Mizzou basketball was right there last year. They were right there. A talent-laden starting five with two NBA-bound seniors on the wings that rolled through the Big 12 tournament like they were bound for Final Four glory. Then, Kyle O'Quinn and the Norfolk State
I can't even remember their mascot Spartans couldn't miss a galdarn shot and Phil Pressey missed a game-winning shot as time expired.
The plug was pulled on what was sure to be a special season.
Now, the 2012-13 schedule begins tonight with an exhibition tilt against the Northwest Missouri State Bearcats. Excitement is high and expectations are soaring for a team that made more offseason additions than the New York Yankees. Earnest Ross, Keion Bell and most notably Alex Oriakhi and Jabari Brown, headline one of, if not the best transfer classes in Missouri basketball history. Mike Dixon, Pressey and Laurence Bowers are the only recognizable names that return to the court at the Dutch Oven.
Oh yeah, Mizzou also begins play in a new conference that sets up nicely for them to contend right off the bat.
As a lifelong Missouri Tiger fan, I'm weary to make any bold predictions for this team. I fully expected the Tigers to win a national championship in the early 2000s. I was certain Mizzou would at least make the Elite Eight last year. I'm still perplexed as to how Norm Stewart never took any of his great teams to the Final Four in his many decades as the greatest coach in Mizzou basketball history.
Of course, the high expectations during late summer this year took a dent when Dixon was suspended indefinitely for violating team rules. Of course, everyone assumed it was for drug violations, but people I talk to with great connections to the basketball program say that Dixon was having academic difficulties, but is not ineligible and are certain that he'll be back for the Battle 4 Atlantis pre-season tournament, in which Mizzou will play Stanford in the first round. Other notable teams in the tournament are Northern Iowa (!), Louisville, Memphis (!), Duke (!) and VCU (!!!).
The table is set for the Tigers to make a strong early impression on the NCAA selection committee. The field at B4A is perhaps the most impressive of all the pre-season tournaments and a good showing by the Tigers in November might go a long way in March.
The Tigers finally have something they haven't had in forever. A strong post presence. Laurence Bowers is one of the most athletic big men in Mizzou history, but how he will perform after missing an entire season due to a knee injury remains to be seen. Alex Oriakhi was highly saught after UConn players were granted unconditional transfer status after the NCAA uncovered several violations and threw the book at Jim Calhoun and the Huskies. With Pressey's ball distribution skills, Oriakhi and Bowers are sure to pad their PPG, as we saw with Steve Moore and Ricardo Ratliffe last season.
Which brings me to the main reason Mizzou fans should be optimistic: the back court.
With Pressey and Dixon, the Tigers have one of the best back courts in the NCAA. Dixon may be better known as a shooter and lockdown defender, but his ball skills are vastly underrated. When it comes to Pressey, he's climbing the ranks of Mizzou point guard elite. Plus, who doesn't love a 6-foot guy that can dunk?
Now for the straw that stirs the drink. Frank Haith shocked everyone with his coaching performance last year. I had never seen a meltdown like the meltdown that Mizzou fans (this one included) when Mike Alden missed out on Matt Painter and then hired the completely unknown Frank Haith.
Haith seemed to turn a negative into a positive, creating the "reconcile by winning" mantra and bringing a team that had been abandoned by Mike "He Who Must Not Be Named" Anderson. Then, Haith picked up the shattered pieces of a program that hadn't recruited a single player in Anderson's final season (thanks, dick) and brought in a slew of highly talented transfers.
Another big season by Haith and Tiger Nation will likely be worshiping the ground he walks on.
Bottom line is that Haith has turned around a seemingly fledgling program in two years and enamored himself with the Tiger faithful.
Big picture-wise, the Tigers are strong contenders to win the SEC in their first season and hopefully turn the tables on the members of a football-crazed conference that has routinely stomped all over the Tigers in five conference games thus far.
Time to show the good ol' boys how we do basketball here in the Midwest.