Sunday, December 30, 2012

Auld Lang Syne

"For auld lang syne, my dear, 
for auld lang syne, 
we'll take a cup of kindness yet, 
for auld lang syne."

January 1, 2008
Scottish poet Robert Burns wrote the above words in 1788. "Auld lang syne" means, loosely, "long, long ago" or "days gone by." The phrase is even older, appearing in poems hundreds of years before Burns' edition. Two centuries and two decades after he wrote this poem, I heard the song in downtown Dallas, welcoming in the new year.

They called the celebration the "Big D NYE." Cross Canadian Ragweed played for the crowd gathered in a plaza area. No offense to them, but I remember thinking, for a city as big as Dallas, the second most famous "CCR" band may not be quite big-time enough. But they gave a good showing, this was the biggest city I had been in at the time (not counting a 45-minute stint at the Chicago airport), and the glorious 2007 football season had culminated with a Cotton Bowl bid. The just-completed 2007 had been a great one, and 2008 had plenty in store as well.

The Big D put on a show, I drank a bottle of sparkling grape juice (which became a New Year's tradition of mine somewhere along the way), and the Tigers rolled Arkansas the next day. That spring semester we lived in the "Bunker," ate from a giant bag of Fruity Dyno Bites, and had very little in the fridge to offer a woman on the rare occasion one stopped by.

I went to Bay St. Louis over Spring Break to build houses/brave tall scaffolding, and we got to visit New Orleans. Nothing says mission trip like a walk down Bourbon Street.

I resolved to always be gutsy enough to go for it with girls, to never let fear of failure or rejection overwhelm my will to try. ("Not the victory but the action...") I made cookies for a picnic date in Stephens Park, under- or overcooking dozens in an effort to get six or seven that were acceptable. My roommates made the mistakes go away. Bill Self said, "Go out there and relax," and to our horror, it worked very well as Kansas jumped way ahead of North Carolina and then won the national title against Memphis (Calipari!). My sister's high school team won one more district title, and months later she graduated valedictorian.

Back at school in August, we played Wiffle ball on the South Quad, and a ridiculously hot sorority girl happened by and actually accepted our invitation to play with us.

I looked at the Mizzou football schedule and said, "I want them all." I didn't get them all, but did attend all but two of the games in person. I shot an eight-point buck on opening morning of deer season, then drove up with my brother, Brent Foster and his redheaded friend, Danielle, to watch Mizzou beat Iowa State in the frozen north of Ames. Iowa State fans chanted "Wind! Chill!" on alternating sides of the stadium. My friend Seth Maberry and I went to the Stoney Creek Inn on election night, consoling Foster after his GOP's defeat. Nathan Armer won the Fudd Five challenge. His picture still hangs in the entryway of Fuddruckers. This feat kicked off a weekend during which my friends and I took in a Blues hockey game in St. Louis (loss), a Mizzou football game in Kansas City (loss - Stoooops!) and a Mizzou basketball game in Columbia (win!).

January 1, 2009
I spent New Year's Eve with my family. I have many years of fond memories of ringing in the New Year with my family, usually at my grandparents' house. Year after year, we tossed the confetti we made as kids into the air as the sounds of Dick Clark and "Auld Lang Syne" poured out from the TV, one of those console, set-in-wood types common to grandparents' homes.

We waited for hours before my senior year MU-KU game to get good seats, and Tony Romo's future wife walked through the waiting students, interviewing them for KOMU. Zaire Taylor's shot bounced off the rim and in to beat Kansas, and we rushed the court. Missouri rolled Baylor, and I was on the front of the Columbia Tribune Sports section with Leo Lyons, arm raised and yelling in my black Mizzou shirt. I went on a road trip for the ages with Armer and Yount to watch Missouri's NCAA Tournament run to the Elite 8. It was unforgettable (tumbleweeds, Kristin the Buster's waitress, the blue turf, snow and friendly Mormons in Utah, Four Corners, the magnificent palate of colors at the Grand Canyon around sunset, basketball in a football stadium, Denmon's buzzer-beater from the other free-throw line, meeting the great Dick Enberg, the dream dying hard a handful of points from that first Final Four).

On my first trip to Desloge, I met a friend of Nathan Yount's, Caleb Barron, wearing a Cleveland Browns jersey. It didn't seem like a watershed moment, but now I check NBA scores and standings each night before bed to see how his employer, the Suns, are faring.

