Missouri basketball looks to seize opportunity in SEC play

Mizzou will travel to Georgia on Wednesday to begin Kim Anderson’s second SEC schedule. In a conference on the up, fans should certainly show up. It could lead to a regained sense of opportunity for the freshman and the fanbase.
Missouri Tigers basketball coach Kim Anderson watches the action from the bench during the game against the Nebraska Omaha Mavericks on Dec. 9 at the Mizzou Arena. The Tigers won 85-78 and have gone 2-3 since.

For most Missouri basketball fans, the date March 16, 2012, should forever be etched in their memory. It was the last time a highly-favored Mizzou basketball team was knocked off in the NCAA tournament, but it’s the knocking on the door that remains present in fans’ minds still today.

It was a Friday, and the Missouri men’s basketball team was appearing in their fourth straight NCAA Tournament. And though former coach Mike Anderson had left for Arkansas just one year prior, this was a showcase of his coaching efforts in Columbia. The Tigers, 30-5, were named a two-seed, but it was a matchup with 15-seed Norfolk State that derailed it all.

Mizzou became the sixth two-seed ever to lose in the opening round, and the program hasn’t been the same since.

"I'm very disappointed, as everyone in that locker room was," former Mizzou coach Frank Haith said postgame. "I hurt for those seniors because they put so much into this. They had high expectations."

Haith had taken over for Anderson after a seven-year stint at Miami, and this was his first season at the helm. For the longtime assistant-turned-head coach, this was an opportunity to advance past the first round, something he couldn’t accomplish at his only tournament appearance in Coral Gables. And again, he wasn’t able to get it done.

This loss hurt recruiting and program perception, and it was the first domino to fall in leading to his resignation three years later.

That resignation paved the way for former Missouri player and now coach Kim Anderson. In his second year, Missouri’s 2015-16 squad is headed into conference play with a 7-6 record and a goal to “improve” each time they take the court.

In succeeding Haith, the rebuilding job was certainly a tall task. Under Anderson, the 2014-15 team won a mere nine games and had a roster turnover that had some longing for the days of Mike Anderson, Kim English and, well, “high expectations.”

Coming into 2015-16, many talked about the freshmen. Guards Terrence Phillips and KJ Walton and forward Kevin Puryear bring energy, there’s no question. But have they turned the tide for the program?

The fan turnout wouldn’t tell you that. Fans have stopped showing up to games. The annual “Braggin’ Rights” against Illinois hosted 14,456 fans. This year and 2008 were the only years the event, which has taken place at the Scottrade Center since 1994, have held less than 20,000 people. After the game, St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Benjamin Hochman took note as he penned a column titled: “Crowd nothing to brag about.”

Mizzou has averaged 5,842 fans per game during their nonconference home slate. With an arena that seats 15,061, an average of 38.7 percent of the arena was filled during the season’s early months — a stat that neither Kim Anderson the player nor Anderson the coach would be proud of.

It’s the perception and it’s the misconception — that this turnaround is going to be easy. It takes time for a coach to turn a program like this around. He has to instill passion in his team and the fanbase, but it's recruiting players that gets the job done.

On Missouri’s recruiting, Jerry Meyer, 247sports.com’s director of basketball scouting, referred to the numbers in an interview over email. Last year, Missouri had the No. 67 class nationally and No. 13 class in the Southeastern Conference. This year, the Tigers currently hold the No. 51 class nationally and No. 8 class in the SEC.

“There is not much evidence that (the) recruiting that has occurred so far is going to turn the program around,” Meyer said. “Recruiting will have to improve for the program to improve. (It’s) hard to envision any level of coaching or player development could turn a program around with those recruiting numbers.”

A commitment from junior Michael Porter Jr., who plays at F. Tolton Regional Catholic High School in Columbia, would give fans hope. His dad, Michael Porter Sr., is an assistant for the women’s team. His sisters, Bri and Cierra, play for the women’s team. And his aunt, Robin Pingeton, is the women’s head coach.

But Meyer said the forecast doesn’t look too good.

“With Michael Porter Jr.’s younger brother making an early pledge to Washington and with the strong pursuit of Kansas and other elite programs, it doesn’t look great for Missouri landing Porter Jr.,” Meyer said. “I would assume that the on court play of the team would need to improve for Missouri’s chances to improve with him.”

Regardless, Anderson takes it one day at a time. Mizzou will travel to Georgia on Wednesday to begin Anderson’s second SEC schedule. In a conference on the up, fans should certainly show up. It could lead to a regained sense of opportunity for the freshman and the fanbase.

In an interview earlier this year, former guard Keith Shambarger said: “I think the program is on the up. The people Coach Anderson puts around you and everybody out there supporting you makes you want to win every game.”

For the fans, though, the question isn’t if the players will “want to win” a game in the NCAA tournament like the one on March 16, 2012, in the near future. With the progress that’s been made, the question raised now is if the players will get to.

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