OK, no, it has not been much of an NCAA basketball tournament when it comes to drama. Lots of marching, little madness. But here's one thing you can say: There is plenty of coaching star power out there. There are 16 teams left, of course, and seven of them are coached by men who have already won a national championship. Those seven coaches have won eight of the last 13 championships.
Yes, you can hear chalkboards squeaking. The thing about those seven remaining championship coaches is that, beyond their flair and fame, they have all built something familiar: basketball styles that you can count on this time of year. You have:
• The defensive intensity of
• The up-and-down offensive firepower of
• The unbreakable 2-3 zone of
• The charge-taking, floor-slapping fervor of
• The blue-collar brawling of
• The blocked shots and fast-breaks of
• The full-court, three-point shooting mayhem of
On top of that you have the increasingly familiar styles of Memphis'
And then there's Missouri. I really like Missouri. For one thing, the Tigers are plain likable. Take one of their star players:
This Missouri team has numerous other stories like that.
And so on. Of course, every team left in the tournament has players who are also great stories. No, the big reason I like Missouri is because the Tigers don't play quite like any other team in college basketball. Instead, they play like a team from the past. They play like that Arkansas Razorbacks team that ravaged and pillaged college basketball 15 years ago. They play the new FMOH -- Forty Minutes Of Hell.*
Remember that Arkansas team of 1994? Those Razorbacks would suffocate you, interrogate you, confiscate you. They came at you in wave after wave. They played a full-court pressure defense, sure, but what made them different was that they were always running forward, always attacking, always coming at you like Cool Hand Luke in the prison fight scene. Coach
They announced their presence with authority in only the second game of the season, when they obliterated an excellent Missouri team 120-68. After that, they would allow more than 80 points in 11 games, but they only lost one of those. If you ran with those Razorbacks, you were done. But it was almost impossible to NOT run with those Razorbacks because they were always coming.
Anderson was an assistant coach on that team, and he remains Nolan Richardson's most fervent disciple. He took FMOH to Alabama-Birmingham, and he was able to recreate the experience. "What you need," he said, "are players who buy in." Three years ago, when he came to Missouri, the Tigers were an absolute mess. Former coach
"There was no mystery about why the job was open," is all Anderson will say about that.
During the first two years he had a hard time getting his players to buy into the all-out style. Well, it's a hard sell. A coach who wants to play FMOH has to get his players to accept that they will not play even 30 minutes a game ("But the minutes they get are QUALITY minutes," Anderson said). They have to accept that the style relies on unselfishness -- there are few stars in the system (even that great Arkansas team only had one first-round NBA pick:
More than anything, they have to accept that they are not allowed to stop, not ever, that the system only works if they never slow down. The full-court defense will allow some easy baskets. The all-out offense can sputter in the half-court. But everyone has to keep running and keep the faith because the point of it all is that sooner or later, the other team will wear down, they will get frustrated by the constant pressure, they will try to speed things up. And that's when FMOH really kicks in.
Anderson does not like explaining it. He does not like for people to think that this style is some sort of gimmick. "We are just teaching the fundamentals of basketball," he said, and that's right. But it's also right that he does not try to dazzle anyone with fancy Xs and cursive Os. "Other coaches like to play chess," DeMarre Carroll said. "We don't do that."
And that's the heart of the system: It lets the players play the game. This Missouri team does not quite create the chaos that the great Arkansas team did. And it's harder to make the system work in the NCAA tournament -- FMOH becomes FMOHBUBILT -- Forty Minutes Of Hell Broken Up By Interminably Long Timeouts.
But Anderson does think these Tigers are getting close to that Arkansas team.
"We're hard to play, now," he said. "I wouldn't want to play us."