Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A farewell to HCMA

"If you ever see me in a fight with a tiger or a bear, you better help that tiger or that bear out."
-Mike Anderson, when he was introduced as Missouri's head basketball coach on March 28, 2006... back when schools first formally announced such things with a press conference, not gaudy website banners.

My first thought? Good luck to coach Mike Anderson at Arkansas, his sort-of home. I'm excited about Missouri's future, and I hope he succeeds down there. That SEC West is a real bear. Except not at all. And besides, if he's in a fight with a bear or tiger, you better help the bear and tiger. Trouble is, he's got a lot of Tigers interested in fighting him after the way he handled his homecoming process.

My second thought? How could a brilliant agent, one as savvy as Anderson's Jimmy Sexton, make this such an ugly process? Maybe it had to be this way to get a coach with no Final Fours or "Power 6" conference titles more money than Roy Williams makes. Maybe his desire to keep it all under the radar backfired. Maybe he didn't trust his players, Twitter-crazed college kids, with any info. But make no mistake, this parting is ugly.

This afternoon, even this evening, "I know nothing" was a repeated quote from players. Media reports persist that the deal was done this afternoon, and the kids knew nothing. Had Anderson merely taken this, his dream job, had he formally went to Fayetteville for discussions in an up front manner, he would garner some sympathy here. But he hurt himself by wasting his time flirting with Oregon and Georgia last year. (Our football coach won't take calls from Michigan, college football's winningest program, but our basketball coach (apparently) entertained overtures from such luminaries of college basketball as Oregon and Georgia.)

So this thing felt like a tired routine from the get-go. Throw in his silence and the team's late-season collapse, and Anderson didn't have much goodwill left. And then throw in his comments just weeks ago about wanting to retire at Mizzou. Why even say something like that? Very risky thing for a coach to say. Recruits need to at least think you're believable. Lastly, the whole fiasco of "security" at the Columbia airport strong-arming reporters out of the way like this is Red China to keep them from lofting a "so, uh, what the hell is going on?" question at the coach.

But now it's done. I feel a lot like when Greinke pretty much engineered a trade out of Kansas City: a little upset, understanding of why pitcher/coach left, excited to move on. (To be fair, Greinke was the best pitcher in baseball in 2009, Anderson probably can't make that claim for any year yet.) But I don't really feel animosity in either case. Just regret that the Royals were so horrible Greinke couldn't take it any more, and regret that the Anderson situation became a situation, a circus, a saga. This is 2011; word gets out. Good grief.

I do appreciate what Anderson did. I know how bad thing were in 2005 and 2006, my freshman year at MU. The horrible blowout losses. The older guy in the student section with his "Clean House" sign who didn't want to leave and drew more attention than the sad sack game. The sea of empty seats. The 11th-place finish.

Anderson did turn things around. But I do wonder just a bit if the turnaround Anderson led is maybe, maybe just a bit overstated. He didn't take the team to the brink of a regular season conference title. The Elite Eight run was huge, arguably my most special moment as a Mizzou fan, but losing three of his last four NCAA Tournament games at Mizzou cooled some of the March enthusiasm. Still, he did get Mizzou back in the NCAA Tournament, consistently.

Anderson went 43-37 in Big 12 play, shockingly similar to Gary Pinkel's 42-38 mark in Big 12 games. Yes, he was starting from scratch, but so was half the league that season. Anderson was one of six new coaches introduced for the 2006-07 season, many taking over for coaches who had flamed out and drove off the fan base.

After the supernova 2008-09 season, MU got two games worse in league play each of the last two years. They couldn't even hang with Kansas State and Texas in the tier of teams chasing league bully KU. Missouri was second in the league in Norm's last season, and they still haven't finished that high in the post-Norm era. The 2009 win over Kansas was a classic, enduring memory for me, but it was Anderson's only win in 10 tries against the Jayhawks. It just didn't quite feel like he brought the program all the way back.

So yes, he took the program from a smoking crater to a good, respectable team. Greatness eluded him and appeared to fading further away, but he should be commended for a fine five-year tenure at Mizzou. Last but certainly not least, he always seemed to be a gracious, generous man. He was thoughtful, accommodating and professional when I covered a press conference of his.

