Oct. 15, 2007
Columbia, Mo. -
Year No. 2 has typically been one of great progress for Mike Anderson's programs. From his playing days at Jefferson State Community College (NJCAA national runner-up) and the University of Tulsa (NCAA Tournament), to his coaching tenures at Arkansas (NIT second round) and UA B (NCAA Sweet Sixteen), Anderson's teams have always made tremendous strides in that second season, making the 2007-08 campaign a highly-anticipated one amongst the Tiger faithful.
Since he began coaching in 1982-83 as a volunteer assistant at Tulsa, the win total for Anderson's clubs have increased an average of 5.3 per season in that second year alone. In his first stint as a head coach at UA B, Anderson opened his career by taking the Blazers to a 21-13 mark and an NIT quarterfinal, before coaching them to the NCAA Tournament's Sweet Sixteen in 2003-04. In his first season at Mizzou, Anderson guided the Tigers to an 18-12 mark, which not only tied the Missouri rookie coaching record for wins, but the team's six-win improvement from 2005-06 (12-16) led the Big 12 Conference in regular-season play.
Now, with improved depth and experience, a winning attitude and an influx of new faces, Anderson's Tigers are poised for another breakthrough second season as he continues his hardwood renaissance in Columbia.
"I think there is an opportunity for this team to build on last season," Anderson said. "We will obviously have some new challenges this year, but we have a solid nucleus of guys that I think can help us continue moving in the right direction."
Overall, Missouri returns four-of-five starters and 11 lettermen from last season's 18-win unit. Led by gritty point guard Stefhon Hannah (unanimous Big 12 Conference Newcomer of the Year in 2006-07), backcourt running mate Keon Lawrence (leading freshman scorer 9.7 ppg), sharpshooter Matt Lawrence (the Big 12's No. 2 three-point shooter at .443) and veteran forward Marshall Brown (91 career games played), the Tigers should be explosive as they continue to learn Mike Anderson's full-court pressure style of play. Throughout the year, Anderson said his Tigers only were able to implement 60-percent of his system, a figure that should increase in the second campaign with a remarkable 87.6 percent the scoring, 80.4 percent of the rebounding, 94.3 percent of the steals and 96.1 percent of the assists returning. The Tigers also added a pair of big bodies to shore up their post production, as Vanderbilt transfer DeMarre Carroll and athletic forward Justin Safford (6-foot-8, 225) enter the fray underneath.
In a nutshell, Mizzou's backcourt returns virtually intact. The strength of last season's much-improved team, Hannah and Keon Lawrence pace this explosive group, which should rank among the Big 12's deepest and most talented units. Overall, the MU backcourt returns a combined 128 career starts and has four players with considerable starting experience. The Big 12 Conference's top non-freshman newcomer last season, Hannah will be a focal point of opposing teams after he led Mizzou in scoring, assists, steals and minutes played a year ago. A returning All-Big 12 performer, Hannah is the Big 12's top returning point guard (scoring-wise) and is No. 2 among returning points guards in both assists (4.6) and steals (2.4).
A consistent scoring and defensive threat for the Tigers, Hannah reached double figures in 27-of-30 contests a year ago, including a team-leading seven games where he topped the 20-point plateau. Known for his versatility offensively, Hannah ranked No. 2 on the team in three-point field goals (59) and his remarkable 179 points in the paint led the club. A key for Hannah this season will be cutting back on turnovers. Although he ranked No. 7 in the Big 12 in assists-to-turnover ratio, Hannah's 98 miscues (to go with his 137 dimes) were too high by his standards and was an area of off-season focus for the Chicago native.
"It's pretty simple, I've got to be more consistent this year," Hannah said. "I need to let the game come to me and I'll do a better job of that this year. I do think we'll mesh better as a group this year after having played together for a year. We spent most of last summer feeling each other out, but now we can focus on taking our play as a whole to another level."
While he entered the starting lineup without much fanfare, Keon Lawrence's emergence as MU 's No. 2 scorer took a great deal of pressure off of Hannah. One of the Big 12's quickest players, the 6-foot-2 guard closed out his freshman season by reaching double figures in the final eight contests, including a career-high 24 points against Baylor at home and 18 points in a road win at No. 18 Oklahoma State. While his 9.7 ppg. Scoring average was the most for a Tiger freshman since Kareem Rush in 1999-2000, Lawrence averaged 13.9 points over his final 11 games and shot a much-improved 49.5 percent (55-of-111) from the floor and 47.7 percent (21-of-44) from beyond the arc.
No. 2 on the team in scoring throughout the final 11 games, the Newark, N.J., native is ready to take on a larger role in his second season and remained in Columbia during the off-season to hone his impressive offensive array and focus on his defense that is slowly turning into a strength for the athletic, wiry guard.
"Health was a big issue for Keon last season," Anderson said. "Keon had the stress fracture early on and then he had the ankle injury at the start of Big 12 play. Once he started to get healthy, I think people began to see the real Keon. He's got a great deal of confidence and that will grow with every day he spends in our program."
