Page by turned page, Mizzou basketball is moving on from its depressing Kim Anderson chapter.
By beating North Florida, the Tigers eclipsed last season’s victory total. If they dispatch dangerous Stephen F. Austin on Tuesday night, they will match Anderson’s best single-season total.
If they earn Braggin’ Rights over Illinois, they will accomplish something Anderson’s teams never did. Then comes SEC play, where the Tigers could win more in one season than the eight games Anderson won in three years.
But at least Anderson didn’t leave behind a barren cupboard. As bad as his tenure was — and it was historically terrible — he left behind more talent than you realized before returning to the safety of the Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association.
(So how is his life at Pittsburg State? OK, we suppose. Anderson’s Gorillas just put a 120-31 beating on Baptist Bible College. So there, John Calipari!)
At least new Mizzou coach Cuonzo Martin had something to work with, unlike poor Travis Ford at SLU last season after succeeding Jim Crews.
True, talented recruits have elevated the Tigers back into NCAA Tournament contention this season. But from Day 1, Martin has stressed the critical role the half-dozen holdovers play on the team.
Where would this team be without senior forward Jordan Barnett? After Michael Porter Jr. suffered his back injury, Barnett grew into a go-to role. He has averaged 18.2 points in his last six games.
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Junior forward Kevin Puryear has been best against top opponents: Iowa State (17 points, eight rebounds), St. John’s (15 points, five rebounds), West Virginia (13 points, seven rebounds) and Miami-Ohio (20 points, five rebounds).
Junior guard Jordan Geist poured in 28 points against Green Bay. Junior guard Terrence Phillips hit two critical late shots in the victory at Central Florida.
The North Florida game turned into the Reed Nikko Dunk Party and Cullen Van Leer buried a couple of three-pointers during that victory Saturday night,
These veterans gave the team a sturdy framework for Martin to build upon. Construct he has, assembling a team that plays fast, shares the ball and is getting tougher by the week defensively.
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North Florida coach Matthew Driscoll saw that up close. “Give Missouri a lot of credit for doing what they did,” he said after his team lost 85-51 in Columbia. “They were very physical and able to get up into guys and also had the ability to make passing lanes tough and difficult to put the ball on the floor. We did a good job of taking care of the ball but they were able to just get us out of sync and we were unable to find a rhythm.”
Going forward, more attention will go toward the newcomers. Graduate transfer Kassius Robertson could be a latter day version of former combo guard Marcus Denmon, creating his shot and knocking them down.
Freshman center Jeremiah Tilmon is an absurdly athletic postman with great timing, hands and touch. Freshman forward Jontay Porter calmly swats away shots at one end and finds teammates with pinpoint passes at the other.
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Freshman guard Blake Harris pushes the pace, penetrates off the dribble and gets to the rim with his length. So MPJ’s back injury aside, this transformative recruiting class is living up to the hype.
But the incumbents provide experience and toughness. If Barnett keeps progressing as a defender, rebounder and off-the-dribble scorer, he could become one of the top players in the SEC this season.
Puryear earned conference-wide respect the previous two seasons as an undersized power forward. He has a full assortment of post moves, plus the ability to step out and knock down three-pointers. Look for the Tigers to get him more shots in the paint during games to come.
Fans wondered how Geist could ever fit into the Mizzou rotation given the talent Martin wooed to Columbia. Here’s how: He never quits battling, which is how he emerged from the summer and fall competition with a meaningful role.
“I expect the energy that he brings to the table on both sides of the ball,” Martin said during his postgame media session after the North Florida game. “He puts pressure on the other team’s defense by attacking and making plays.”
Phillips fell behind Geist in the pecking order, but he has stuck with the program. His experience, ballhandling and shooting ability make him valuable late in games.
Nikko didn’t show much last season after recovering from double hip surgery, but his work ethic has earned raves from the coaching staff. Another payoff came Saturday night with a 12-point, five-rebound outburst against the smaller Ospreys.
“The thing with him, like with most guys, they work on the game,” Martin said. “He is always in the gym working. To go out and have the success he had only helps us as a team because we need him to us to be successful as a team.”
The same goes for the rest of Anderson’s army. So keep Kim in your thoughts as he settles back at the comfortable Division II level and puts all of those bad Boone County memories out of his mind.