As far away as two years ago, it was easy to think in wistful terms about the 2011-12 basketball season. Kim English, Laurence Bowers, Marcus Denmon and company would be seniors, and all would be right with the world ... as long as Mike Anderson stayed. Anderson's entire tenure revolved redemption and departure. Even before he left, Mizzou fans feared he would; that he did so right before the final season of his most successful recruiting class made it even worse.
We now sit on the doorstep of the 2011-12 season, and I cannot escape two thoughts: 1) I have no expectations whatsoever -- good or bad -- about the four to five months of basketball that await us. None. I am a blank slate, blanker even than before the 2008-09 season. 2) Man, have the last eight months been less than enjoyable for Mizzou basketball.
The Slump. As late as February 25, Mizzou sat at 22-6, 8-5 in the Big 12 conference. I listed them as a six-seed in Rock-M-Tology. The goal was a Top 4 seed in the Big 12 Tournament and a run to the Sweet 16. Missouri then lost five of six to end the season in incredibly unceremonious fashion. They ran out of steam at Kansas State, then laid an egg in Lincoln. They shot approximately 11% in a home loss to Kansas, barely sneaked by a poor Texas Tech team in the Big 12 Tournament, then got their doors blown off by Texas A&M. They reached the NCAA Tournament as an 11-seed, barely missing a berth in the play-in games, then got annihilated by Cincinnati to finish what was supposed to be a breakthrough season at a ho-hum 23-11. That expectations had risen to the point that "23-11 and a first-round loss" was an incredible disappointment was heartening. Everything else was not.
The Departure. After the season, Missouri fans' most annoying fears were realized when, not too long after announcing that he "wanted to retire" a Missouri Tiger, Mike Anderson took the Arkansas job. He proved he was as terrible at breaking up as I was in high school, driving Missouri's price outside of the logical range, leaving anyway, avoiding reporters and completely and immediately withdrawing emotionally from a program he helped to rebuild. Nobody is good at breaking up, and there is nothing he could have done to make Missouri fans happy with the arrangement, but he did nothing to decrease the sour taste left in fans' mouths.
The Tease. The Sports God really hit a home run during Missouri's ensuing coaching search. He took a scenario that not even the most optimistic Missouri fan thought was realistic -- Matt Painter leaving his alma mater for Missouri -- then set into motion a chain of events that eventually resulted in every Missouri fan believing it was possible. After a week of continuous live threads, we received two pieces of news within a short amount of time: 1) Matt Painter to Missouri was a done deal, and 2) nevermind, Painter is staying at Purdue. Mike Alden took the biggest risk of his career as athletic director in pursuing Painter, and the result was (as always) a faction of fans calling for his head.
The Unexpected. Within four days of the incredible disappointment of the Painter saga, Missouri had their head coach. And it was somebody nobody in a million years would have seen coming: Miami coach Frank Haith. Not Shaka Smart ... not Ben Jacobson ... hell, not even Steve Alford. Missouri hired a coach whose perceived (by Alden) potential outweighed his shaky record. Haith would spend the next few months building a strong and exciting staff, getting involved with quite a few intriguing recruits, doing wonderful work with Joplin recovery, and winning the hearts and minds of Missouri fans across the state. And then, in one afternoon...
The Scandal. We're never really going to know what role Nevin Shapiro played in recruiting DeQuan Jones -- cash payments are cash payments for a reason -- but the moment Yahoo! Sports' Charles Robinson published his epic report on Shapiro and the Miami Athletic Program, the damage was done. Haith denied any wrongdoing, as did his former assistant coaches and Jones' family, so the odds are good that the NCAA will not be able to punish Haith to any significant degree. It put a stench on the program that caused, or at least helped to cause, a few star recruits to look elsewhere. Mizzou was supposedly in the lead for five-star guard Rodney Purvis, but he committed to N.C. State. His friend 2013 recruit Tyrek Coger, then de-committed. Texas duo Danuel House and Chicken Knowles committed to Houston. Mizzou has secured commitments from a series of intriguing players -- Chicago guard Shawn Smith, West Virginia forward Negus Webster-Chan, JUCO power forwards Tony Criswell and (maybe) Quantel Denson, center Aaron Scales (another Purvis friend) -- with more potentially on the near horizon; but with such a pivotal class originally looking like it might end up of a Top 10 caliber, obvious damage was done, whether Haith was guilty or innocent.
The Injury. This year's senior class of Denmon, English, Bowers, Steve Moore, Matt Pressey and Ricardo Ratliffe has been through a lot in their time in Columbia, but they will be without one member for the 2011-12 season. Amid MIZZOUEXPANSIONAPALOOZA™ 2011 hubbub came news that Bowers had torn his ACL and would be out all season. As with Elvis Fisher's injury on the football team, pain in the present tense means better things in the future tense, and Bowers' presence on the 2012-13 team of newcomers will be welcome. But it meant that an already small team (Louisville forward George Goode had signed to play at Missouri, then changed to Fairleigh Dickinson for fear of playing time ... whoops) became infinitely smaller.
The Fresh Start. So Mizzou has lost Mike Anderson, Laurence Bowers (for a year) and any semblance of momentum. A glass-half-empty person would find plenty of reason for extreme pessimism. But "fresh start" is the theme for the Big 12 as a whole this year. With every team in the conference facing turnover, transition and clearly-defined weaknesses, whoever figures out what they have first, even if it is a four-guard lineup, will get a leg up in a wide open race. For all Missouri doesn't have, here's what they do: Marcus Denmon. Kim English. Ricardo Ratliffe. Mike Dixon, Jr. Flip Pressey. Steeeeeeeeeeeeeve. An intriguing X's and O's coach in Ernie Nestor. A new outlook on life. A new style of play. Things happen for a reason, and if this team is resilient and tough, that "reason" will be rather clear and positive. This season is an incredible blank slate, but with so many familiar characters, with a clutch leader in Denmon, with the most self-aware star in Mizzou history in English, with the quickest duo in the Big 12 in Pressey and Dixon, with Steve Moore finally getting the extended opportunity a large pocket of Missouri fans have desired for quite a while, Mizzou fans might still enjoy the result. Buckle up, check all of your expectations, both positive and negative, at the door, and come along for the ride.