From the time Mike Anderson announced he was leaving Mizzou to take the Arkansas job, things haven’t been going well in Columbia, Missouri. After losing their coaching staff, the Tigers stumbled through their coaching search, finally landing on relative no name Frank Haith.
After Haith took over, top recruit Otto Porter picked Georgetown over Mizzou. Then Yahoo Sports dropped their massive Miami recruiting violation article, in which Frank Haith was one of the main offenders.
After that had started to die down, the Tigers’ best defender, and probably best player, Laurence Bowers tore his ACL, ending his season. Needless to say, expectations weren’t terribly high for Mizzou fans.
That all changed this week. Mizzou trudged through the first part of their schedule, winning easy home games against lackluster opponents. The CBE Classic was supposed to be the true test of how good the team would be this season. The answer is: really, really good.
The Tigers completely destroyed Notre Dame on Monday night with a combination of speed and great shooting. They followed that up with an even more convincing win over 18th ranked California. The message has been sent, Mizzou isn’t going to slug through this season, they are going to make a lot of noise in the Big 12.
The style isn’t even close to the same this season. Gone are the days of constant full court pressure. The gambling full court defense has been replaced by an active, half court defense that emphasizes ball pressure. Leading the charge is sophomore Phil Pressey, last year willing to allow his man a free path to the basket, Pressey is arguably the best on ball defender the Tigers have. He’s pestered opposing point guards all season, refusing to let down even as the shot clock ticks down.
Perhaps most shocking isn’t the defensive improvement, but the fact that the improvement has seemingly come from great coaching. Last year the Tigers didn’t try very hard on defense, especially once the shot clock started to run down. Some reporters have speculated that Mike Anderson checked out mentally last season, and it showed. Frank Haith is the complete opposite. His team is fighting and battling on defense, pressuring the ball, funneling their man into the middle, where Steve Moore and Ricardo Ratliffe are somewhat imposing forces (when they aren’t fouling people).
Offensively, Missouri is even more unselfish than they were in years past. Their four guard lineups have created great mismatches, and taken advantage of lazy, slow defense. Mizzou’s biggest advantage on offense this season is speed, and they have Mike Anderson to thank for that. Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon are almost always faster than the man guarding them, and they have been living in the paint this year. Their ability to get to the hoop and draw fouls will prove invaluable all season.
Also of note is Kim English, who has not only been hitting a lot of his shots this season (57% for the season), but playing within himself. Last season he tried to hard to make himself some sort of NBA player, instead of playing to his strengths. Now he’s cut down on the ill-advised drives to the hoop, and stopped fading away on his open jumpers. The result a 16 points per game average, along with five rebounds and two assists.
Finally, Marcus Denmon, the star. Denmon isn’t just on pace to make the All-Big 12 team, he’s probably going to be an All-American. Maybe not first team, but almost certainly second team. He might also be able to win Big 12 Player of the Year. Denmon is a complete offensive player, combining great three-point shooting with a great ability to drive to the hoop. He’s also a fearless rebounder, and an above-average defender. Two years ago, it looked like Kim English would be the star player on this team, but now, Denmon is, and it isn’t even close.
This isn’t all to say the Mizzou is the perfect team, they are not. Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore still can’t play defense without fouling. Kadeem Green probably can’t play extended minutes against Big 12 competition. Baylor and Kansas are going to give Mizzou a ton of trouble with their big men.
Still, this week in Kansas City, the expectation for Mizzou this season changed. A run to the Sweet Sixteen and perhaps beyond is totally conceivable. That is something that didn’t seem possible when the season began.