The dark winter behind us, we embark anew.
March 11th, eight months and a couple days ago, the darkest chapter in living memory for Missouri basketball came to a merciful close. Once the door closed on the 2014-15 season, most Mizzou fans walked away and tried to forget the previous five months of disappointment. Throughout the offseason, the Tigers and the Athletic Department tried to change the narrative from the disastrous inaugural season for Kim Anderson. Eventually, the memory of how badly last season went wore off and we started to regain hope that maybe there was a plan, and that rock bottom was needed to head back up. Forgetting for a moment that the Tigers lost 3 of their top 4 scorers from a team that struggled to score, and their top two recruits from the past two years.
But still, we have hope. At the very least, college basketball is back, and that's wonderful. When you start the season there is hope for everyone, even a team that finished last in their league and only won 10 games. The players and coaches all say the right things, and if you keep in that echo chamber, you start to believe it. So I have, to a degree. I expect this team to be an improved version of last years team. How much improved? Getting to 15 or 16 wins is going to be a struggle. They have some pieces, but they're still a vastly inexperienced team in need of strength and maturity.
To make matters a little bit worse, their opening opponent has both of those things. The Wofford Terries have a plan in place. they have an experienced Coach in Mike Young who is in his 14th season at the helm, and has made the NCAA tournament four times in the last six years. This is a program that expects to win, and expects to be good. They beat NC State on the road last season, and nearly beat Arkansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament as a 12 seed. So they know how to win. And this is a game that should worry Mizzou fans, and it worried a few of us when the schedule came out.
Let's take a moment to hear from Todd Shanesy, who covers the Terriers for GoUpstate.com (Spartanburg, SC online newspaper):
ROCKMNATION: Head Coach Mike Young has been at Wofford for 14 seasons, how would you describe his style as a coach, and the level of success that he's had at Wofford?
Todd Shanesy: Young's success at Wofford has been remarkable. The Terriers have been to the NCAA tournament four times in the past six seasons, and this from a one-bid league. His style has been to have his players pride themselves on defense and unselfishness. They will use most of the shot clock on both ends of the floor, shortening the games and giving themselves the best chance, especially against opponents from power conferences.
ROCKMNATION: Who are the players on the roster you feel will be the key to Wofford's season and continued success this year?
Wofford's top returning scorer is guard Spencer Collins, who is the remaining piece from a threesome of 1,000-point players and all-time greats. He will be counted on this year, as a senior, to take the lead role as a reliable scorer. The Terriers also have an unflappable quarterback in point guard Eric Garcia, a junior who has started since his first days on campus. Justin Gordon is a dynamic and flashy frontcourt player.
ROCKMNATION: Missouri has a young roster, how do you think Wofford will try to take advantage of the Tigers inexperienced roster?
I'm not sure Young and his staff will look to attack any perceived weaknesses at the start, although they will certainly make adjustments from what they see during the game. Young is more concerned with the overall development of his squad in building that crescendo toward Southern Conference play. I do think the Terriers will use their depth and talent at the guard spots to dictate play.
ROCKMNATION: Lastly, how do you see this game playing out? Who wins, and do you have a final score prediction?
Wofford has a terrific backcourt of experienced players and a group of post players that did well in their last game, a 56-53 loss to a much bigger Arkansas team in the NCAA tournament. The Terriers will try to keep this game in the 50s as well. Missouri should have the edge in what may be a much better season than the Tigers had a year ago. But it would not be surprising to see Wofford come out with a win.
For the latest on Wofford, give Todd a follow:
A few keys to the game:
Wofford is a tough team because they dominate pace of play, and they slow it down. To give you an idea, Missouri played slow last year, and Wofford was even slower than Mizzou. So what the Tigers need to do to change things up, they need to push the ball and take advantage of their superior athleticism by getting out and pushing pace. If the Tigers push the game into the upper 60's for points, or even into the 70s, they'll have a clear advantage.
2) Three Point Shooting
The Tigers need to shoot the ball well, obviously that's going to help anyone, but this team had a hard time making shots last year, and they didn't in the exhibition game. The Tigers shot the lights out, scoring more than 90 points. They won't need to do that well to beat Wofford, but they need to improve on what they were a season ago. The roster is better set up from a year ago to have success from the outside, but they have to prove it against a strong physical team.
3) Freshmen Confidence
The big storyline from the exhibition game was the play of the young freshmen, Terrence Phillips, K.J. Walton and Kevin Puryear all played exceptionally well a week ago. They'll need to play every bit that well against a much tougher opponent. If those three are on top of their game and contributing big minutes, you should see a Tigers win.
I don't have a great read on this game because I don't have a great read on this team yet. They'll come into the tipoff with more talent and more athleticism, but short on experience. If Wofford is able to dictate the pace, and the Tigers struggle to make shots, it's really difficult to see them pulling off the win. My hope is that the coaching staff has impressed upon this young team how important it is to get off to a good start, and with that they are able to do what is needed to pull out the win.
Pressed for a prediction, I would take the experience and say Wofford wins a close one, 57 - 53.