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basketball

Sweet dreams

The Tigers are rested and ready for 2010-2011

basketball

Coach Mike Anderson reads a bedtime story to, from left, Laurence Bowers, Marcus Denmon and Kim English. The Tigers have big dreams for this season.

The story of junior Kim English camping out at Mizzou Arena has become folklore at the University of Missouri. Fans envision him shooting jump shots alone like a real-life Jimmy Chitwood, his swishes and shoe squeaks echoing in the cavernous space. As English scoops up the ball and heads to his makeshift bed — a recliner in the training room near the lockers — he hits the lights. A cool fall mist settles outside beneath a moonlit Midwestern sky. When he wakes before dawn, he’ll have time for a few more reps on Norm Stewart Court before heading to class. Cue the music. It's that gym-rat commitment that has made the shooting guard from Baltimore the Tigers’ top scorer and a team leader. Younger players such as freshman guard Phil Pressey and sophomore guard Mike Dixon, among others, have followed his example: practicing, then crashing, at the 24-hour facility. But English downplays the notion that the 2010-11 Tigers have any single leader. “Guys may look up to me, but the way we play, it’s never one guy,” he says. “At some point, everyone will be a leader, and everyone will be a follower. It’s like a round table. Everyone takes something from everyone.

Coach Mike Anderson describes The Fastest 40 Minutes of Basketball as an “exciting brand,” and there’s no disputing the playing style’s national recognition. The tagline adorns everything in the program, from arena signs to TV ads. Announcers begin telecasts with the phrase, repeat it during fast breaks and extol the frustrating ramifications for opponents during the postgame analysis. It’s a strategy that has, in many ways, eclipsed the star power of the team’s individuals, which is just fine with Coach A. “Guys understand their roles on this team, and they know they’ll all get a chance to shine,” Anderson says.

A 23-11 record last season was proof positive that Missouri is perennially a team to watch in March regardless of roster turnover. Many pundits predicted a down year for Mizzou after a 31-win 2008–09 campaign. But the Tigers posted a respectable 10-6 Big 12 record, finished in the top 30 nationally in team scoring and fell to eventual Final Four representative West Virginia 68-59 in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. There is no doubt that Anderson’s players have bought into the unselfish system. Case in point, last year’s top three leading scorers, all of whom return this season, were separated by only 3.8 average points per game. English led with 14 points, followed by junior guard Marcus Denmon with 10.4 and junior forward Laurence Bowers with 10.2.

But English downplays the notion that the 2010-11 Tigers have any single leader. “Guys may look up to me, but the way we play, it’s never one guy,” he says. “At some point, everyone will be a leader, and everyone will be a follower. It’s like a round table. Everyone takes something from everyone.

In that system, however, defense leads to offense, and Mizzou led the nation in forced turnovers with 659, thanks in large part to two of the best perimeter defenders Anderson has ever produced: Zaire Taylor and J.T. Tiller. Taylor and Tiller have graduated, but the guard position is again deep in 2010–11. Dixon (Kansas City, Mo.) leads all returning players with 55 assists last season, and he led all guards with a .470 shooting percentage. Denmon says he feels healthier than ever, and the Kansas City, Mo., native has set a high personal bar for the season. Knee surgery after his freshman season slowed him down during his sophomore season, though he has steadily improved despite the setback. “I got my confidence back this summer,” Denmon says. “Now I’m hoping to step into more of a leadership role to teach these new guys how we play.”

Those new guys include the Pressey brothers, guards Matt and Phil (Dallas). Matt is a junior transfer from Navarro College (Corsicana, Texas), and Phil is one of the top incoming freshman guards in the country, according to numerous talent-rating websites. Both the Presseys and incoming freshman guard Ricky Kreklow (Columbia) have NBA fathers. Paul Pressey spent most of his career with the Milwaukee Bucks, and Wayne Kreklow — Mizzou’s head volleyball coach — played a season with the 1980–81 NBA Champion Boston Celtics. Junior guard Jarrett Sutton (Kansas City, Mo.), a long-ball launching fan favorite and former walk-on, could see action in higher-pressure situations this season, according to Anderson. “We’ve got so many weapons that any guy can step on the floor and light it up,” Sutton says. “Whatever my role is, I’m happy with it because I think we’ve got a great team here, and I think we’re going to go a long way.”

The Tigers discovered forward Justin Safford’s value when he tore his left ACL against Colorado on Feb. 24, 2010, in Columbia. Mizzou went 1-2 to close out the regular season without Safford (Bloomington, Ill.) and struggled to find consistent offensive production from the post. The team’s only senior had surgery to repair the knee on March 15, and he has regained strength this offseason for an early return in 2010–11. “I had to watch from the sidelines this summer during pickup games because I was rehabbing,” says Safford, who retook the court in September. “It’s easier to be vocal on the floor. [The underclassmen] can see I know what I’m talking about and that I’m not crazy.”

Like English and Denmon, Bowers (Memphis, Tenn.) established himself as a scoring leader last season. His length and quickness make him what coach calls “a highlight waiting to happen. “He’s one of our most consistent players, and I’d like to see him broaden his game this season and continue to do the blue-collar things like rebounding and blocking shots,” Anderson says. Junior center Steve Moore (Kansas City, Mo.) has drastically improved since his freshman year and hopes time spent playing in Europe this offseason will help his confidence. The strongest player on the team, Moore has added muscle to his already enormous frame. Power forward Ricardo Ratliffe (Hampton, Va.) is a junior college transfer who joins the team in 2010–11. The 6-foot-8, two-time National Junior College Athletic Association All-American averaged 27.4 points and 11.3 rebounds per game for Central Florida Community College last season. Fans remember forward John Underwood (Phoenix) stepping in after Safford’s injury last season. Anderson hopes the sophomore will emerge off the bench as a shot blocker. Freshman Kadeem Green (Charlotte, N.C.) is a 6-foot-8 forward from United Faith Christian Academy, a team that won back-to-back state championships. The Tigers coaching staff is also hopeful forward Tony Mitchell (Dallas), another highly regarded recruit, will be able to clear up eligibility issues and join the team mid-season.

“We talk a lot about progressing from year to year,” Anderson says. “This team has the potential to be one of the deepest we’ve ever had here, and with the style we play, that could really be to our benefit.”

Five players have moved on from last year’s squad, and the 2010–11 Tigers have plenty of new faces. But in the modern college basketball landscape of one-and-done players who leave early for the NBA, the moment must be seized regardless of a team’s experience level. Anderson is confident this team will rise to the challenge.

“When I recruit, I recruit winners,” he says. “That’s something all my players have in common — a desire to win.” Nothing illustrates that desire quite like English and his teammates snoozing soundly in the Mizzou Arena locker room while they dream of cutting down nets in faraway cities. Sleep tight, Tigers. You’ll need your rest.

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