Apparently, the Missouri Tigers basketball team has much yet to prove.
After narrowly missing the program's first-ever Final Four appearance and posting a school-record in wins a season ago, the Tigers were picked seventh in the Big 12's Preseason Coaches' Poll released Wednesday. But head coach Mike Anderson could care less about the strikingly low expectations for his team.
In fact, he insisted—albeit perhaps with tongue in cheek—the Tigers should have been ranked lower.
"They probably should have ranked us last with all we lost," Anderson said during Missouri's preseason media day on Wednesday. "You know how I feel about the polls. That's just somebody's opinion."
Kansas was selected first for the ninth time in 13 years, followed by Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas State, Texas A&M, and Oklahoma State to round out the top half of the conference.
What the Tigers lost is not so much measured in terms of quantity as it is quality. Missouri loses only four members of a squad that was picked to finish seventh in the conference last season, but the trio of seniors DeMarre Carroll, Leo Lyons, and Matt Lawrence combined to average 15.5 rebounds, 5.2 assists, and more than 40 points a game to lead a team that obliterated expectations en route to a Big 12 Tournament title and a spirited run to the NCAA Tournament's Elite Eight.
Missouri finished the season 31-7 and ranked in the top 10 in every major poll.
Still, Anderson knows 2009-10 is a new season. And that means his Tigers will have to prove themselves all over again in what some consider to be the country's most competitive conference —and do so with a fair amount of uncertainty.
"If you look at our basketball team and what we have, there are a lot of question marks," said Anderson, who is entering his fourth season at Missouri. "What's going to take place with our team? That's the fun part as a coach, to put all that together."
With a roster that features eight sophomores and freshmen, Anderson will have few upperclassmen on which to rely, but senior guard J.T. Tiller seems ready to take on the role as the team's undisputed leader. One of only three seniors, Tiller acknowledges the benefit of learning from those who have since departed, but he's anxious to begin paving a new path with his teammates.
"We had some great guys to learn from last year," said Tiller, who scored 8.4 points a game as a junior, in addition to being known as one of the Big 12's most relentless defenders. "Those guys laid the groundwork and set it up for players like Zaire [Taylor], Keith [Ramsey], myself, and Justin [Safford] to lead this year. The things that happened last year are in the past, though.
"We have got to make our own way as a team. It's already a new season."
For sure, this is a young Missouri team, and one that will have to re-establish its up-tempo, defense-first mentality, but the faces are hardly unfamiliar.
Among the 10 players on the roster that return, six averaged at least 11 minutes per game last season, including sophomore guards Kim English , Marcus Denmon , and Miguel Paul , who each saw significant playing time in all 38 games in 2008-09 as reserves.
Factor into the equation those who are expected to join Tiller in a leadership role—senior guard Zaire Taylor , senior forward Keith Ramsey , and junior forward Justin Safford —as well as a solid incoming class that includes prized guard Michael Dixon, Jr. , and this Missouri team has the potential to defy some less-than-favorable expectations.
Anderson said the main goal, above all else, will be to sustain the success that was achieved in the face of skepticism last season. However, if the preseason preparation to this point is any indication, that may not be as big of a problem as the preseason rankings would imply.
"I thought last year you saw a team that started out in one fashion and I think at the end, we were probably playing some of the best basketball of any team I've been associated with as a coach," recalled Anderson, who will attempt to take Missouri to its second consecutive NCAA Tournament in seven seasons.
"This is year four, there's a lot of expectations. But no one expects more than this coach and this team. I'm excited about what's taking place, the kids we have in place, and how hard they're working," Anderson said.
Missouri was left off the Big 12's preseason all-conference team . Kansas' Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich, both Co-Player of the Year picks, are joined by Iowa State forward Craig Brackins, Oklahoma guard Willie Warren, Oklahoma State guard/forward James Anderson, and Texas guard/forward Damion James.
Missouri was selected at No. 29 on Jeff Sagarin's all-time rankings of college basketball programs for ESPN, behind Kansas (No. 3), Oklahoma State (No. 18), Oklahoma (No. 20), and Kansas State (No. 27) among Big 12 schools. Sagarin's rankings do not acknowledge Final Four appearances and national championships , which is why the Tigers outperformed traditional powers Georgetown, Texas, and Arizona. Somehow, St. Louis University ranked No. 53; one spot in front of Connecticut.
Photo credit: Columbia Missourian