Tigers' finish offers hope for future

Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Missouri's Marcus Denmon shoots over West Virginia's Joe Mazzulla during the first half of their game Sunday in Buffalo, N.Y. (DAVID DUPREY ~ Associated Press)

ST. LOUIS -- Considering it was a program in transition, Missouri's season turned out rather well.

The Tigers were one of only three schools to lose three 1,000-point scorers and make a return trip to the NCAA tournament, along with Syracuse and Marquette. Little was expected of the East Regional's 10th seed, especially coming off a dispiriting setback to last-place Nebraska in the opening round of the Big 12 tournament and the team battling injuries. But Tigers coach Mike Anderson was able to get players back into gear.

Missouri (23-11) was impressive in the first round against Clemson and fought to the finish against No. 2 seed West Virginia without forward Justin Safford (right knee) and with another forward, Laurence Bowers (left wrist), playing hurt. Both are due to undergo surgery this week.

A positive to the early Big 12 exit was time to rest and reload. Players had fresh legs to execute Anderson's full-court press, shake off the Nebraska debacle and other late-season woes and build a bit of momentum for next season.

All in all, not bad for a school that had to replace DeMarre Carroll, Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence from a 31-win team that finished one win shy of the Final Four. The 54-win total the last two seasons is second-best in school history.

"It depends on how you look at the hour glass, you can look at it half-full or half-empty," Anderson said. "I think a lot of people wrote that we are probably going to be half-empty.

"It was half-full, and with that being said it kind of evolved, and I think these guys put themselves into position to almost do some of the same things they did last year."

Inexperience showed for much of the season. There were too many forced shots wasting possessions, not enough of an inside game, no clear go-to guy.

Kansas handed out a pair of spankings. The Tigers were two wins shy of tying the school record for consecutive home victories before mailing it in against Texas A&M.

They grew up just in time to make a mark. Missouri battled West Virginia on even terms, leaning on defense to compensate for 20-of-61 shooting from the field and 12 of 20 from the free-throw line. The Mountaineers went more than 12 minutes between baskets during one stretch and led by only three with just less than five minutes to play before finally pulling away.

"Nobody had the dominant hand," senior guard J.T. Tiller said. "I don't think anybody imposed their will fully."

There won't be as many gaping holes to fill next season. Tiller was one of the conference's top defenders during his career. Fellow guard Zaire Taylor often was a clutch late-game performer who also provided floor leadership. Forward Keith Ramsey was an effective big man running the floor and peaked against Clemson with 20 points.

There's plenty for Anderson to build around including sophomore Kim English, an explosive scoring threat who often was a barometer for the team's fortunes this season. English averaged a team-leading 14 points and hit 68 3-pointers, tied for the lead with fellow sophomore Marcus Denmon.

Denmon (10.4) and Bowers (10.2) averaged double figures off the bench, freshman Mike Dixon developed consistency and had 15 points against West Virginia, and Safford's inside-outside play was missed late in the season.

Top recruits are on the way, too, led by 6-foot-8, 220-pound Tony Mitchell of Dallas. Mitchell was ranked the 15th best overall prospect in the nation by rivals.com and is the school's highest-rated recruit in 15 years.

Mitchell was rated the No. 2 player in Texas, just ahead of another recruit, point guard Phil Pressey of Dallas. Pressey is a son of New Orleans Hornets assistant coach Paul Pressey, an 11-year NBA veteran.

"We'll get back and find out who those guys are going to be," Anderson said. "Obviously, there's going to be some playing time there."

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