Now, lastly, more important than whatever state Anderson leave the program is how Missouri does making its next hire. What keeps the Kansas basketball machine humming in recent decades? Great coaching hires. I've heard a lot of interesting names and it's pointless for me to speculate here, but it can't be overstated: this hire is crucial. With a big, suddenly extra-motivated senior class, the Tigers could win right away. Now it's Athletic Director Mike Alden's move. He made a fine hire last time the basketball job was open (possibly/likely after having Gary Link make the basketball job open (ah, memories)). Tiger fans hope he can land a great hire, one to knock on that Final Four door.

And, one more time, thanks and good luck, Coach Anderson. We had some great times: the win over Kansas, beating Blake Griffin and the Sooners on my Senior Day, the 2009 tourney run/road trip and the rousing ovation when he stood with his principles and a depleted roster in a crucial game against Nebraska. His words to Mizzou in the Arkansas statement announcing him as its new head basketball coach:

"I would like to thank Athletic Director Mike Alden, Chancellor Brady Deaton and Deputy Chancellor Michael Middleton for their support during my five years at the University of Missouri," Anderson said. "I am also grateful to the student-athletes, coaches, staff, students and the Tiger fans that were a part of helping us bring winning basketball back to the University of Missouri. Together, we enjoyed tremendous success. My family and I will always be thankful for the opportunity we had to be at the University of Missouri."

Monday, March 21, 2011

Tigers stumble to season's end, questions lie ahead

The Missouri Tigers’ 2010-11 basketball season began with promise as the team rolled to a 14-1 record in its nonconference games, the only loss in overtime to a strong Georgetown team. The season ended with a thud last week in Washington, D.C., a 78-63 loss to Cincinnati in the Tigers’ opening NCAA Tournament game.

Colorado rocked Missouri to open Big 12 play, and from that game through the loss to Cincinnati, the Tigers sputtered to a 9-10 record, finishing 23-11 overall and 8-8 in Big 12 play.

Missouri lost five of six to close the season, including back-to-back 15-point losses in the final two games. Missouri’s lone win in that stretch, by four over a Texas Tech team with the worst overall record in the Big 12, likely kept the Tigers in the tournament, as they were one of the last five at-large bids selected, based on their 11 seed.

Pretty much all of the Tigers’ key problems were on display against Cincinnati. Missouri, outrebounded by about five per game in conference play, was outrebounded 33-27. Missouri couldn’t force the turnovers it needed to compete, as the Bearcats only yielded 11 turnovers to Missouri’s eight. Cincinnati forward Yancy Gates did largely whatever he wanted, scoring 18 points while missing only one shot. And, unforgettably, Missouri’s offense was nonexistent for about a fourth of the game, going nearly 11 minutes without a field goal in the late first and early second halves. Missouri shot 38.1 percent for the game, while the Bearcats made 52.7 percent of their shots.

It was, on the bright side, a third straight NCAA Tournament season. But it was also a missed opportunity to win a game in the Big Dance for the third year in a row, a feat accomplished only one other time in Missouri basketball history, from 2001-03.

Now that it’s over, regardless of what happens with the persistent rumors linking coach Mike Anderson to the open Arkansas job, it feels like a crossroads moment for Missouri. Perhaps it’s this way every offseason. But Missouri’s conference record has declined by at least two wins in each of the last two seasons, from the 12-4 mark in the wonderful 2008-09 season to 10-6 last year to 8-8 this year. The team slipped from third to fifth to a tie for sixth in this span, falling far behind Texas and Kansas State in the seemingly unending race to knock Kansas of its perch atop the league. Under Anderson, the Tigers have never come within a game of winning the Big 12 regular season title.

But the Missouri program has talent, especially in its senior class, making next year so important. The seniors for next year include First Team All-Big 12 player Marcus Denmon, Laurence Bowers, Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe and Matt Pressey. Younger players like Mike Dixon and the occasionally brilliant Phil Pressey give the team obvious ability.

If this team is to ever reach a Final Four level, or win that first regular-season conference title since 1994, next year needs to be a progress year. The talent is there, like it was this year, but Missouri needs a lot of help inside. Devastating rebounding deficits can rob them of any advantage created by forcing turnovers. The team has to play better defense, has to consider it an affront to their honor to give up open shots in the half-court, not just an oh-well-it-happens thing. And yes, the team needs Kim English to think less and smile more on the court and let his hours of experience in the gym take over.