My Advanced Writing professor Berkley Hudson told us to "Imagine wild success -- specifically." I graduated college and learned the uncertainty of finishing high school is nothing compared to the great unknown after college's finish line. What a finish line it was, honors ceremony on the postcard-perfect quad, grand J-school ceremony Saturday night, reception at the BSU after. Zack Greinke dazzled time after time I watched him pitch, including after a long rain delay, on a buck night at Kauffman the day before graduation, when my friends and I ate 23 hot dogs in honor of his number. Many were free, tossed into the thinned crowd after the long delay by vendors walking by.

I was still using active verbs on Facebook (Ben Herrold: does not like Mizzou's uniforms for the Kansas [football] game...). I got a full-time job and a tiny rental house in Monroe City.

January 1, 2010
I rung in the New Year with my friends at the venerable Green Valley House, up on the hill at the end of Green Valley Drive, with a mixture of ping-pong, tiny hoop H-O-R-S-E and my bottle of sparkling grape juice. I got a job with the Monitor-Index and moved back to Columbia after a cold month in Monroe City.

Matt and Mikki Hayes got married, and a friend (I'll spare his name) and I unwittingly danced with girls who were not quite 18 at the reception. But they easily looked 18. I got a new car, the HHR, and retired the old Monte Carlo, veteran of so many road trips. Nathan and Brittney Yount got engaged, and he, Armer, Mabes and myself had a splendid drive down to Little Rock that summer so he could ask her father for her hand. We sang along to summery country songs like Jerrod Niemann's "Lover, Lover" probably seven times each. It was searingly, wrathfully hot.

I got a Twitter account, and have sent out roughly 5,400 tweets since then. I wrote a Mizzou column that referenced Elmer Fudd striking down Bugs Bunny in "That's Opera, Doc" (SMOG!!!) before Missouri's Homecoming clash with Oklahoma, then the Tigers pulled out the epic win. Gahn McGaffie shook Faurot, Columbia and the college football nation with his opening kickoff return for a touchdown. Jimmer-mania swept the country during college basketball season.

God used the ancient words of Isaiah 41 to comfort and lift me when I was down late in the year. Repeat this phrase for each of these years: God was with me and loved me.

January 1, 2011
I spent my first New Year's Eve in St. Louis, at the Hayeses' apartment. We played games and enjoyed the typical spread of New Year's Eve food and snacks. The next day, I let a Wii controller fly out of my hand on a vicious hack during a baseball game. The projectile/controller knocked one of their Dachshund decorations off the mantle, but they were able to fix it up nearly good as new.

A massive snowstorm dumped over 20 inches of snow on Columbia, and the Younts and I played copious amounts of Mario Cart while snowed in. It was crazy to see Providence devoid of traffic during the blizzard. The world met Kate Upton. Mike Anderson left Missouri for Arkansas and reportedly danced in and out of lanes of traffic to avoid KOMU's Eric Blumberg, the latest chapter in the surreal and wonderful and compelling story of Missouri basketball. Mizzou hired Frank Haith.

I took a sublime trip to New York City to visit a friend and fulfilled my dream of seeing the great Mariano Rivera enter a game and to save it for the Yankees. I also saw young Eric Hosmer, in the big leagues less than a week, face Rivera. From Manhattan's dramatic appearance out my airplane window to standing atop the Empire State Building to bits of wisdom from my friend, the trip was a great blessing.

The Younts got married, the culmination of a long, wild, fun weekend, and I quelled my nerves enough to deliver the best-man speech.

I decided to take up running, saw a "Half-marathon in 10 weeks" running magazine cover, and went for it. On a lovely September day, I ran 13.1 miles around good old Columbia, joined for a few steps by my friend Chase Ruble, who was working a tour team shift on campus. Afterward I watched roughly 13.1 hours of college football, culminating with a thrilling Michigan-Notre Dame game in the Big House's first night game. I watched the Chiefs win against the Chargers at Jacob Pollard's place on a Halloween, when Arrowhead thundered again and Philip Rivers fumbled a snap late in the game and could be seen saying, "Worst... day... ever" on the sideline.

I wrote about redistricting, a World War II veteran's experience as POW in Germany and a survivor of child sexual abuse for the Monitor-Index.

Missouri announced its move to the SEC, and my nostalgic self mourned the death of Big 8/12 tradition, even as I understood the reasons given for the move. Pinkel drank jumbo glasses of wine.

January 1, 2012
I again rung in the New Year in St. Louis, but this time in the Hayeses' house. A sign of us growing up, perhaps, going from their apartment to their home. We played games and ate much and took one of my favorite photos ever, a group shot. Fireworks went off all around at midnight. A few of us sat on the back porch, talked about the year that was and what we wanted for the year to come. New years are fascinating to me, especially so during the thrilling, shifting years after college ends.

