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Wednesday, August 20, 2014

New faces, new attitudes shape Missouri basketball as the season approaches

Nov. 13, 2008

It wasn't printed on a big poster or used at the end of a big speech.

It wasn't a long monologue or a prepackaged coaching cliché.

But one small note written discreetly on a dry-erase board at the Missouri men's basketball team's practice last Monday perfectly sums up the program's focus entering this season: "Play hard, act right."

The note guides the team as it enters the 2008-09 campaign, in which Missouri hopes to atone for a 6-10 Big 12 record and well-publicized legal problems from a year ago.

If you didn't know better, talk out of the Missouri basketball program heading into this season might pass for a transcript of a Barack Obama speech.

"This is a new year," senior forward DeMarre Carroll said. "It's time for a change."

The change comes as a result of seven newcomers on the roster, including five freshmen and two transfers. The task of finding the right balance of new and returning players doesn't seem to faze coach Mike Anderson at all.

"As a coach you look forward to the challenge of blending the old with the new," Anderson said.

Anderson enters his third season as Missouri's coach with a 34-28 record in his tenure at MU, but Missouri's inability to qualify for the postseason under Anderson has colored the numbers.

During Anderson's first two seasons in his previous coaching positions at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, his teams advanced to the quarterfinals of the NIT and the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

But win totals and postseason appearances aren't the only things hanging over Anderson this season. The entire program is looking to resolve a public image crisis after multiple player arrests last season, including the notorious Athena Night Club incident last January.

After the incident, Anderson suspended the five players involved, leading to one of the most memorable games of last season when Missouri took to Mizzou Arena against Nebraska with only seven players. Missouri's patchwork roster lost by just four points.

Fast forward to 2008, and the change in chemistry could not be more apparent - both on and off the court.

"On the court, it seems like there's more trust - not as much selfish play and everyone believes in one another," junior guard J.T. Tiller said. "Off the court, everyone has accountability for themselves. It's a social responsibility that we have that we can act right in public and go out to places and have a positive outlook from everyone else."

Tiller's contagious attitude and breakneck speed are helping to mend bridges between the team and its fan base. Before the season, the team made it a point to get out in the community, including holding youth basketball camps.

The face time with the fan base is already paying dividends, Tiller said.

"They don't look at us as thugs," Tiller said. "They look at us more as role models and see that we're doing more positive things in the community."

Junior guard Zaire Taylor has had a front row seat to observe the attitude transformation before this season. Taylor was forced to sit out last season after transferring from Delaware.

"The camaraderie and the fellowship between us is a lot more natural," Taylor said. "Everybody here is my brother."

Throughout the preseason, Anderson praised his team's work ethic and unselfishness, both of which were implied differences from the 2007-08 team.

After the Black and Gold game on Oct. 29, Anderson spoke reverently about having players who were "proud to wear the uniform." Tiller said the program's attitude is simply more positive.

Carroll said the players' unselfishness and the new team attitude aren't coincidental.

"You can tell everybody wants to be here," Carroll said. "It's about the team. When you have guys that care more about the team than themselves, you're always going to have a positive outlook."

The positive outlook is being fed by the new blood in the program. Taylor and freshman guards Marcus Denmon, Miguel Paul and Kim English join Tiller to solidify the backcourt, while transfer Keith Ramsey and freshmen Steve Moore and Laurence Bowers supplement All-Big 12 preseason honorable mention recipients Leo Lyons and Carroll inside.

Anderson called Bowers a "highlight reel," but the one making the most noise out of the bunch is Denmon, a smooth shooter whose explosive scoring touch has caused several reporters to compare him to former Tiger Clarence Gilbert.

Denmon said the newcomers aren't fazed by the demons that haunted Missouri last season.

"A lot of stuff happened in the past," Denmon said. "This is a new team."

The development of the team's new identity has been a work in progress since the team's exhibition tour through Canada a few months ago. Anderson credits the trip with getting the players accustomed to one another, and several players say that the team is much closer, with no cliques or fragments within the locker room.

The collective result of that chemistry is a team that knows it has something to prove.

"It's good to play with some kind of chip on your shoulder, whatever it may be, 'cause you never want to get too lax and feel like you've earned something that you haven't," Taylor said.

But, again, the battle begins by winning back Missouri fans. Last season, Missouri averaged 8,060 fans per game, down from an average of 12,281 only five seasons ago. Missouri's attendance was third-to-last in the Big 12 last season.

But Missouri fans have proven they'll back a winner. This season, the Missouri football team rode continued success to its highest attendance total since 1980.

Lyons said he believes that support and excitement can make the short trip from Faurot Field to Mizzou Arena.

"The fans are so excited about the football team. Now that (football season) is wrapping up, everybody is just so excited to see all our new pieces and see what we can do," Lyons said.

After a polarizing previous season, the players are ready to restore a once-proud program and give fans a team they can be proud of.

"I like to believe that Columbia is rooting and believing in us," Taylor said. "At the end of the day, I feel like we're capable of delivering."

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