This season was a disappointment, but hope is certainly not lost. However, regardless of who coaches this team, next year is both an opportunity and a challenge for this program.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Which conferences succeed in March?

Save for the unfortunate result of the 2008 NCAA Tournament (Foul, Coach Cal, foul!), it seems to me that the Big 12 has struggled in the Big Dance in recent years. Really, the league lacks some punch historically, as only Kansas has won an NCAA title as a Big 7/8/12 member.

This year, the league's teams largely seemed to be seeded lower than expected (or excluded, if you're Colorado). This may be due to some lackluster nonconference schedules, but it may finally give the conference a chance to overachieve in the tournament. If teams play to their seed, the Big 12 would have just two Sweet 16 teams, and one team go to the Elite 8 and beyond (Kansas, the league's standard-bearer).

For some perspective on whether the Big 12 struggling in March is reality or just the product ofalways wanting a bit more, here's a look at which conferences the champions and Final Four participants have come from (based on membership during the tourneys in which the Final Fours and National Titles were achieved):

Last 5 years:
National Champions:
ACC- 2
SEC- 2
Big 12- 1
Final Fours
Big East- 4
ACC, Big Ten, SEC, Pac 10- 3
Big 12, Horizon, Colonial, C-USA- 1

Last 10 years:
National Champions:
ACC- 5
SEC- 2
Big East- 2
Big 12- 1
Final Fours
ACC- 9
Big Ten- 7
Big East, Big 12- 6
Pac 10- 4
Horizon, Colonial- 1

Since 1985 (the 64-65 team tournament era)
National Championships:
ACC- 8
SEC- 5
Big East- 4
Big Ten- 3
Big 8/12- 2
Pac 10- 2
Big West, Metro Conference- 1
Final Fours:
ACC- 24
Big Ten- 18
Big East- 14
SEC- 14
Big 8/12- 12
Pac 10- 9
C-USA- 3
Big West- 3
Horizon, Colonial, WAC, Great Midwest Conference, Metro Conference- 1

(You'll note this adds up two Final Four berths short; two Final Fours in this period have been vacated.)

Some notes: The Big West national title was UNLV in 1990. The Metro Conference national title was Louisville in 1986. Cincinnati earned a Final Four berth when it was a member of the Great Midwest Conference. So the pilgrimage of some schools like Louisville and Cincinnati to the Big East has obviously boosted the league's overall profile: see the Final Fours, last 5 years category.

As for the Big 12 (and 8), the league seems to have a similar track record as the Big Ten over the last quarter century: competitive Final Four totals, lagging behind in national titles. Maybe the top teams in the ACC (and SEC, bizarrely) have been, by and large, a bit better than top-end Big Ten and Big 8/12 teams. Or maybe that's not the case.

But yes, the last six years have been rough for the league in March. Kansas' national title was the conference's only Final Four in this stretch. This six-year run follows a run of five Final Fours in three years from 2002-04 for the Big 12. As always, we'll see how this edition of the Big Dance adds to the numbers and trends.

* * *
And, as a three-pointer for the road, here are the last three national champions for each major conference:

ACC: Duke (2010), North Carolina (2009 and 2005)
Big 12: Kansas (2008, 1988, 1952)
SEC: Florida (2007 and 2006), Kentucky (1998)
Big East: Connecticut (2004), Syracuse (2003), Connecticut (1999)
Big Ten: Michigan State (2000), Michigan (1989), Indiana (1987)
Pac 10: Arizona (1997), UCLA (1995 and 1975)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Missouri looks to spring upset in the Big Dance

Less is more, and lower can be better, which may have been the case for Missouri on Selection Sunday for the NCAA Tournament. Most projections had the Tigers as a No. 8 seed, but when the brackets were revealed Missouri was an 11 seed, scheduled to play 6 seed Cincinnati at 8:50 p.m. Thursday in Washington D.C. in the West Regional.

The Tigers are the lower-seeded team in their first game, but they now play a 3 seed if they win. If they were an 8 or 9 seed, they would have had to play a 1 seed in the second round.

But the hypotheticals are done now. The 11 seed showed Missouri had slipped very close to the bubble, going 8-8 in Big 12 play and losing four of its last five games, including an absolute drubbing at the hands of Texas A&M in the Big 12 Tournament.