I like the phrase and use it sometimes in jest, but Missouri's last scheduled home game with Kansas, last  game at Mizzou Arena with both in the same conference, was truly One For The Ages. Surprise fireworks (yes, indoor fireworks) were a pregame jolt, as was the mass stampede of students outside the doors. The crowd roared all night, the kind of special roar that's only heard at Mizzou Arena when playing Kansas. The Jayhawks seemed to have ground out a win late, shades of sickening losses in Columbia in years past (Tyrel Reed's shot/barking at Mizzou student section, Julian Wright's alley-oops dunks, David Padgett, Langford/Hinrich...). But no. With Missouri down eight, Marcus Denmon, of Kansas City, MISSOURI, scored nine points as the Tigers won by three. Afterward, the band played the fight songs and the crowd cheered and the students held their hands in the air for that "...hands go UP... and they stay there..." song. Nobody wanted to leave.

The return game was a classic on Naismith Drive, in old Allen Fieldhouse. I watched it in Armer's basement with him, Mabes and Barron. Chris Coffman showed up for the second half. His car caught on fire en route. Missouri ran out to a huge lead. Now it was Kansas fans' turn to be sick. But slowly, the Jayhawks reeled the Tigers in. Denmon's shot while falling into the bench rattled in the opening of the rim and came out, and the rally continued. With victory toasts nearby, Kansas won in overtime.

I got a great new job with Missouri Farmer Today. I met Cedar Rapids for the interview/training/ annual meeting. Missouri won the Big 12 Tournament. A decent shot for the Tigers to make the Final Four slipped away gradually, then suddenly (Hi, Hemingway) in their first NCAA Tournament game. The Royals and #OurTime were a bitter disappointment. My brother got married, and I mentioned the DiMaggio brothers in my best-man toast. The Younts returned to Columbia. Armer and the Younts bought houses. I was introduced to bocce ball, and later that night I got Foster to laugh hysterically after (and a little during) the Hunger Games.

I became smitten with Lolo Jones before the Olympics and watched her races streaming live. She was crushed by her fourth-place finish, the toughest possible Olympic finish, so I tweeted her reasons for her to smile, one a day for 30 days. She tweeted back once, at 12:34 p.m., a time that a former J-school classmate once told me was a time for making wishes.

Our slowpitch softball team, the Roadrunners, had a remarkable season in Jefferson City capped by a league title. We raucously celebrated a walkoff win in one of our games, and played in fierce heat most of our games. I golfed at quirky old Railwood with Foster in the oppressive heat.

Mabes went back to school. Missouri and the SEC got acquainted. If Helen of Troy was the face (or maybe some of her other features) that sailed a thousand ships, Sheldon Richardson had the quip that launched a thousand "old man football" jokes the rest of the season. The Tigers lost to Vanderbilt and Syracuse at home and missed a bowl. I wrote a long blog post with a lot of parentheses (this one!).

I saw some great movies at the end of the year, Lincoln and the Silver Linings Playbook. In the latter, at a gripping moment, Robert De Niro's character delivers this gem of a line: "When life reaches out with a moment like this, it's a sin if you don't reach back."

Life's been reaching out to me through these years. I keep trying like crazy to reach back, trying to live God's way, trying to live "all the way up," to act in spite of fear, to be ambitious, to go for it and have fun and love life.

For auld lang syne, my friends.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

After Braggin' Rights win, Tigers head west to face UCLA

For most of last Saturday’s Missouri-Illinois Braggin’ Rights game, Tiger guard Phil Pressey could not get a shot to fall. If you’ve played basketball at any level, you’ve probably been there; when that disobedient ball simply won’t go in the hoop.

But a funny thing happened as those misses piled up: Pressey dominated. Using a combination of effort, determination and his head for the game, Pressey was arguably the most important player on the court. Though he missed his first 15 shots and finished 3-for-19, the junior racked up 11 assists and seven rebounds while playing great defense on Illinois’ Brandon Paul in the second half.

Writ larger, the ability to play winning basketball when the shots aren’t falling is why this Tiger team may be better built for tournament play than last year’s collection of great outside shooters. Missouri (10-1) made less than 40 percent of its shots, including just 5 of 19 three-pointers, but they had a 51-29 edge on rebounds.

It’s still a bit early to know about that, but Saturday’s 82-73 win over the previously unbeaten Illini (12-1) was a huge step forward.

On Friday night, the Missouri basketball team plays its first true road game of the season, against UCLA in the Bruins’ historic Pauley Pavilion (9 p.m. on ESPN2). If you’re only going to play one true road game in the nonconference schedule, there are a lot worse places to play it than Pauley.

