winners against Kansas State and Iowa State this year, he has kept the 2009-10 season afloat. In just two years, he has staked a claim for being the most clutch player in Mizzou history. If this program's trajectory continues upward after he leaves (or even if it doesn't), we will always have him to thank for that. He is Mizzou's sixth-leading scorer, and his value cannot possibly be overstated.
Speaking of understated ... of the three departing seniors, the 2010-11 Mizzou team might miss Keith Ramsey most of all. If Mizzou and Clemson played six overtimes today (and god, I hope they don't), Ramsey could play all 70 minutes. The U.S. Olympic Volleyball team's loss (that really is his true calling in life, whether he's ever touched a volleyball or not) is Mizzou's gain -- Ramsey runs and jumps and bodies up and runs and jumps some more. He is DeMarre with more hops and less offense, and though the player envisioned in the recruiting process...
Ramsey has plenty of size, but is not a typical low-block player. He lists his versatility as his biggest selling point.
"I'm a driver. I can put the ball on the floor and my shooting is really good. I shoot it very well for being 6-8," Ramsey said. "I can do both, but I'd rather play outside."
...wasn't exactly the player we got or the player Ramsey became, I'm not sure you could find many Rock M'ers who would want anything different than what we got. He is the quintessential Mike Anderson role player, and it is impossible trying to picture him playing for any other team.
Mizzou entered last year's Elite Eight game knowing that they had an extreme size disadvantage against big, strong UConn, but thanks to Ramsey and Justin Safford, Mizzou damn near won the frontcourt battle. They combined for 17 points, and Ramsey's dunk with 13:35 left in the game gave Mizzou a one-point lead. The "Holy crap, we could actually win this thing" moment that he provided is something we'll remember for a while.
The 2009-10 team could have used one more scorer on it, and we knew that heading into the season, but what they have gotten from Ramsey, especially in light of Safford's knee injury (plus Bowers' wrist injury, for that matter), is non-stop effort and bounce, and I think we all know we'll be getting the same today (and hopefully Sunday).
As Missouri fans, clearly we're all excited about the future. We're bringing in big-time recruits, we've got big-time youth already, and we have watched Mike Anderson transform the Mizzou basketball program from that of Ricky Clemons and Athenagate to that of Mr. Coffee, Junkyard Dog, Jesus Tyrannosaurus, Kimmeh, Party Starter, Soul Crusher, etc. This team is likable and tough, and you get the distinct impression that, starting with the seniors, they love this university and each other. And they're back in the NCAA Tournament despite losing almost as much senior leadership as a team can lose last year.
To Zaire Taylor, J.T. Tiller and Keith Ramsey, the Staten Island, Marietta, and Murfreesboro natives who have represented a foreign state with more class, energy and pride than could ever be expected from student athletes: I hope I get to see you play six more games in a Mizzou uniform, but just know that if it all ends in 40 minutes, I won't be broken up about it for too long. Mizzou matters again, and that is due as much to the three of you as anybody else. Anything else from here on out is just icing, just a victory lap. No matter how innocuous or unheralded your time here may have begun, you leave as saviors of a proud program, revivers of a flagging fanbase, and all I can say to you at this point ...
...is thank you.