COLUMBIA — In his third year, Missouri basketball coach Mike Anderson finally has a full recruiting class of players built for his system.
Five freshman and a junior college transfer join Zaire Taylor, who redshirted last season after transferring from Delaware, as players ready to make their Tiger debuts. Practice starts Friday, and Anderson was pleased with the team's preparations for the coming season.
"Right now, I'm liking this basketball team," Anderson said. "We've got some guys that hopefully fit the style of basketball that I want to play."
The coach also stressed the importance of returning four solid contributors from last season who have spent at least two years in the system. Junior J.T. Tiller joins seniors Leo Lyons, DeMarre Carroll and Matt Lawrence to form an anchor for all the fresh faces.
"The freshmen, they look up to me," Carroll said, "and they see when I go out and shoot extra shots and put in that extra work in the gym. Then they go out and do the same."
The transition to Anderson's style of basketball isn't an easy one, and freshman guard Kim English acknowledged he was initially surprised by the intensity level. But he's adjusted and said the freshmen are all fitting in well.
"It's not tough, because we all come from systems where we played this type of ball," English said.
The mix of new and old players seems to be working for the Tigers, who got a head start on the season with three exhibition games in Canada over Labor Day weekend. That also gave the team nine extra practices to bond as a team and gain confidence with three convincing wins.
"I think we're in great shape," Lyons said. "That trip to Canada helped us a lot."
Lyons and Carroll, who were both Preseason Honorable Mention All-Big 12 selections , will lead a strong frontcourt that Carroll says could be one of the best in the nation. Freshmen Steve Moore and Laurence Bowers will be fighting for time in the post, but Anderson said the most game-ready of the new big men is Keith Ramsey, who transferred from Okaloosa-Walton Community College in Florida.
The backcourt slots could be a little more up for grabs, as freshmen Marcus Denmon and Miguel Paul compete for playing time along with Taylor, English and the two veterans, Tiller and Lawrence. Anderson doesn't know where each piece will fit just yet, but he'd like to see his new recruiting class help give him a regular rotation of eight or nine players.
"I like it because now there are options, and I also like it because there's competition," Anderson said. "When there's competition, it's good for a basketball team."
Conference coaches picked the Tigers to finish seventh in the Big 12 preseason poll, behind Kansas and five teams from the South division. Lyons and Carroll both said the team is primed to exceed those expectations, similar to Missouri's football team last season.
Carroll and Lyons both said this year's team has a different mind-set from last year's squad that ran into some off-the-court issues and struggled in Big 12 play. Lyons stressed the humility he's seen in all the freshmen and was impressed by their willingness to work hard the last few months.
"We have a lot of guys that are staying the night here (in the gym)," Lyons said. "Kimmy (English) stays here all the time working on his game."
Carroll, who led the Tigers in rebounding last season and is working towards a master's degree, said the maturity of the newcomers should help the team succeed. As a senior leader, he wants to instill honesty as one of the team's core values.
"Last year, you had a group of guys that wasn't honest; they wanted to play the whole game," he said. "It was about them."
After the Black-Gold game Oct. 29, the Tigers will open exhibition action Nov. 5 against Lincoln (Mo.) at Mizzou Arena, with the regular season beginning Nov. 15 against Prairie View A&M. The team will be tested early when it travels to Puerto Rico to play in a tournament with some tough competition, including Xavier and defending NCAA runner-up Memphis.
"Coach is really looking forward to this season," Carroll said. "I haven't seen a bigger smile on his face in a long time than he's got this year."