Missouri wasn't supposed to win 30 games last season. It wasn't supposed to win the Big 12 tournament or finish second in the league's regular season standings. And that second place finish? The only reason that it wasn't a share of the regular season title is that the Tigers blew a 19 point lead against Kansas. In Lawrence. After beating the Jayhawks on their home court. They probably weren't supposed to do that, either.
You see, the Tigers dealt with one of the most tumultuous offseasons in recent memory last summer. After finishing the 2010-11 season at just 8-8 in the Big 12 with just a single road win in league play, Missouri had to deal with not one, but two long, drawn-out coaching changes. First, it was Mike Anderson's flirtation with, and eventual departure to, Arkansas. Then came the Matt Painter soap opera, which turned out to be a solid week of speculation about whether or not the Purdue head coach would leave his post to head to Columbia, Mo. When the dust finally settled, Painter decided to remain the head Boilermaker despite the fact that a handful of news outlets had reported his move to Missouri as a done deal.
And that was only the start of it.
After a couple of players flirted with the NBA draft, Missouri spent the entire summer as the focal point of the conference realignment chatter, which culminated in the Tigers bailing on the Big 12 -- and their rivalry with Kansas -- for a move to the SEC. If that didn't bring enough bad press, hiring Frank Haith turned the program into the butt of every college basketball writer's joke. At first, the Missouri brass was mocked for landing a guy who couldn't win at Miami. That was before news broke that Haith's program was connected to convicted Ponzi-schemer and former Miami booster Nevin Shapiro.
To top it all off, the team's best defender, Laurence Bowers, tore his ACL in late September, meaning that Missouri was going to be forced to head into a season with plenty of off-the-court distractions with a roster that went just seven-deep, had only two big-men and completely lacked the kind of chemistry required to win at a high level.
"It was very obvious that a lot of guys were thinking beyond college and thinking about themselves, and we suffered from it," Bowers said. "I think it is fair to say that we seemed divided, it was 'you-get-yours, I'll-get-mine.'"
The glue that held the Tigers together last season was Haith. He was the one who convinced the seniors to buy into a four-guard system. He was the one who convinced Kim English, who was drafted this June as a shooting guard by the Detroit Pistons, to spend the season playing power forward. He was the one who turned a group of individuals wearing Missouri jerseys into a real, honest-to-god team.
The key, as Haith tells it, was that his star players -- guys like English -- accepted their roles.
"Those guys knew Kimmie," Haith said. "'I'm a two-guard in the NBA, that's who I am.' Well, I told the kid, 'You're going to play the four. You're going to help us win games as a four man.' He bought into it whole heartedly. He became a guy that you looked at and in the past, he may have played selfish, and he became an unselfish player. And you have got to get your best players to buy-in that way and it helps you get to your whole team."
While this offseason has been much calmer for the Tigers, Haith is still going to have his work cut out for him heading into the 2012-2013 season. Five of the seven players from last year's rotation are gone, including All-American Marcus Denmon, all-conference second-teamer Ricardo Ratliffe and English. He'll be forced, for the second season in a row, to take a team that is new to him into a conference that is new to the program. Mike Dixon and Phil Pressey return in the backcourt, but they'll be playing with, essentially, an entirely new roster this year. In addition to a healthy Bowers, Missouri adds four transfers -- UConn's Alex Oriakhi, Auburn's Earnest Ross, Pepperdine's Keion Bell and Oregon's Jabari Brown (who is eligible at the semester break) -- and a couple of freshmen to its rotation.
It's hard to pity a coach that has that much talent on the roster. Think about it like this: Pressey and Dixon are in the conversation as the best starting backcourt in the country. Ross averaged 13.1 points and 6.6 boards in the SEC. Bell averaged 18.9 points as a junior. Brown was a top 25 recruit nationally. Oriakhi anchored the frontline of a team that won the 2011 national title. And, as of last September, many people felt that Bowers may have actually been the best player in the Missouri program.
