Mizzou distinguished itself last season as the best shooting team in the nation, but anyone who watched that Tigers team could see an almost palpable chemistry that was about as essential to its 30-5 season.
“It really wins games,” former Tiger Marcus Denmon said then.
The blend of unselfishness and trust and feel for each other was apparent all over the court but symbolized most vividly in MU’s brisk ball movement and keen shot selection.
And while MU is ranked 12th and 9-1 entering the Braggin’ Rights game against No. 10 Illinois at 5 p.m. today at Scottrade Center, the ingredient oozing from the start a year ago still is being melded together on a team with scant resemblance to its predecessor in terms of personnel, stature, style of play or experience together.
“You can have all the talent in the world, but if you don’t play together, it’s not going to work out,” senior forward Laurence Bowers said Wednesday. “I feel like we have all the talent in the world. But until we display us fitting together 100 percent, that’s when people are going to get a chance to see how good we are.”
And no better time to start flashing that than today, Bowers said, as he hoped to help extend MU’s three-year winning streak against the Illini.
“I definitely don’t like losing. To anyone,” he said. “But you know, there are those caliber games, the games that you have a star beside on the calendar, and this is one of them.”
Unlike last season, MU enters the annual extravaganza toting a loss (84-61 against Louisville) and still forming an identity, not because of any dearth of talent but because it has an entirely different cast with just Phil Pressey back after Michael Dixon was suspended and later announced he was transferring.
Bowers missed last season with a knee injury, three freshmen are in the rotation of 10 players seeing more than 8 minutes a game and Alex Oriakhi, Keion Bell, Earnest Ross, Tony Criswell and Jabari Brown are transfers — and Brown only made his MU debut Monday.
So in contrast to having the same five players start all 35 games last season and the same two come off the bench at their appointed times on a team with no newcomers, MU has had its full roster for one game and Haith already has used three starting lineups and made some notable rotation changes.
Haith acknowledges it’s all still coalescing but says so far, so good.
“I’m very pleased with where we’re at,” he said Friday afternoon at Scottrade Center, adding that Mizzou will get closer as it plays together more because players have bought in and accepted personnel decisions being made in the best interests of the team. “Usually when you make those decisions you see some guys pout, and we haven’t seen that yet. So I will say that stuff has been really good.”
Brown could become an integral ingredient in enhancing that.
“What Jabari brings is basketball IQ,” Haith said after MU’s 102-51 victory over South Carolina State on Monday. “He moves well without the ball, plays unselfish, he passes the ball and is patient. I think that’s something that is needed on this team.”
To Bowers, anyway, the chemistry is “skyrocketing right now” and will show soon.
“The team chemistry off the court is amazing, and I think the team chemistry on the court is really getting where it needs to be; I think we saw signs last game,” he said. “That was the first game we had OUR team, what is going to be our team.”
Along the way to becoming what is going to be their team, these Tigers are creating their own distinct footprints.
A year ago, undersized, undermanned and under-the-radar Mizzou emerged from a dismal end to the Mike Anderson era and cynical initial reaction to the hiring of Haith to lead the nation in field-goal percentage (50.4) and assist-to-turnover ratio (1.6) and finish in the top 10 in scoring (80.4) and 3-point percentage (39.8).
But their limitations were exposed against the burly likes of Kansas State (twice) and, ultimately and indelibly, in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against 15th-seeded Norfolk State — which outrebounded No. 2 seed MU 37-25 in the 86-84 upset.
A season later, MU is shooting 45.5 percent and just 33.1 percent from 3-point range — where the 6-foot-8 Bowers (12 of 20, 60 percent) is the only player above 40 percent.
But MU has gone from having a lack of size and rebounding be its undoing to being its greatest apparent strength:
With six players between 6-7 and 6-11 playing eight minutes or more, Mizzou’s 46.1 rebounds a game leads the nation and is on pace — albeit an early pace skewed by some tame competition — to nab the most for an MU team since 1975-76.
The Tigers are fourth in the nation in rebounding margin (13.3), and their 16.1 offensive boards a game is seventh in the nation — leading to an average of 16.7 second-chance points a game.
“Our rebounding so far has been stellar,” said Bowers, second on the team to Oriakhi.
It’s a stark change from a year ago, when only three of MU’s seven-man rotation stood between 6-6 and 6-9 and the Tigers were slightly outrebounded in Big 12 play.
MU also is holding opponents to 35.8 percent shooting, nearly 10 percentage points below last season (44.4).
But the undefeated Illini and an intense environment at Scottrade today should provide a swig of truth serum on where the new Mizzou mishmash and way of play stands — and if it stands together enough that chemistry sets it apart again.