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The Tiger basketball team explores possibilities for the season


Great minds think alike. From left: Senior guard J.T. Tiller, business management; junior forward Justin Safford, undeclared; and senior guard Zaire Taylor, sociology, lead the 2009–10 Tigers. Photo by Rob Hill

Missouri Coach Mike Anderson is an even-tempered gentleman — when he’s not courtside bellowing at his players, that is. His personality and coaching philosophy stem from his values as a family man, which explains why his teams tend to be so tight-knit. They’re also tenacious, tough and instinctive. But when you ask him to characterize his current crop of Tigers, Anderson says it is yet to be determined.

“This team has to find its own identity,” he says. “But they are still going to have some characteristics of last year’s team.”

For Mizzou fans who rode the wave of the 2008–09 season, that’s just fine. The Tigers won a school-record 31 games, posted an 18-0 home record, won the Big 12 Tournament and reinvigorated Missouri basketball.

Anderson’s squad never lost two games in a row, beating Kansas and Texas in dramatic fashion during the regular season and stunning No. 2 Memphis in the Sweet Sixteen 102-91 March 26, 2009, in Glendale, Ariz.

Although the season ended in the desert two days later with an 82-75 loss to the University of Connecticut in the Elite Eight, Coach A’s signature style of play, The Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball, has gained national respect.

Now Anderson envisions a Final Four and even a national championship in Mizzou’s future. It is why, despite lucrative offers from other universities during the offseason, the coveted coach chose to stay in Columbia.

With the system firmly in place, Anderson has stamped his ID on the Missouri basketball program.

“We are going to be defensive-minded.”

Though last year’s squad was lauded for its depth, its persona was tethered to the dreadlocks of DeMarre Carroll, the all-conference forward selected by the Memphis Grizzlies in the first round of the NBA Draft.

Carroll, fellow forward Leo Lyons and 3-point specialist Matt Lawrence have moved on, taking with them nearly half of the Tigers’ average points per game.

Headlining this year is 6-foot-3 senior guard J.T. Tiller, the 2009 Big 12 co-Defensive Player of the Year who finished the season with an offensive flourish. A preseason candidate for the John R. Wooden Player of the Year, Tiller frequently draws comparisons to motors, bulldogs and Tasmanian cartoon characters. But around campus he’s known for his amiable disposition.

“If you ask someone about him, they’ll say, ‘J.T. Tiller always has a smile on his face,’ ” Anderson says.

Tiller — who tagged along with the coach as a freshman when Anderson arrived from the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2006 — averaged 13 points a game in the NCAA Tournament and posted a career-high 23 points against Memphis. He underwent surgery in April to repair a torn ligament in his right shooting wrist that had hindered him since February, but the injury helped him to develop a left-handed shot. He now represents the top returning scorer at 8.4 points per game.

It was Zaire Taylor’s clutch jumper that shocked the Jayhawks for a 62-60 MU home victory Feb. 9, 2009. As the other senior guard on a team with 11 players in their first or second year, Taylor brings back his cool efficiency. Last season he led the Big 12 with a 3.0 assist/turnover ratio.

The Tigers’ strength is unquestionably at the guard position, where sophomores Marcus Denmon, Kimmie English and Miguel Paul return after logging significant minutes last season. All three were instrumental during conference play and postseason, and freshman newcomer Mike Dixon will compete for playing time as well. Hard-working walk-on Jarrett Sutton, a junior guard, will also contribute when needed.

“We’re ready to get after it and play year ’round,” English says. “It’s not like in high school where after the season they hand out track uniforms. We’re basketball players.”

“We are going to be up-tempo.”

For the conditioned forward who likes to run the open floor, Anderson’s game plan is ideal. Carroll and Lyons thrived in the system, and sophomores Laurence Bowers, Steve Moore and senior Keith Ramsey are next in line.

The 6-foot-9 Ramsey returns as the Tigers’ best shot-blocker, and he will try to become more of an offensive presence in the paint where he averaged 3.6 points per game last season. At 6-foot-8, Bowers looks forward to a full, healthy season after struggling with a knee injury last year. The trimmed-down, 6-foot-9 Moore is a player Anderson has challenged to step up, and he is ready to make an impact at center after limited playing time in 2008–09.

Mizzou also welcomes a pair of freshman forwards in 6-foot-9 John Underwood and 6-foot-7 Tyler Stone.

But it’s 6-foot-8 junior Justin Safford, an occasionally explosive scorer who showed surprising range at times last season, who becomes the team’s most experienced forward. Safford’s nine points in 15 minutes against Connecticut helped spark a Missouri rally versus the top-seeded Huskies in March.

With post players fighting for minutes, Anderson hopes it will strengthen the Tigers’ frontcourt.

“The great thing about our team last year is that we had competition,” Anderson says. “Every day, it was easier for me to start a guy like Keith Ramsey because of the competition in practice.”

“No one plays the way we do. No one.”

With one second remaining in the first half of the West Regional semifinal, Denmon hurled a 60-foot shot to give Missouri a 49-36 lead over Memphis. It was a defining moment in a season peppered with defining moments.

The unforgettable basket symbolized the long-shot odds Mizzou had overcome to reach the Elite Eight for the third time in school history. Picked seventh in the conference during preseason, a team with modest expectations found itself on the brink of the Final Four.

Now Missouri’s frenetic strategy has drawn praise for showcasing instinctive athletes and wearing down the opposition. Players want to play for Anderson, and he and his staff welcomed the problem of a shortened recruiting calendar because of the deep March run.

“Last season’s success opened some doors for us,” Anderson says. “We had people calling us about players and high school coaches approaching us everywhere we went. People would come up to me and say, ‘I don’t even like basketball, but you guys were fun to watch.’ ”

Missouri is again picked to finish seventh in the conference. Regardless of the identity the 2009–10 Tigers ultimately assume, they won’t sneak up on Big 12 opponents this season. With committed players, rejuvenated faith in the program and a good coach, Mizzou has searched and found its engine. “Coach Anderson built the culture here,” Tiller says. “He’s instilled the belief in us and in Mizzou fans everywhere that we’re here to stay.”

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