What a journey Missouri fans have found themselves on over the the past eight months. Wowza.
The wildest, weirdest and wonderful offseason of 2017 has turned the Tigers expectations inside-out and upside-down. From SEC doormats in February 2017 to healthy odds of reaching the Final Four in San Antonio in early April 2018. We all know the chronicle of the madness by now.
It’s easy to get ahead of ourselves here. Mizzou fans are (understandably) expecting bigger and better things to come, but at the end of the day, this is a roster featuring six newcomers. Team chemistry won’t be immediate. But after the anguish of watching a combined eight conference wins in three years, optimism is certainly a welcome change.
The mediocrity of the Kim Anderson era was a significant low point in Tiger basketball history. Before Anderson, Mizzou had never won 10 or fewer games in a season since Norm Stewart’s first season at the helm in 1967-68. Anderson’s best season saw 10 wins.
The key factor of Mizzou’s grand plan to take the college basketball world by storm may not involve anything that Cuonzo Martin implemented during his time in Columbia.
The man we’re talking about is an extension of the Anderson days.
Having seen two of the worst seasons in Mizzou history, a certain scrappy, pass-first point guard may be the catalyst for one of the best. Yes, a certain highly-heralded freshman will be sure to grab the accolades before he likely jets off to the NBA next spring, but he isn’t the end-all, be-all for the squad.
This player may be what separates Missouri from the failures of several other “place-a-Wonderkid-on-an-average-team” experiments, a la LSU with Ben Simmons or Markelle Fultz at Washington.
That player is Terrence Phillips.
Terrence Phillips? The guy who lost his starting spot to a freshman (Blake Harris) in the scrimmage vs. Kansas last month, and didn’t outperform him in similar minutes played? The guy who has a tendency to become turnover-prone with the ball in his hands?
Yep, him. And his value to the team means a lot more than just a few statistics.
Assuming that Phillips stays all four years, he would be the first key Tiger guard to use all of his eligibility in Columbia since Marcus Denmon. In a tumultuous time period of transfers stretching from 2012 to the present, Phillips has been a constant.
Terrence loves Mizzou and has a mission to do all he can to promote not just athletics, but the university as a whole. One look at his Twitter page features a collage of hyping up anything positive to do with Mizzou, in addition to representing both the university and the SEC as chair of the conference’s Men’s Basketball Leadership Council.
It’s great to see Phillips rewarded for his patience by being surrounded with multiple offensive weapons this season, but we could’ve expected the same effort given by him even if 2017-18 was to be the beginning of a rebuilding project, as was expected in the immediate aftermath of Anderson’s firing.
That type of loyalty and genuine love for the program is something that can’t be taught.
Martin seems to have signified to Phillips, a two-year starter, that his starting spot is up for grabs. It’ll likely take a few more games or even weeks before his competition with Harris is set in stone.
Harris showed flashes of how he could contribute against Kansas, being a main cog in helping Mizzou storm back from a deficit late against the Jayhawks with a few key assists and buckets. However, there were moments — notably when he missed two free throws with under two minutes left that could’ve cut the KU lead to five — where Harris’ inexperience got the better of him.
Granted, playing your first game of collegiate basketball in front of a sold-out arena against your school’s most hated rival has got to be absolutely terrifying. And at the end of the day, it was only a scrimmage. But it’s likely going to take Harris, like all of the freshman who played that day, some time to get used to the speed and pace of the college game.
Whether Harris or Phillips gets the start eventually is yet to be seen, but the latter would bring familiarity to a team that has little of it. Say that Martin picks Phillips at the point guard slot and goes with the Kansas lineup the rest of the way: Kassius Robertson, Jordan Barnett, Michael Porter, Jr. and Jeremiah Tilmon.
Remove Phillips, and the four remaining players have a combined 23 total games of experience in a Tiger uniform. Phillips, meanwhile, has 63. Having a guy who has been through the ringer with Mizzou, while knowing what to expect in going through two SEC conference schedules, can help.
Players like Kevin Puryear and Cullen VanLeer have had similar journeys, but the implementation of Phillips would be the best option if Martin is to combine the offseason talent influx with as much prior experience as possible.
It’s awesome to be excited for Mizzou hoops once again. A transformation from doormat to NCAA tourney hopeful has never been this sudden, with this many twists and turns. It’s completely OK to dream unreasonably, in my opinion, because we never may see an offseason like this in Mizzou — hell, maybe even college basketball — history again.
But as we’ve seen in several cases similar to Mizzou’s, overhauls do not solidify promises of gold and glory. Some elements of what the state of the program was pre-overhaul must be retained, to reestablish a sense of balance among the old and the new.
Phillips is the link, and whatever his role may be on the Mizzou Arena floor these next six months, know that he’s left all of his effort on it.