It was a bit shocking to see Missouri fall to an 11, but it was largely a shocking day for Big 12 teams. Texas and Texas A&M also had lower seeds than projected, and Colorado was left out of the 68-team field. The Buffaloes were done in by an incredibly weak nonconference schedule (ranked 325th in difficulty). With Colorado’s exclusion and Missouri’s inclusion, only two of the eight Big 12 teams that have gone 8-8 have made the NCAA Tournament, this year’s Tigers and the 2007-08 Texas A&M Aggies.

Missouri got in with its 14-1 nonconference record and lack of bad losses, but the Tigers less-than-challenging noncon schedule clearly hurt their seed. They would be wise to schedule some tougher opponents in future years, if they value higher tournament seeds.

Cincinnati, out of the vaunted Big East conference, is led in scoring and rebounding by junior Yancy Gates. The Bearcats (25-8, 11-7 in Big East play) finished sixth in their 16-team league. They began the season 15-0 before losing three of four to begin conference play. They recovered and won six of their last eight games, but were routed 89-51 by Notre Dame in the Big East Tournament.

To peek ahead, if Missouri wins, they would play the winner of the Connecticut-Bucknell game. Bucknell is known for shocking Kansas in the 2005 NCAA Tournament. They were a 14 seed then, too. Connecticut just reeled off five wins in five days to win the Big East Tournament, a staggering feat. The sensational Kemba Walker, a national player of the year candidate, leads the Huskies.

Heading into this tournament, Missouri carries the dubious distinction of having the most NCAA Tournament wins without reaching a Final Four (22, tied with Boston College). The Tigers are 22-23 in their 23 alltime NCAA Tournament appearances. Missouri’s 24th tournament appearance trails only BYU for most Big Dance appearances without a Final Four. (This is the Cougars’ 26th NCAA Tournament bid.)

The Tigers are probably a Final Four long shot this year. But it’s been an unpredictable season, and it seems there are no dominant teams. Coach Mike Anderson’s teams have outperformed their seeding in each of the last two seasons, his two NCAA Tournaments at Missouri. The regular season ended with a thud, but the Big Dance is a fresh canvas.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Celebrating Big 12 Tournament week

In honor of the Big 12 tournament this week in Kansas City (starts Wednesday), I thought I'd share some Big 12 basketball stats from the league's 15 years of, you know, having 12 teams. Just some random stuff you may or may not find interesting, stuff I've come across while researching for my MU newspaper columns. (There are 12 of them, naturally.)

* Mizzou's alltime leading scorer of the Big 12 era is Arthur Johnson (1,759 points), who as of the start of this season was the only Tiger among the Big 12's top 20 scorers. 

* The oldest Big 12 basketball program is... Nebraska. Wow. This is the 115th season of Husker basketball. Heading into the Big 12 tournament, Nebraska has amassed 1,487 wins, none of which came in the NCAA Tournament. The Huskers won four conference titles in the 1910s, but have only two shared regular-season conference titles since (1949 and 1950). After Nebraska leaves for the Big Ten, Kansas will have the Big 12's oldest program (113th season, a slightly higher win total of 2,032). 

* The only two current Big 12 teams with an alltime losing record are Iowa State (.493 heading into this season) and Baylor (.474). 

* Texas has the fourth-most Big 12 Tournament wins (18-14), but the Longhorns have never won the tournament. Not to further the Longhorns-choke-in-big-games stereotype, but Texas is 0-5 in Big 12 Tournament title games. 

* Missouri (15-13 in Big 12 tourney play) has played in the Big 12 Tournament title game three times with three different coaches (lost with Norm Stewart in 1997, lost with Quin Snyder in 2003, won with Mike Anderson in 2009). 

* The only four current league members without a Final Four are Missouri (one win away five times), Texas Tech (two wins away five times), Texas A&M (two wins away twice) and Nebraska (four wins away six times).

* In the Big 12 era, Missouri has the league's fifth best record in conference games (127-117), fifth best record in Big 12 tourney games (15-13) and fifth best overall record (269-183). Missouri is currently fifth in alltime wins as well, and fourth in alltime win percentage. Colorado and Nebraska are behind Missouri in all of these categories, so these rankings won't change when those two leave the Big 12.

