COLUMBIA — The rising confidence of the Missouri basketball team is gradually becoming a cautious optimism.
The Tigers are 17-3 for the first time since the 1994-1995 season and could move to 5-1 in Big 12 play for the first time since 2000 with a win Wednesday at Kansas State. Kansas State's lone conference victory was a 77-75 overtime game at lowly Colorado.
Who: Missouri (17-3, 4-1 Big 12) vs. Kansas State (12-7, 1-4)
When: 8 p.m.
Where: Bramlage Coliseum
Radio: KBXR/102.3, KFRU/1400 AM
"The freshmen have been waiting for this moment," junior guard J.T. Tiller said. "The older cats that have been here a while and been through the first few years are having a good time, too, because it's a different mindset, different outcomes."
During their four-game winning streak, the Tigers have feasted on the bottom half of the conference, posting an average margin of victory of more than 22 points. Following the trip to Manhattan, Missouri's schedule gets a lot tougher with games at Texas and at Iowa State sandwiched between home games against Baylor and Kansas.
"I think as we continue to get into the meat and potatoes of our schedule, we’ll find out a little bit more about our basketball team in terms of how good we can be," coach Mike Anderson said. "But at the same time I think you want to be there when it’s all said and done."
Even though the results on the court have been markedly different from last year's 16-16 team, Carroll said not much has changed in practice. Anderson is still making it difficult and emphasizing effort and team basketball.
"If you watch our team play, they're having fun," Anderson said before practice Monday. "The work is when we get ready to go out here right now. That's when it gets crazy."
Every day in practice, the coaches keep track of only the "blue-collar" statistics, such as deflections, steals, rebounds and charges taken. Carroll leads the team in scoring with 16.3 points per game, and he's determined to regain the team lead in steals after J.T. Tiller jumped four steals ahead of him on Saturday against Texas Tech.
"I was bragging about how I'm 6-8 and he's like 6-3, 6-2 and I'm beating him in steals," Carroll said. "I guess he got kind of mad and came back and got seven steals in one game so, you know, that's amazing."
Anderson said he's seeing more "blue-collar" play from his team, especially since Kim English and Keith Ramsey replaced seniors Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence in the lineup. With 11 players seeing more than nine minutes per game in Big 12 play and no one getting more than 26 minutes per game, Missouri has had no problem maintaining Anderson's high-energy style for all 40 minutes.
Carroll and Tiller said, with their past experience on less successful Missouri teams, they're appreciating this season more than some of the new players. Carroll said part of his job as leader is to make sure freshman like Kim English understand how to keep things in perspective.
"That's my boy," Carroll said. "He’s big, he’s like a fan-favorite so I just try to tell him that I’ve always been a fan-favorite and I know how fans can be sometimes but you’ve got to stay grounded."
The Tigers realize that they still have a lot of work left to do with 11 games to play in the season. Anderson said his team learned the most from its three losses, especially the games against Illinois and at Nebraska.
"We laid an egg at Illinois and we laid an egg at Nebraska,"Carroll said. "We just need to keep proving ourselves to everybody."
One player with a unique perspective on the transformation of the team from last season is starting guard Zaire Taylor. The transfer from Delaware had to watch from the bench last season, per NCAA rules, and he's glad to see the team's not taking anything for granted.
"I think everybody's doing a pretty good job," Taylor said. "We really haven’t achieved anything yet. We have potential, but potential doesn’t really mean too much, it’s what you do with it."