KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Slouched in a folding chair in front his locker after Thursday night’s loss to Nebraska, his hoodie bunched over his head like Kenny from “South Park,” sophomore guard J.T. Tiller had the look of a man worn by a long and tumultuous season. He wasn’t the only one.
Sophomore guard Keon Lawrence poked at his sandwich, forcing himself to take rabbit bites. Junior forward Leo Lyons looked like he’d rather have been anywhere but where he was, doing anything other than what he was doing — staring at the ground in the bowels of the Sprint Center following the loss that ended Missouri’s season with a 16-16 record.
This was probably not where MU envisioned itself on the night of March 13. Prior to the start of the season, multiple, well-respected college basketball magazines predicted the Tigers would make the NCAA Tournament.
In October, when the reporters covering the Big 12 made their predictions, the Tigers were supposed to finish fifth in the league, tie with Oklahoma and be ahead of both Baylor and Texas A&M, all of whom will be playing this weekend in the NCAA Tournament while Missouri watches it on television.
They finished 10th in the league, something Lawrence said was a huge letdown.
“I’m definitely disappointed with this season,” he said. “We had the team to do some positive things after we were 18-12 last year, and we just didn’t.”
Signs of trouble started well before the actual season. Senior center Kalen Grimes, who led MU in rebounds in the 2006-2007 season, was dismissed from the team in July after being charged for hitting a man in the face outside a Dairy Queen in Florissant in an early-morning altercation.
After junior forward DeMarre Carroll was shot in the ankle in Columbia a week later, coach Mike Anderson implemented a “zero-tolerance” policy. But when MU’s senior forward Darryl Butterfield was arrested for a charge later reduced to peace disturbance, he returned to the team after sitting out just one pre-season game.
Even though Anderson backed off his zero tolerance policy almost immediately, it didn’t help MU’s rebounding. The Tigers trailed in rebounds in 19 of their 24 games this season against major conference opponents. Lyons said the team used to talk about how different the season would have been with Grimes.
“He was a major force inside for us,” Lyons said of Grimes. “Losing him definitely hurt us. I know we would have been a lot better with him here.”
At the start of the season, MU was also disheartened by close losses to average teams. They almost upset Michigan State, but almost is the key word. The Tigers lost a heartbreaker at Arkansas, and followed that with a 13-point loss to California, a game in which they were out-rebounded 41-20. They lost by one in St. Louis against Illinois, a team that finished the season 15-18.
“Those close losses hurt us, because we didn’t finish out games like we should have,” Tiller said. “We didn’t have any swagger with us, and it told us that everyone else had gotten better but maybe we weren’t.”
The season was marked by a regression in players key to Missouri’s 18-win campaign the previous year. Most notable was senior forward Marshall Brown, who watched his playing time dwindle from 24 minutes per game in the 2007 Big 12 schedule to just 14 per night in 2008. His scoring went from 12 points per game to fewer than five a season later.
“I think we had some other guys that were playing well,” Anderson said when asked why Brown’s playing time dwindled. “Again, when we had the incidents that took place, we had some guys, hey, we’re going to go with those guys.”
The incident Anderson referred to was the turning point of the season: the now infamous fight outside Athena Night Club that occurred around 1 a.m. on Jan. 27. The Tigers had earned their first true road win of the season at Colorado the afternoon before, a 66-62 comeback in which senior guard Stefhon Hannah made a critical steal and lay-in in the waning seconds to ice the victory.
According to police reports, less than eight hours after that steal in Boulder, Colo., Hannah, who was leading MU in scoring with 14.7 points per game, was lying face down on the corner of Hitt and Locust streets in downtown Columbia after being struck in the face during a fight. In addition to suffering a fractured jaw, Hannah and senior guard Jason Horton were both charged with third-degree assault.
Hannah returned home to Chicago and was kicked off the team two weeks later for not returning to classes. Twelve-eight that morning, the Tigers finished just 4-8 after the fight.
Lawrence said while the loss of MU’s leading scorer made the team closer and inspired them to upset Kansas State the following Saturday, in the long haul, it was too much to overcome.
“We lost a good player for us, and other guys had to adjust and be ready to step up and we just couldn’t,” Lawrence said. “I mean, we did good, we won some games without him, but we couldn’t bring him back.”
Losing Hannah hurt the Tigers even more because he was one of Anderson’s handpicked players for his aggressive “forty minutes of hell” system. From that point on, MU had to rely more on former coach Quin Snyder’s recruits. One of those recruits, Horton, played at least 20 minutes in all but one game following the fight (and a two-game suspension for his alleged role in the altercation and violation of curfew), but only scored 10 points when he played 42 minutes in the double-overtime win against Iowa State on March 5.
“No more put-downs to us, but we weren’t the players coach Anderson recruited,” Lyons said. “It was just hard for the old guys and the new guys to mesh together on the court.”
Anderson said he did his best to play the hand he was dealt after he came to MU in 2006 after four consecutive 20-win seasons and three NCAA Tournament berths at Alabama-Birmingham.
“I inherited a team,” he said Thursday. “One thing about me, I never complain, you know, about what I have. I just work with what I’ve got.”
But there were some concerns Anderson was trying to fit his players into a system they were incapable of handling. Lyons said he never felt pushed, but even if he did, it wasn’t his call.
“I wouldn’t say he pushed me into his system,” Lyons said of Anderson. “I mean, he’s the coach, it’s either his way or the highway.”
Headed into next season this core of players’ window of opportunity will be closing. Lyons, Carroll and guard Matt Lawrence, all starters, will be seniors. Coming in will be seven of Anderson’s “guys,” including transfers Zaire Taylor, a guard from Delaware, and Keith Ramsey, a forward from Oklaoosa-Walton (Fla.) Community College. Two freshmen recruits — guard Marcus Denmon from Hogan Preparatory Academy in Kansas City and forward Laurence Bowers of the St. George’s School in suburban Memphis, Tenn., — are also expected to make an immediate impact.
The question remains whether Lyons, a Snyder recruit and the team’s best player, can mesh for a full season.
“This was just the second year in coach Anderson’s system, and hopefully we can figure it out more next year,” Lyons said. “We really have no choice. I want to make the NCAA Tournament while I’m here.”
Anderson said his team next season will be deeper and will continue to get better.
“I think what you’ve seen (is) a steady improvement of players,” he said. “I think some of the foundation, some of it is laid. I think you saw that movement where we’re improving. Hopefully we can add on with the recruiting class we have coming in.”
Carroll said as hard as this season has been, it has given them the motivation to try and avoid the same predicament again. And he said he was proud that the team never quit.
“This year has been ups and downs,” he said. “There has been a lot of stuff going on. I’m still—- it is not the best season, but I’m just happy we made it this far, because we really didn’t have to make it this far with all the stuff that went on. So hopefully we can continue and get better next year.”