For someone that watched that senior-laden group practice in this practice gym inside Mizzou Arena last year, the sight would be unfamiliar.
Friday afternoon, former players like Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore—senior members of Missouri’s seven-man rotation a year ago that finished with 30 wins—were nowhere to be seen. In their places were junior Earnest Ross, senior Keion Bell and senior Alex Oriakhi, all transfers.
The three were even using a strange basketball; a Molten Official, colored in the typical orange but with a swirl of cream and a more slick texture.
It’s what they will be using when they travel to Europe on Wednesday to play in a five-game tour.
“Any time you get to spend with your teammates without any distraction is a plus,” said senior forward Laurence Bowers, one of just three returning players from last year’s squad who was sidelined after a season-ending ACL tear. “As of right now, I think our team’s bonding is really shooting through the roof because if you see one of us you see all of us. … Being able to go over there will make our brotherhood even stronger. It’s big time, the bonding.”
Coach Frank Haith ruled out Bowers playing during the trip. He said junior point guard Phil Pressey, another returner from last season, wouldn’t see floor time either. While Bowers has participated during the team’s 10 practices (granted by a new NCAA rule), Haith said it would not be unwise to rush the former All-Big 12 Conference player’s recovery.
“We are a little banged up and Phil banged his knee the other day (with another teammate), which ended up being a blessing on my part,” Haith said. “Now I don't have to listen to him gnaw at me the whole time about putting him in the game. My plan was not to play him very much anyway. As of right now, he could play on the trip but I see no reason for him to play and I’ve already talked to him about that. Laurence is practicing. He’s full go, (but) I see no value in (him playing) either.”
And so it will be a time for Haith to discover what he has in his fresh-faced roster, which has 12 new names to it.
He’ll be able to watch Ross, who sat out last year as a transfer from Auburn, against opponents rather than teammates in practice. The last time a crowd watched Ross was during his 20-point performance in Missouri’s Black & Gold scrimmage.
English matched up against him and compared him to an NFL linebacker after the scrimmage.
“I think he’s going to be a big asset to this team,” Oriakhi said of Ross, who will play both small and power forward. “I think fans are really going to like him a lot.”
Perhaps fans will pay attention to the reunion of Pressey and Oriakhi as well. The two were teammates on a Boston-area AAU team before college.
Running the floor with his former teammate was just one reason Oriakhi chose Missouri over the many school’s that sought him.
“(Haith) gives you a lot of confidence,” Oriakhi said. “For me, when I make mistakes he still gives me confidence to keep playing. Most importantly, he keeps everything 100 percent. A lot of people don't do that nowadays.“
Haith speaks of last year’s team and remembers it for its “cohesiveness,” for the chemistry it was able to form and how players knew their roles and abided by them.
“That cohesiveness is extremely important,” Haith said. “Us learning our guys, getting a chance to be around each other. That’s extremely important to success.”