* The eight teams to win in Kansas' Allen Fieldhouse in the Big 12 era: 1999 Missouri, 1999 Nebraska, 2000 Iowa State, 2001 Iowa State, 2005 Iowa State, 2006 Kansas State, 2007 Texas A&M, 2011 Texas. 

*The only North teams to win both regular-season games with Kansas in a single season: 1999 Nebraska, 2000 Iowa State and 2001 Iowa State. Old Larry Eustachy got after it when he wasn't partying with Mizzou sorority girls. 

* Oklahoma won 26 straight men's basketball games over Baylor in Big 12 play before Baylor broke through with three straight wins over the Sooners. Oklahoma won their most recent game, and now they'll play in the Big 12 Tournament. 

* The Big 12 Tournament has been in Kansas City 10 of 15 times, including this edition. The first seven of those were at Kemper Arena; this is the third at the Sprint Center. Kansas City was the site of the old Big Eight Tournaments and league offices. The Big 12 offices are in Dallas. 

* The only Big 12 schools to never play in the conference tournament title game are Colorado, Nebraska and Texas A&M. The Aggies have the fewest Big 12 Tournament wins, with four. Every other conference school has at least six Big 12 Tournament wins. 

Missouri looks to rebound in postseason play

It was all so close for the Missouri Tigers last Saturday. The Tigers had hung with No. 2 Kansas in Columbia for most of the game. Kansas had stretched its lead to 15 late, only to have Missouri charge back to within four with a little over a minute to play.

The sellout Mizzou Arena crowd, which had seemed resigned to defeat moments ago, was roaring again. All day, Kansas had been turning the ball over like it was going out of style. This could have been Missouri’s signature win, gave the Tigers a winning record in conference play, preserved the undefeated home season, improved Missouri’s NCAA Tournament seed, in many ways saved this uneven season.

But Tiger fans had seen this movie. Kansas bled the shot clock down. Jayhawk senior Tyrel Reed slipped into the corner, caught a pass, and buried a three. Game over. Seven straight Big 12 titles for Kansas. Reed barked at the silenced Missouri student section.

Missouri’s shooting against Kansas was awful. The Tigers shot 29.3 percent overall and missed 20 of 23 three-pointers. At one point, Missouri was 1-for-18 on threes, having to make two of five late to get to 13 percent for the game.

It was Missouri’s third straight loss, coming after losses at surging Kansas State and Nebraska, who destroyed the Tigers with an inexplicable 17-2 run. The Tigers (22-9, 8-8 in Big 12 play) now limp into the Big 12 Tournament in Kansas City.

Missouri is not without hope. They did just come within four points of beating a surefire No. 1 tournament seed. But it is crucial for the Tigers to get something productive from someone other than Marcus Denmon or Laurence Bowers on a consistent basis. Denmon, who on Sunday was named First Team All-Big 12, scored 19 points, was the team’s third-leading rebounder (really) and was turnover-free. Bowers, playing virtually the entire game after senior Justin Safford started in his spot for a few minutes as a Senior Day courtesy, had a monster game, recording 22 points, 10 rebounds, five steals and no turnovers while going up against Kansas’ trio of Thomas Robinson and the Morris twins.

Mike Dixon added 10 points (on 1-of-9 shooting), but Missouri got little else from the others. Kim English, a likeable, hardworking player, had a painful three-point, four-turnover performance. Safford’s struggles tough to watch, as he missed all three shots, including an air-balled 15-footer. He was once a solid perimeter role player, but an ACL injury and a need for him to play in the post have taken away his effectiveness.

But the key in the postseason will be Ricardo Ratliffe. At his best, he can keep Missouri’s opponents honest inside and be a solid scorer and rebounder. But in recent weeks he has faded. During the three-game losing streak, he is averaging 4.0 points and 2.7 rebounds per game and hasn’t made it to the free-throw line once. He has had some fine games this year, and on Sunday was named the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, but Missouri needs him to compete.

Missouri opens with Texas Tech on Wednesday night. A win means a game with Texas A&M, and another win would likely mean a semifinal matchup with Texas. Sports Illustrated, ESPN, and CBS Sports all have the Tigers as an 8 seed as of Monday, but a couple wins in the Big 12 Tournament could lift them to a 7, which would avoid the second-round matchup with a No. 1 seed. Fortunately for the Tigers, a good March can erase all your disappointments.