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Strauss: Mizzou's big win looks personal

Strauss: Mizzou's big win looks personal

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COLUMBIA, Mo. • Previously smoldering, Missouri ignited Tuesday night. On a Senior Night intended for warmth, the Tigers and their aggrieved faithful torched whatever remnants remained of the bridge connecting the program to its former coach, Mike Anderson.

There was an uncomfortable handshake between coaches afterward and no polite applause for a familiar name.

Frank Haith, Anderson’s successor, paced, cajoled and at times ranted like a man possessed or, worse, slighted.

Mizzou wasn’t satisfied with merely knocking the Arkansas Razorbacks from the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Tigers embarrassed the visitors, exposing them on the boards and pushing to a 26-point halftime lead. Their edge had swelled to 28 with less than eight minutes remaining when Haith began to remove seniors Laurence Bowers, Alex Oriakhi and Keion Bell. Wanting every second of revenge, a crowd of 15,061 refused to budge.

As much as Haith tried to portray it as professional, the Tigers’ 93-63 dissection offered the trappings of something personal for both him and those who turned Mizzou Arena upside down.

This was, after all, the first time the locals had seen Anderson in the flesh since he had left the program without warning and without comment to return to his coaching roots.

This time Anderson and his team had nowhere to go.

The senior forward Oriakhi said he had never seen his coach so emotional. Both coaches spoke afterward of clarifying “miscommunication” during a heated exchange after the final buzzer.

There were boos but no vilification when the Razorbacks emerged from one tunnel with 3:53 left before the pre-game horn. A minute passed … then two.

As Mizzou ran out from its tunnel, Anderson almost simultaneously emerged in a light charcoal suit with 1:37 left, followed by a police escort.

“A great atmosphere,” described Anderson, sounding about as convincing as if he’d been a Christian on a sunny Roman afternoon at the Coliseum.

Somewhere in attendance, former Mizzou forward Kim English found time to tweet his contempt: “Boo that man.”

Circumstance makes it way too easy to forget Anderson took on a program left in cinders following the ruinous final three seasons of the Quin Snyder Era. Those teams were a combined 44-47 overall and six games under .500 in the Big 12. Snyder’s final team lost 11 of its final 13 games and found a place to fall in an NIT first-rounder at home.

Anderson transformed Missouri basketball from a joke into a 2009 regional finalist. The Tigers toppled No. 23 Marquette and No. 2 Memphis within a five-day span. His teams were 111-57. They made the program more than relevant. They made it proud.

“When I got here it was empty,” Anderson said. “It was like, ‘Man, they’ve got a program over there?’ All of a sudden now it’s changed. I think that’s good. So the time has to be right to talk about it. That’s good.”

One wonders what happened next. Did Anderson become bored? Did he experience wanderlust? Did he think himself underpaid? The program seemingly squandered its recruiting edge. (Had Bowers not been injured, the program would have had 10 scholarships available over two years.) The 2009-10 team finished 7-6. The 2010-11 bunch tanked 1-5 following a 22-6 start and exhibited an obvious disconnect with its coach.

After five seasons it was time to go. Anderson knew it. Mizzou knew it. Arkansas seized upon it.

One can wonder how the narrative might have changed if Anderson had addressed his team, then also found time to explain his position to media and the Mizzou fan base.

“I have no idea,” he said when posed the question afterward. “I thought I did.”

Arlyn Bowers played guard for the 1991 Razorbacks. Anderson was an assistant. Bowers’ nephew, Laurence, was an infant. Arlyn spoke Tuesday after his nephew had laid 24 points and 11 rebounds in 26 minutes on his former coach.

“He left them in a good place,” Arlyn Bowers said. “Everybody knew where Mike eventually wanted to be. That’s where he went.”

A decade is an eternity in college sports. Five years is a coaching half-life. It’s been 24 months since Anderson elected to slip from the arena to Columbia Regional Airport, where workers drove fuel trucks back and forth to shield the coach’s getaway.

All the former Arkansas assistant had to say was, “I’m going home.” He opted for, “Where’s the rear exit?”

Said Anderson during his post-game interrogation: “I did what’s best for me and my family. It was a tough decision. And I still say that. It was a tough decision. Just think about it. Missouri is in the Big 12. Conference realignment is taking place. What did Missouri do? They did what’s best for them.”

Anderson previously had denied repeated interview requests from the reporters who covered him and the men who once hosted his coach’s show. In an unguarded moment Monday he told media in Fayetteville he had left the cupboard full for Haith. Yet Anderson made no mention of why the cupboard revolted before his exit.

Anderson’s description suggested Haith was named national coach of the year thanks to the recruiting of his predecessor.

Missouri-Arkansas isn’t Louisville-Kentucky. It isn’t blood sport. But Anderson received no quarter.

Haith got a bench warning midway through the first half; with his team on a 25-8 blitz he had to be restrained by an assistant coach when Anderson called a panic timeout after apparently yelling at Tigers guard Phil Pressey.

The Tigers administered a relentless beating on the boards. Pressey tricky-dribbled from the arc, then seconds later drilled a 3-pointer worth a 15-point lead. Mizzou Arena, always a tight place, became a suffocating one. They finished the first half on a 13-0 run covering 4:06.

The Tigers weren’t satisfied with completing a perfect season at home. They wanted an exclamation point behind a 40-minute sentence.

They didn’t play angry. More impressively, they played with purpose. Arkansas didn’t manage a second-chance point during the first half. Mizzou outrebounded the visitors by 25 and outscored them by 19 on the block.

The game was long out of hand when the stadium matrix flashed to a sign displayed in the student section. The cardboard featured a head shot of Anderson accompanied by the message: “We are never getting back together. Like. Ever.”

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Joe Strauss is a sports columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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