COLUMBIA —In a league of unknowns, the MU Tigers fit in perfectly.
Four different Big 12 Conference teams received first place votes in the preseason coaches poll, including the defending-champion Kansas Jayhawks. But Bill Self's team is going to rely heavily on newcomers because all five starters graduated or turned pro.
"A number of teams can win at any given time," Baylor coach Scott Drew said Thursday in a release from Big 12 Media Day in Oklahoma City. "The last few years we've always had one or two teams that seemed like they were head and shoulders above everybody else, and this year that's not the case."
The North is expected to be especially wide open, and though he stopped short of making any bold predictions, MU coach Mike Anderson is optimistic about his team's chances. Seven newcomers will join four of last season's top six scorers, including seniors DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons, who each averaged 13 points per game.
"I think Missouri, with all the guys they've got coming back, could be a team," Nebraska coach Doc Sadler said.
Nearly a week of two-a-days has shown Anderson he's going to have a lot more options and depth this season. That's especially true in the backcourt, where the team is trying to replace Stefhon Hannah and Keon Lawrence.
"We really get after it in practice," Anderson said. "So guys that compete, they're competing for playing time. That hasn't been the case since I've been there."
The Tigers are hoping some challenging nonconference opponents prepare them for the conference season. In the Puerto Rico Tipoff, the Tigers will face Xavier, who made the Elite Eight last season, and USC, Virginia Tech and NCAA runner-up Memphis loom as possible opponents. In December and January, MU will see three more major conference schools in California, Illinois and Georgia.
"I think the development of our basketball team, hopefully with that schedule, it will get us really, really ready for the Big 12, which I think is going to be good this year, as well," Anderson said.
The top four teams — Oklahoma, Texas, Baylor and Kansas — are certainly loaded with talent and will make it tough for the untested young Tigers. Conventional wisdom says the Tigers aren't ready to compete with the big boys this season, but several Big 12 coaches stressed the top-to-bottom strength of the conference, and Self said to "expect the unexpected."
"The funny thing about basketball is the paper doesn't play, the guys play," Anderson said.