Flying Tigers

Thanks to its Hell-raising coach and a tough, frenetic style that has recaptured the hearts of its disaffected fans, Missouri has overcome scandal and apathy to become a contender once again
March 02, 2009

THE BUILDING ofmodern Missouri basketball took more than 30 years, the demolition less than adecade. Not long ago Mizzou was a reliable power, with 20 NCAA tournamentappearances—and three Elite Eight finishes—in 28 years under longtime coachNorm Stewart and his successor, Quin Snyder. For Missourians the Tigers were asource of state and university pride built on principles that matched theirown. "Here they like a team that works hard, plays defense and protects thehome court," says Jon Sundvold, a two-time all-conference guard who playedat Missouri from 1980 through '83 and still lives in Columbia. "They liketough teams." ¬∂ But tradition can prove fragile if not given proper care.Missouri has not reached the NCAA tournament since 2003, and in that time hasleft behind the customary detritus of college sports collapse: a deposed coach,NCAA sanctions, off-the-court embarrassments, falling attendance and, mostdamning, defeats and anonymity. From one home in Columbia and another in PalmDesert, Calif., Stewart, 74, watched and agonized. "It took a lot of youngmen a lot of time and effort to get to the point that we reached," saysStewart. "It was tough to see it dismantled."

Yet just as theTigers lapsed into irrelevance, now comes an unexpected rebirth. After a 66--53win over Colorado in Boulder last Saturday, Missouri improved to 23--4 overalland 10--2 in the Big 12, and at No. 11 in the nation this week is surely NCAAtournament bound. And in a four-day stretch beginning Sunday, the Tigers arescheduled to play at Kansas and host Oklahoma at Mizzou Arena in Columbia onMarch 4, games that will command the sport's attention and help configurepostseason play. "Three years ago students would ask me if we were evergoing to win more games than the football team," says senior guard MattLawrence. "Now they're asking me what seed we're going to be in thetournament."

Missouri hasreturned to college basketball's consciousness behind third-year coach MikeAnderson, who has melded an unlikely mix that includes two battle-scarredseniors, two transfers and seven first-year players and embraces the 40 Minutesof Hell style that Anderson learned in 17 years as an assistant to NolanRichardson at Arkansas during the heyday of the full-court-pressing Hogs. TheTigers, who beat border rival Kansas 62--60 on Feb. 9 for the first time inthree years, have not lost at home this season. They are alive again, both as acautionary tale about the perils of taking success for granted and a parable ofrevival.

THEIR STORYbegins somewhere en route to the bottom, during a bus ride to an airport inWaco, Texas, on Feb. 7, 2006. Missouri lost 90--64 to Baylor that night, theTigers' sixth consecutive defeat, to fall to 10--11 for the season. Snyderwalked to the middle of the bus and offered up a brief speech. "He said,'There's more to life than basketball,'" recalls Lawrence. "And Iremember thinking, Man, that was weird. I wonder what that was allabout."

It was all aboutthe end of Snyder's brief, tumultuous tenure in Columbia. He was hired in 1999to replace Stewart, a state institution who had starred as an All-America guardat Missouri from 1952 through '56 and went on to win 634 games in 32 years asthe Tigers' coach—though the program had brushes with the NCAA police in histime too. Snyder was 32, the top assistant under Mike Krzyzewski at Duke andone of the hottest names in the profession, a comer with a great mind and evenbetter hair. "We had to recruit him just to get him here, because so manyother people wanted him," says Missouri athletic director Mike Alden.

Snyder won 62games in his first three seasons and went to the NCAA tournament each year. Healso presided over the recruitment of controversial guard Ricky Clemons, whowas arrested in a domestic battery case in January 2003, plead guilty toreduced charges and was jailed that July. While incarcerated, Clemons madeallegations about cash payments and improper academic aid to players, whichultimately led to the resignation of two assistant coaches and a major NCAAinvestigation that landed Missouri on three years' probation in the fall of'04. Snyder's '04--05 and '05--06 teams won only 16 and 10 games, respectively,and worse, seemed to be losing that connection to their loyal populace."Things just unraveled," says Sundvold.

Two days afterthe Baylor loss Snyder walked into the locker room before practice wearingjeans and a dress shirt and told the team that he was resigning. His topassistant, Melvin Watkins, was named interim coach, and Missouri finished theregular season with two wins in its final six games and a loss to Nebraska inthe first round of the Big 12 tournament. "A whirlwind," says Lawrenceof that period. "It was pretty disheartening around here."

It was alsoterrifying for the university. The spectacular $75 million, 15,061-seaton-campus Mizzou Arena had been completed during Snyder's last year, built onthe goodwill from Stewart's tenure and the buzz of Snyder's hot start. Now itwas half empty for home games. (Mizzou's average attendance had fallen from anaverage of 12,281 in the smaller Hearnes Center in 2004 to 8,369—10th in theBig 12—in Snyder's final season.)

"You can saythat the program was in disarray," says Alden. "Our brand had beendamaged significantly. Looking back, we were trying to do too much tooquickly—build an arena, have great success on court, recruit nationally. Weshould have slowed down. Quin worked his tail off. All of us could have done abetter job."

ON MARCH 26,2006, Anderson, then 47, was hired to restore the program. He had finallygotten his chance to be a head coach when Alabama-Birmingham hired him in '02,and in four seasons with the Blazers his teams had gone 89--41 and made threetrips to the NCAA tournament. But Anderson credits Richardson for his goodfortunes. He got his start playing for Richardson at Tulsa for two seasons inthe early 1980s. "He was one of the toughest guards I ever coached,"says Richardson. "He would take a charge on a Mack Truck."