The slashing abilities of Lawrence and Hannah will benefit the shooting prowess of junior Matt Lawrence. Missouri's third returning starter on the wing, Lawrence was the Big 12 Conference's most improved player last season and received national notoriety from ESPN's Stephen Bardo, when he called the St. Louis native his No. 1 Surprise Impact Player in America. Also named to the Big 12's All-Improved Team by the Kansas City Star, Lawrence increased his scoring average 9.7 points from his freshman season, going from 1.5 tallies as a rookie to 11.2 points as a sophomore. Lawrence's 44.3 percent shooting stroke from three-point range not only ranked No. 2 in the Big 12 and No. 14 nationally last season, but ranked No. 8 in school history. His 2.7 treys per game also ranked No. 2 in the Big 12, while his 81 total three-pointers ranked No. 7 in MU lore.
One reason for Lawrence's marked improvement last season was his willingness to stay in Columbia throughout the summer and work on his jumper. Lawrence again remained in Columbia this summer and focused on his strength and quickness, to go with his 500 shots-a-day in the Mizzou Arena practice gym.
"Matt's a basketball player," Anderson said. "He can really shoot the basketball and that's such a weapon in today's game, but one of his biggest strengths is his understanding of the game. Matt's a savvy player and knows when and how to make the right plays. Also, and he doesn't get a lot of credit for it, but his athleticism is better than people think, so he really brings a lot to the table for our team."
While the offensive versatility of Matt Lawrence, Keon Lawrence and Stefhon Hannah will excite fans, the defensive-minded Jason Horton will provide outstanding balance and depth at both backcourt slots. The team's top on-ball defender a year ago, Horton returns for his fourth season and ranks among Missouri's all-time leaders in both assists and steals. A three-year starter for MU , Horton has 319 career assists in 89 career games (3.6 apg.), and needs just 11 more dimes to move into the Missouri career Top 10. In fact, Horton has never had fewer than 95 assists in a season, and needs just 64 helpers to pass Hall of Famer Jon Sundvold for No. 5 all-time.
Although Lawrence assumed Horton's starting role midway through Big 12 play, the 6-foot-1 senior remained a key figure for the Tigers, and finished the season No. 14 in the Big 12 with 3.2 assists and No. 4 with an outstanding 2.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. In fact, once Horton began coming off of the bench, his assist-to-turnover numbers actually increased as he dished 22 assists compared to just four turnovers over the final eight regular-season contests (5.5-to-1). While Horton's mistake-free style will earn the Dallas, Texas, native valuable minutes, his biggest contributions will continue come on defense (115 career steals) where he has been the team's top on-ball defender each of the past two seasons.
"I thought you saw Jason Horton quietly have a great junior season," Anderson said. "He played a number of roles for this team last year and was valuable in each of those areas. Jason may not be the flashiest player, but he focuses his efforts in the areas that help a team win games: defense, mistake-free play, finding the open teammate, and you need unselfish, team-first guys like Jason to win basketball games."
Joining Horton as a defensive stopper is sophomore J.T. Tiller. A strong, athletic player, Tiller brings great size to the MU backcourt (6-foot-3, 190) and is one of the team's top athletes after finishing second at the 2006 Georgia High School Track and Field State Championships in the triple jump with a leap of 47-feet. A high-energy player off the bench as a freshman, Tiller averaged 13.6 minutes per game as a rookie and reached double-figure scoring in road games at Purdue (12), Colorado (12) and Kansas (11). One key for Tiller this season will be his ability to cut down on turnovers, as he dished 34 assists (fifth on the team), while committing 40 miscues.
"A number of freshmen make great strides in between their freshman and sophomore seasons and I feel like that will be the case with J.T.," Anderson said. "Like Jason, J.T. has a way of impacting the game through his defense, but he can then turn it into offense. J.T.'s comfort level is really increasing and that will allow the game to slow down for him."
The Tigers also enjoy the returns of Michael Anderson, Jr., and Nick Berardini. Both players saw their first-career action for the Tigers last season, with Berardini hitting a three-pointer in the season-opener against North Carolina A&T and Anderson hitting his first-career triple against Stetson.
Another experienced area for the Tigers comes in the frontcourt where they return four players with starting experience at the major-college level. Returning senior starter Marshall Brown (59 career starts) leads Mizzou in the post, aided by the return of Leo Lyons (6 career starts), Darryl Butterfield (1 career start), Vaidotas Volkus, and the addition of newcomers DeMarre Carroll (15 career starts at Vanderbilt) and Justin Safford.
One of three Tigers to average in double figures last season, Brown made a career-high 29 starts as a junior, while averaging a career-high 10.1 points and 4.2 rebounds per game. The Austin, Texas, native battled back from a slow start to his junior season to average a much-improved 12.0 points and 4.9 rebounds in league action, which included back-to-back career-highs of 24 points at Texas and 28 points against Kansas State in Columbia.
