MU Preview: Expectations Low Again For Tigers

Luke ThompsonContributor IOctober 16, 2009

BOISE, ID - MARCH 20:  Guard Zaire Taylor #11 of the Missouri Tigers brings the ball upcourt against the Cornell Big Red in the first round of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament at the Taco Bell Arena on March 20, 2009 in Boise, Idaho.  (Photo by Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images)

4, 7, 8, 13, 19, 21, 31.

Those are the rankings of the last year’s Elite Eight teams according to Dick Vitale’s preseason Top 40 that he released in August.

As the more astute readers may have already realized, that’s only seven numbers. So which team isn’t there? The one that no one expected to be in the Elite Eight at this point last season. Missouri. Even Oklahoma, who lost the best player in the country, is ranked 21st.

So does Missouri deserve the lack of recognition, or are the Tigers being disrespected? Well, Missouri did lose a lot of firepower, and didn’t really get much in return. Then again, they weren’t expected to do much last year, and they’re returning five guys that saw decent minutes last season.

Like everyone else, the Tigers had their first practice today, and with the football team coming off a disappointing conference opener against Nebraska and headed for two straight tough games against the Big 12 South, it couldn't come soon enough.

Head coach Mike Anderson surely knows that his team has a lot of questions to answer. The top three scorers, Matt Lawrence, DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons are gone. None of the new faces — Michael Dixon, Tyler Stone, John Underwood — were better than three-star recruits.

For the second straight season, Missouri was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll. When that happened last year, Anderson told everyone that he didn’t really know how good his team was going to be and anything could happen in a conference like the Big 12. You can expect him to say the same things leading up to this season. It’s smart coach-speak.

But do the Tigers really have the talent to stay in the upper half of the conference? Let’s take a quick look at the arguments for both sides.

This team certainly should have a swagger that last year’s team didn’t have at that point. Where the 2008 Tigers hadn’t done much winning in their careers, 11 of 13 players on this year’s team don’t know what it’s like to be unsuccessful in a Missouri uniform.

Anderson knows what his players can do, and they’re almost all his players now, with the exception of J.T. Tiller, who could have been his player. That means they should love running up and down the floor, and they should be good at it. Well, Steve Moore might be an anomaly, but let’s move on.

As another bonus, Mizzou Arena has become a legitimately intimidating place to play. The Tigers might not sell out games in nonconference play, but they’ll surely do better than the 5,000 odd fans who showed up at most games before January last season.

On the other hand, the Tigers sure don’t seem to have the talent of last year. All three of the seniors mentioned earlier are playing professionally, including one who was a first-round draft pick. To replace one of the best frontcourts in the Big 12, the Tigers got…..Tyler Stone and John Underwood? Yeah, good luck with that.

Laurence Bowers, Justin Safford and Keith Ramsey all showed flashes of greatness last season, but they’re going to have to do a lot better than that to keep the Tigers competitive this year. Not only that, but they’ll no longer be facing defenses geared up to stop Carroll and Lyons.

Actually, the loss of the element of surprise may be a detriment to the whole team. Missouri doesn’t have six newcomers ready to see court time this year. The rest of the conference will be gearing up for the Missouri game(s) on their schedule. After all, they were nearly a Final Four team.

That being said, Missouri is going to be coming in under the radar again, and I think that’s a good thing. Kim English’s ultra-confidence aside, no one on this team is ready to take over in the spotlight just yet.

That’s why the key to Missouri’s season is going to be doing the little things that got them big results last year. J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor may need to score a little more, but the most important thing will be keeping their assist-to-turnover rates low. As a team, Missouri had more assists than everyone except North Carolina last season, and they’ll need that kind of production again.

The Tigers need to be able to go at least nine players deep on the bench, so they can keep going after their opponents and dominate the second half, even against teams with more talent. Even when you know what’s coming, it’s tough to play Missouri’s uptempo game for 40 minutes.

I wanted to be able to end this article with an upbeat note about history favoring the Tigers. Unfortunately, my research didn’t yield the results I was looking for. Two other Big 12 teams in this decade won the Big 12 tournament one year and finished seventh in the conference the next.

Oklahoma won the tournament in 2003 and finished seventh in 2004. Oklahoma State won the conference crown in 2004 and 2005, only to finish seventh in 2006. Both of those teams missed the NCAA tournament. Here’s hoping Missouri doesn’t suffer the same fate.