But with all that talent comes the ego and the expectation. Players get used to being primary offensive weapons. They develop an affinity for taking 15 shots per game. They like seeing big numbers in the points column next to their name. It's not easy to convince a kid that believes he's a future lottery pick to play a supporting role. It's hard to turn a kid that was a star into a bench player. And Haith knows that.
"Every kid at this level thinks they're an NBA player and wants to be an NBA player. Every kid will not buy into what you're talking about," he said. "But you try to get them to understand that in order for you to get where you want to be, you gotta understand who you are, know who you are and accept who you are. That doesn't mean your role can't change, but this is what we think, collectively, will help us win. We win, you win."
That's where the irony lies for this Missouri team.
On paper, this group looks much better than the 2012 version did at this same time last season. With Pressey and Dixon sharing minutes in the backcourt, Haith will once again have a pair of ballhandlers that are a nightmare on the defensive end of the floor and compliment each other perfectly offensively, Pressey being the creator and Dixon being the scorer. Brown and Bell give him a scoring punch on the wing, while Bowers and Ross are the versatile forwards that will allow Haith to play with the lineup he has on the floor. Oriakhi was, in Haith's words, "like a Christmas present you weren't expecting." He's the anchor, the guy who will protect the rim and dominate the paint on both ends of the floor. His size and ability in the lane will allow the Tigers to become a much more aggressive defensive team.
"You look at our team, if he wasn't a part of our team, it would be the one thing where you would sit back and say 'do we really have that?,'" Haith said. "We could play Laurence there and Earnest Ross at the four and be like the same team that we were last year or how far along are the young guys. Well, now we got a proven guy in that spot.
"He's been to a place that none of us have been. He's won a national championship."
But, like Haith said, the key for Missouri isn't whether or not they have players that fill a need, it is whether he can once again get the guys on his team to accept the fact that they are on the roster because they fill a need, not because they are the team's star.
And Bowers may be the guy that is called upon to lead the way.
The 6-foot-8 forward is the elder statesmen for the Tigers, the fifth-year senior was supposed to graduate with last year's class as the best NBA prospect on the roster. But he's also "the new guy" this year. He, along with Oriakhi, is the only guy that we've mentioned who doesn't have a year's worth of practice in Haith's system under his belt. "The majority of the key transfers were here this past year, just didn't play," Bowers said. That, combined with the fact that he's coming off of a devastating knee injury like a torn ACL, and it's easy to see why he would be behind the eight-ball this year.
The irony, however, is that Bowers may actually fit in with this group better than he did on last season's roster. His strength is on the defensive end of the floor, where his versatility, length and athleticism (which he says is almost back to where he was before the injury) allows him to be a dangerous playmaker. After thriving with a unique, four-guard, three-point shooting system last season, the Tigers are going to have a much different make-up in 2012-13. They are going to win games on the defensive end of the floor.
"From an defensive standout, we're going to extend out a little bit more, but nothing crazy," Haith said. "I'm not a big press guy. We can block shots, we can rotate, we can knock balls loose because of our length we didn't have last year. I think this team can create more turnovers, which, in essence, will create more of a transition game, and I think we've got great finishers at the end of it."
It's unfair to call Bowers' injury a blessing in disguise. Not only did he, you know, tear his ACL, but as both he and Haith noted, a number of the games that Missouri lost last season came as a result of the Tiger's getting beat up in the paint. It is fair to say, however, that Bowers' career should have a happy ending.
"Laurence Bowers is going to be great with this team. He would have been great with last year's team. I think he's a very gifted and talented player," Haith said. "He's got a great, great feel for the game. His instincts, his ball-skills in terms of passing the ball, he would have been pretty good in our situation last year. He's a playmaker at that position. He can score, but he can also pass and he's a helluva defensive player."
Bowers ability and versatility, on both ends of the floor, makes him a perfect fit alongside Oriakhi on Missouri's front line. The question is whether he, like English last season, is willing to put personal glory aside in an effort to embrace the role that is the best for his team.
If he can set the tone, there's no reason Missouri can't compete with Kentucky for the SEC crown.