UCLA (9-3) is one of the most successful college basketball programs in the nation. The Bruins have won a record 11 NCAA titles, including a run of 10 in 12 seasons under the remarkable Wooden, the “Wizard of Westwood.”

Missouri now gets to experience this heritage firsthand when they go out west for its next-to-last nonconference game before SEC play begins. The players may be more interested in the UCLA dancers wearing that iconic shade of blue, but getting to play at Pauley against UCLA is a great memory for them. Good for them, and good for Missouri scheduling this game.

It’s also another great test for Missouri. UCLA was ranked No. 13 in the preseason poll and has plenty of talent. The Bruins are led in scoring by freshmen Shabazz Muhammad and Jordan Adams. Another freshman, Kyle Anderson, is leading the team in rebounds despite being a guard. The Wear twins, Travis and David, provide UCLA with size inside.

One of the most intriguing matchups here may be the point guards. Missouri fans know well what Pressey is capable of, and he will face UCLA’s Larry Drew II, a transfer from North Carolina who is averaging an eye-catching 8.5 assists per game against just 1.6 turnovers per game.

The Bruins have been disappointing in the early going, losing to Georgetown, Cal Poly and San Diego State so far, dropping out of the polls. While that took a bit of luster off of this matchup, UCLA should still compete for the Pac-12 Conference title, and this could still be another win that would bolster Missouri’s NCAA Tournament resume, especially on the road.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Top-10 Illini provide test for the Tigers

Of all the ups and downs of Missouri’s switch to the Southeastern Conference, the most painful may have been when Tiger fans saw a basketball schedule that did not include the traditional home-and-home games with Kansas.

But with that gone, Missouri must look to Illinois for a rivalry fix. The annual Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis doesn’t have near the unyielding animosity of the Border War, but let’s appreciate it for what it is, an entertaining game in a great atmosphere with a tidy three-decade history.

Saturday’s Missouri-Illinois game (5 p.m. on ESPN2) also presents the first good test for the Tigers (9-1) in about a month. After the solid Battle For Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving weekend, Missouri has been working through some lesser nonconference games.

The Illinois game will be Missouri’s 11th of the season, so it will be interesting to see how Missouri’s roster, made up almost entirely of new players, works together a third of the way through the regular season against a good team. It will also be the Tigers’ first game with a large amount of the other team’s fans in attendance.

Illinois (12-0) has been quite a surprise this season. Expectations were modest for the first year under new coach John Groce, but the Illini have earned a top-ten ranking, winning the Maui Invitational and picking up other noteworthy wins against Butler and at then-No. 10 Gonzaga. Groce led Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season.

The Illini are led by Brandon Paul, who is putting up 19.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams also provide some scoring punch. Illinois is interesting in that no player averages more than 4.7 rebounds per game, but seven players are pulling down between 3.4 and 4.7 rebounds per game.

This is a big opportunity for Missouri to pick up a nice win that can bolster the team’s NCAA Tournament resume. And of course, the Tigers can earn those Braggin’ Rights.

Illinois leads the overall series 20-11, in large part due to a 10-game winning streak from 2000 to 2008. Missouri snapped the skid with an emphatic 81-68 win in 2009, which has started a three-game winning streak for the Tigers.

The teams have met annually in December in St. Louis since 1983, with previous meetings in 1980 and 1981. With the crowd split half-and-half, the momentum swings get magnified as each team’s fans take their turns cheering.

Missouri has had its ups and downs in the rivalry, from the 108-107 triple overtime win in 1993 to the 82-50 loss/dismantling in 2005. Illinois won the first six matchups when both teams were ranked, but then Missouri won the last two such meetings, in each of the last two years.

Saturday could add another exciting chapter to the series’ lore. It will be the first matchup with both teams in the top 15 since 2002, and it should be a great test for these Tigers.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

An early-season portrait of this Missouri basketball team

With the Missouri basketball team currently working through a slog of nonconference mismatches, it’s a good time to look at the big picture. The Tigers advanced to 8-1 last Saturday with a 68-38 win over Tennessee State. It was close for a while, but eventually drama yielded to the inevitable blowout.

With the big picture in mind, here are three positives we’ve seen so far for this team, and three areas of potential concern to watch.

1. The return of Bowers: Senior forward Laurence Bowers returned this season after missing all of last year with a knee injury. There is uncertainty when a player returns from such a major injury, but Bowers has played very well in the early games. Bowers tied his career high with 23 points against Appalachian State and then broke it with 26 against Southeast Missouri. Bowers has shown his usual athleticism and a soft shooting touch. So far, so good.