That toughnesswas hatched in Anderson's youth. He grew up in Birmingham as the sixth of 10children born to Willie Lee and Lucy (Peaches) Anderson. They lived in athree-room shotgun house, and Anderson spent countless hours at the rec center.If there was a game, he played it. If there was a race, he ran—or swam—in it.When his high school started a soccer team, Anderson was the goalie.

He brought thatsame passion for competing to Missouri, running his holdover players through ade facto tryout in the spring of 2006. "There is a reason the job wasopen," says Anderson. "They had some issues here, ain't no questionabout that. I needed to see what I had."

The first yearhis team was a surprisingly solid 18--12 despite more off-the-court issues.Reserve guard Mike Anderson Jr., the coach's son, was suspended from the teamafter a drunk-driving arrest in February 2007 but was later reinstated.Returning starter Kalen Grimes was dismissed from the team in July '07 after hewas charged with second-degree felony assault for hitting a man with the buttof a shotgun. (Grimes never went to jail and ended up graduating from Mizzou in'08.) Later that month forward DeMarre Carroll was shot in the ankle outside aColumbia nightclub while trying to break up a fight. In late January fiveMissouri players were suspended following a bar brawl; leading scorer StefhonHannah was dismissed from the team. "Those were things that made the schoollook real bad," says Leo Lyons, a senior who was among the five suspendedplayers simply because he was at the club that night, even though he did nottake part in the brawl. On Jan. 30, 2008, the Tigers played with just sixscholarship players and two walk-ons at Nebraska and nearly beat the Huskers.Three days later, with two of the five suspended players back in uniform, theybeat Kansas State and were enthusiastically rooted on by the Mizzou Arenacrowd. From embarrassment, Anderson had planted the first seeds of respect.

He had also begunassembling a team that could play the frenetic style he wanted. The Tigers have12 players who average at least six minutes per game, a relatively undersizedcollection that attacks passing lanes in ways that must warm Richardson'sheart. (Richardson is a frequent visitor to Columbia, where Mizzou players callhim the Grandfather.) Missouri is third in the nation in steals (averaging10.3) and second in turnover margin (+6.6).

The team is adisparate collection of players. From his own family tree, Anderson foundCarroll, a 6'8" 225-pounder who every summer attended the Arkansas camp inFayetteville but chose Vanderbilt over UAB when Anderson recruited him out ofhigh school. "He wanted to play [at a bigger program], and that'sO.K.," says Anderson. But Carroll chafed at Vandy's Princeton offense andjumped at the chance to transfer into his uncle's system, where, after sittingout the 2006--07 season, he averaged 13.0 points in '07--08 and 17.0 so farthis year, while often playing at the top of the Tigers' press. "He's gotthe freedom to go out and make plays," says Nebraska coach Doc Sadler."That's a big part of Missouri's success."

From Snyder'sroster Anderson already had Lawrence and Lyons. The 6'7", 203-poundLawrence was told that he wouldn't be able to play in Anderson's freneticsystem. "I'm a taller guard and a white guy," says Lawrence, whoaverages almost 20 minutes and 8.7 points per game. "People warned me. ButI'm a Tiger." Lyons (14.3 points, 6.0 rebounds) is a dangerous scorer whose6'9", 244-pound frame presents outside matchup problems.

Guard J.T.Tiller, a relentless defender, was part of Anderson's last recruiting class atUA and transferred to Missouri to follow his coach. Zaire Taylor, anothertransfer (from Delaware), has made two game-winning shots this season and issuch a basketball junkie that he spent all of New Year's Day in the gym workingon his shooting. He celebrates the sport in the poetry he writes and performsat campus open mike nights:

When you enteredmy life, nothing was wrong

Couldn't go left,everything was right

At a prep schoolin Fitchburg, Mass., Anderson found Kim English, a 6'6" guard so dedicatedto practicing that during last summer he often slept on a recliner in theMizzou locker room so that he could shoot late at night and lift weights earlyin the morning without having to go back to his dorm in between. He continuedthe routine once the season started, returning to the gym to shoot predawn jumpshots after road losses to Illinois on Dec. 23 and Kansas State on Jan. 28.

Together, thiscrew has recaptured the fan base in much the same way that Stewart's teamsfirst engaged it—with relentless, energetic play. "I'm in completesupport," says Stormin' Norman, whose name is painted on the Mizzou Arenafloor. "They're playing the game the way good teams do, with energy.enthusiasm and intensity."

The balance sheetlooks better too. The last three home games have been sellouts, and the finaltwo are expected to be as well. "[During] the Kansas game I could feel thefloor shaking," says Carroll. "I've never heard it like that."

Lyons recalledthe moment and the win. "With everything that's happened here," hesays, "it's like a movie."

Like every teamin America, the Tigers' vision is trained on March. But for Missouri, thisgroup's legacy is something grander. A state's confidence has been restored. Aprogram's course has been righted. "For the older guys," says Lawrence,"it was a side goal of ours to turn this program back around. I came togames on this campus when I was a kid. I knew what it could be like. We wantedto make the school believe in the basketball team again."

"The program WAS IN DISARRAY," says Alden."Our brand had been damaged. We were trying to do too much tooquickly."

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PHOTOPhotograph by Greg NelsonRELATIVE EASE Carroll (1) has thrived since transferring from Vanderbilt three years ago to play for his uncle. PHOTOGREG NELSONFULL-COURT PRESSURE Anderson imported the 40 Minutes of Hell style that he learned as a longtime assistant at Arkansas. PHOTODAVID E. KLUTHOGUARD'S DUTY The unsung Taylor (11) is known for his lockdown defense, but he's made two game-winning shots this season.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)