One reason for Brown's improved scoring punch was his ability to get to the free throw line. The versatile forward was more effective attacking the basket in Big 12 play and averaged 4.7 free throw attempts per game in conference games after averaging just 2.1 attempts in non-league action. The 6-foot-6 forward also ranked among team-leaders shooting 73.3 percent from the line in Big 12 play. He should return to full strength for his senior season after rehabilitating both a stress fracture in his pelvis and a fractured metatarsal bone in his right foot.
"It's exciting coming into my senior year," Brown said. "As a group, we are familiar with one another and had some stretches where we played some good basketball at times last year. The main focus now is to take that next step. We made positive strides, but now it's time to help this program get to the next level. As a senior class, we have an opportunity to lay a strong foundation for the future and that's a pretty meaningful goal."
The ability for Mizzou to play 40 minutes of up-tempo ball will be dictated by their depth, and Lyons' return should enhance that area. The Kansas City, Kan., native alternated starting duties with Kalen Grimes during his sophomore season and provided a nice contrast to the rough-and-tumble style of MU's interior enforcer. An athletic forward, the 6-foot-9 Lyons thrived in the open court and led the team with 23 dunks. The team-leader in shooting percentage (.550), Lyons ranked second with 4.3 rebounds and his 7.4 points per game ranked second among post players behind the 10.1 points recorded by Brown. An underrated aspect of Lyons' play down the stretch came on the defensive end, where he averaged 1.6 steals per game in Big 12 play and enjoyed multiple steals in 10 of Missouri's last 18 games.
"The key for Leo will be consistency," Anderson said. "He showed flashes of being the type of aggressive player he needs to be, but that type of effort must be sustained throughout the game. Leo was our `Sixth Man of the Year' last season because of his energy and athleticism in spurts off of the bench. Once he understands how to play at that level consistently, he will have an opportunity to do some special things for Missouri."
Lyons was joined off the bench by junior college transfers Butterfield and Volkus. A fan favorite for his blue-collar style of play, Butterfield ranked among the team's top players off the pine as a first-year junior, which included his first career start, a 13-point, four-rebound effort at Nebraska. While the 13 points tripled his season average, Butterfield's biggest contributions typically come on the defensive end of the floor, where he can guard up to four positions with his outstanding quickness and 6-foot-7, 225-pound frame.
"He fits our style of play and provides the energy we expect from our guys every night out there," Anderson said. "The game of basketball isn't always about raw numbers. A guy may not score in double figures every night, but he can still make a big impact in the game and that's what Darryl does through his hustle. His effort defensively can bail out a guy who over rotates or makes a defensive mistake. Not every player is capable of making those types of reaction plays and traditional statistics don't account for that. Darryl plays a brand of instinctive basketball that I want on my team."
Another player who saw increased minutes down the stretch was Volkus. The 6-foot-8 Lithuanian averaged 4.7 points over his last three regular-season games, which included a career high 13 minutes at Nebraska and 11 against Colorado. Volkus stepped in for an injured Butterfield against the Buffaloes and grabbed four rebounds in 11 minutes, to go with five points and a steal.
"Volkus played some of his best basketball of the year down the stretch, which showed us that he was making steady improvement," Anderson said. "He will have an opportunity to play some valuable minutes for us this year and his aggressive nature on the floor and his willingness to go after rebounds is a great resource for our program."
Although a nice rotation of post players is available for the Tigers, minutes are available for newcomers, Carroll and Safford. The most highly-anticipated transfer to hit Columbia since Jason Conley, Carroll brings a hard-nosed, athletic presence to Mizzou's frontcourt, to go with postseason experience after starting his career at Vanderbilt. The 6-foot-8, 225-pounder averaged 10.9 points and 6.4 rebounds as a sophomore in Nashville, Tenn., but saw those averages increase to 12.1 points and a team-leading 7.4 boards in Southeastern Conference play.
"With DeMarre, we are getting a player that has already proven himself at this level," Anderson said. "He had success in the SEC at Vanderbilt and while he'll be a new face to our fans, DeMarre gives us a veteran presence because of the time he spent in our program last year. On the basketball court DeMarre will give us another athletic player in the post and will instantly help our rebounding and scoring down low. He really fits the mold of what we are looking for with regards to post play at his position and we are excited to have him available this year."
Like Carroll, Safford will bring another athletic body to the table for Anderson after spending a year at Charis Prep in North Carolina. The smooth-shooting lefty actually began his high school career as a guard at Bloomington Central Catholic in Bloomington, Ill., but used a late growth spurt to earn a number of high-major scholarship offers during prep school. With his 6-foot-8 frame, Safford hit 57 treys for the Crimson Tide en route to averaging 17.8 points, 11.5 rebounds and 3.1 blocks and possesses the athletic and mental make-up Anderson likes in the post.
"We liked the versatility Justin brings to our program," Anderson said. "He's really made great strides in his game over the past year and feel like he'll be able to help this club in a number of areas as he adjusts to this level of basketball."