2. Rebounding: Last year, with a smaller lineup, Missouri narrowly outrebounded their opponents, 32.0 per game to 31.7. This year, the Tigers should get more of an edge here. Bowers’ athleticism and length help Missouri’s rebounding situation, as does the addition of stout forward Alex Oriakhi. Through nine games, Missouri is outrebounding its opponents by 12 rebounds per game.

3. The SEC is down: Florida is very good. Kentucky is very talented but young and prone to inconsistency. The rest of the league looks to be pretty soft. Missouri should be able to rack up plenty of wins in conference play and maybe contend for the league title.

This leads into the areas of potential concern…

1. The SEC is down: Strength of schedule and wins over quality opponents are key criteria for getting a good seed in the NCAA Tournament. While the SEC is a renowned football beast, playing in the SEC in hoops hurts Missouri’s tournament resume. The Tigers must take advantage of what opportunities they have to score big wins. Their next chance to do so will be in the annual Braggin’ Rights game against Illinois, on Dec. 22 in St. Louis.

2. Missing Ratliffe: Tiger forward Ricardo Ratliffe set a school record by making 69.3 percent of his shots last season as a senior. Phil Pressey’s great passes led to points as Ratliffe kept converting around the rim. Don’t expect Oriakhi to make 70 percent of his shots, but if he can get his shooting percentage up over 50 percent, Pressey is that much more effective.

3. Need for ball-handlers: Especially with senior guard Mike Dixon getting kicked off the team, Pressey needs help as the team’s primary ball-handler. In Missouri’s only loss, Louisville forced the Tigers into 23 turnovers. Louisville is one of the nation’s best defenses, but the game exposed a potential weakness for the Tigers. Finding another ball-handler would allow Pressey to rest without disaster ensuing. Negus Webster-Chan and transfer Jabari Brown could possibly pick up some of the slack here.

Missouri is off for finals week, then returns to action against South Carolina State on Dec. 17 at home.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

A look at 2013 for Missouri football

Missouri fans are likely ready to put the 2012 season in the rearview mirror. The Tigers went 5-7 and did not qualify for a bowl game for the first time since the 2004 season.

But the earlier end to the season allows Missouri to shift the focus to 2013 right away.

The nonconference portion of next year’s schedule includes home games against Murray State and Toledo, a game at Indiana and one more game yet to be added, likely a home game against a lesser opponent. This portion of the schedule is pretty manageable and could likely provide the Tigers with four of the six wins needed for bowl eligibility.

As for the conference portion of the 2013 schedule, well, SEC schedules are seldom described as “manageable.” Missouri plays SEC road games at Vanderbilt, Georgia, Kentucky and Ole Miss. The Tigers play conference home games with Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas A&M.
Missouri kicks off SEC play Oct. 5 at Vanderbilt, a game that will be big for both teams as they try to claw their way up the SEC East Division standings.

It’s too early to project much for 2013, but here are three key issues to watch for next year.

The quarterback situation: Missouri’s starting quarterback, junior James Franklin, struggled to stay healthy this season. He missed four starts and was knocked out of two other games.

When healthy, Franklin had some fine moments, but whether it was stronger SEC defenses, injury issues, or the team struggling around him, his stats had noticeable drops this year. In his second year as a starter, his completion percentage fell from 63.3 last year to 59.4 this season, his efficiency rating fell from 139.9 to 123.6, and his touchdown-to-interception ratio dropped from 21-to-11 to 10-to-7 this year.

Expect Franklin to battle for the starting job in spring and preseason practices with Corbin Berkstresser, who will be a sophomore next year but would need to make substantial progress, and intriguing freshman Maty Mauk, who redshirted this season. As a senior next year, I’d still expect Franklin to be the starter, but finding an effective quarterback, and keeping him healthy, is a must.

Replacing Richardson: As expected, defensive tackle Shelden Richardson declared for the NFL draft and won’t be back next year. Richardson made several game-altering plays last year for a Tiger defense that was generally dependable. Defense wins in the SEC, so finding a player to fill Richardson’s playmaking void is another key issue.

Pinkel factor: Head coach Gary Pinkel will be 61 when next season starts. Despite the disappointing ending to this season, maybe because of it, Pinkel said after the last game he couldn’t wait to get back to his office to start working again Monday for next year.

He’s had some off-field issues over the past year or so, and coaching big-time college football can be grinding profession, so it’s hard to guess how much longer he’ll want to coach. But he’ll be the coach for next season, which will be a big one for the program he’d been leading for 12 years. Pinkel’s understandably feeling some pressure after this season, so getting at least back to bowl eligibility will be crucial.