Column: For Missouri men's basketball, next year will be even better

As amazing as this past season of Missouri men’s basketball was, it will eventually be remembered by fans for one moment: the Norfolk State game.

“Heart-breaker” fails to do it justice. The Tigers and their fans had their guts wrenched out in terrible loss to a No. 15 seed with substantially less talent. The Spartans pulled off an unbelievable upset in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, giving new meaning to March Madness here in Columbia.

It was horrifying. But now it’s over, and a light at the end of the tunnel shines for the Missouri Tigers: The 2012-13 squad will be better than the one that just capped off an at-times majestic 30-5 season that ended with little to no punctuation.

One can blather on about all the talent and leadership lost with the seniors’ departure, but the new faces next winter will more than make up for the turnover.

This is not a slight against departing All-Big 12 Conference seniors Marcus Denmon, Kim English or Ricardo Ratliffe. Denmon (17.7 points per game in 2011-12) is one of the best to ever wear the black and gold, English (14.5 ppg) was marvelous in the Big 12 tournament, and Ratliffe (13.9 ppg) was as good as advertised out of junior college.

The claim is more of a testament to the abilities of the incoming players.

Only two holdovers from this past year’s roster return, but they were both top three players on the team, behind Denmon. Point guards Phil Pressey (the Big 12’s assists and steals leader) and Michael Dixon (the best sixth man in the nation with 13.3 points a game) will see gobs of minutes on the floor next season, coach Frank Haith said Monday.

Add to them forward Laurence Bowers (11.6 ppg in 2010-11), a possible pre-season All-American candidate coming off injury, and the Tigers have three rock-solid building blocks.

This is where the fun begins.

Three transfer players have been sitting out behind the scenes for the last few months, biding their time until they are eligible in the fall. All three would make a major impact on any team in the country.

Freshman Jabari Brown was a five-star recruit from the 2011 class who still has four years of eligibility after transferring to MU from Oregon. The 6-foot-4-inch guard from Oakland, Calif., will be the most talented specimen on the floor when he suits up next season. He’s the type of superstar talent that seldom finds its way to Columbia.

Senior Keion Bell from Pepperdine is another exciting transfer. While he only has one season of eligibility left, he provides veteran experience to the Tigers: He’s already scored 1,365 points in his career, averaging almost 17 a game. He has the ability to fill the large shoes Denmon left behind as a scorer, and lift the Tigers when they need a bucket.

The last premier transfer is Earnest Ross, a junior guard from Auburn. He will play at Mizzou Arena for two more years, and he has Southeastern Conference experience: He averaged 13.1 points per game as a sophomore at Auburn. He will also look to pick up the slack on the boards, as he led Auburn in rebounds in 2010-11 with 6.6 a game from the guard spot.

If you’re keeping track, that’s six players who would get good minutes at any school in the country. Not bad for a team that just lost five of its seven regulars.

Size will once again be an issue next season. The departed Ratliffe (6 feet 7 inches) and Steve Moore (6 feet 8 inches) give way to Bowers (6 feet 8 inches) and 6-foot-9-inch sophomore transfer Danny Feldmann, who should hold their own but won’t be the centerpieces of the offense.

Last season, Missouri lived and died with its guard play, and it will do so even more this year with so many quality ball handlers and shooters.

But the depth problems that sometimes plagued Missouri last year should be a problem of the past, as reports that seven players are currently committed to the Tigers for the 2012-13 season, including prized football recruit Dorial Green-Beckham. A couple of frosh will have a chance to contribute immediately to the rotation and give the starters more time on the bench to catch their breath.

Needless to say, the roster has a mind-blowing amount of talent, which coach Haith should be able to parlay into one of the best seasons in the history of the program. While Denmon’s production might not be replaced, English’s numbers will be matched by at least three of the guards next year, and the frontcourt of Bowers and Feldmann is definitely on par with Ratliffe and Moore.

The roster boasts much more depth and plenty of experience, a good combination for a deep run in March.

Forget the conference title: The national crown will be well within reach in the Tigers’ first season in the SEC.

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