GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Tigers’ locker room Saturday was subdued and relatively quiet, in stark contrast to what it had been the past three days at the University of Phoenix Stadium.
Players sat slumped over in their chairs, with towels hung loosely over their heads or shoulders. Interviewees spoke slowly and deliberately. The laughter that filled the room just over 24 hours before was nowhere to be found.
This was Missouri’s best season since 1994, when it won a Big Eight Conference regular season title with a perfect 14-0 record, earned a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, and lost in the Elite Eight to finish with a 28-4 record. This year, Missouri was 31-7, won a Big 12 tournament title, and once again lost in the Elite Eight.
“I think all the hard work they put in, all the dedication, they brought back a sense of pride at Missouri basketball that hadn't been there for a while,” coach Mike Anderson said after his team’s 82-75 loss to Connecticut on Saturday in Glendale, Ariz.
At one time, a seven-point loss to the No. 1-seeded Huskies one game away from the Final Four might have been considered a triumph. But on this day, Tiger players couldn’t find a lot of positive things to say about the game. After all, they had lost. Their season was over. There were no moral victories.
While the seniors reflected on their careers, younger players tended to steer conversations toward the future. It’s a future that looks much brighter than it did less than three months ago after a 56-51 loss at Nebraska to start the Big 12 season.
Leo Lyons told reporters in Saturday’s postgame press conference that junior J.T. Tiller was now the captain of this team. Another junior appeared to have already accepted the position he will inherit next season.
“Me, J.T. and Keith are the seniors now,” said Zaire Taylor in a voice much quieter and less energetic than usual. “So we’ve got to step it up.”
Naturally, outspoken freshman Kim English wasn’t shy about voicing his visions of the future. He’s ready to take on a new role and follow his new leaders.
“I’m going to take this team right back where it was this year and beyond,” English said. “We’re going to work hard. Basketball players are made in the summer, and I won’t have any time because I’ll be in the gym.”
This time, though, English’s talk of a national title doesn’t seem so far-fetched to followers of the Missouri program. These days, other players are making bold predictions for the freshman guard who scored 15 points in a six-minute stretch during Missouri’s second round win over Marquette.
“I think Kimmie’s going to shock the world next year,” Taylor said. “And Miguel (Paul) is 10 times more seasoned than he was coming into the season. He’s just grown so much.”
Of course, Anderson and his staff will have to find ways to replace three key pieces of this year’s team. Matt Lawrence, DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons contributed an average of 40 points, 15.3 rebounds, five assists and 3.4 steals in Missouri’s 38 games this season.
The Tigers will no longer be surprising anyone, now that they’ve earned the respect of the analysts at CBS, ESPN and other influential voices in the college basketball world. Even opposing coaches are giving the Tigers more respect these days.
“I want to tell you, Missouri was even better than I thought,” Memphis coach John Calipari said after his team was soundly beaten, 102-91, by Missouri in the Sweet 16 on Thursday.
Five players who saw at least 10 minutes per game in their first season for the Tigers are expected to return next season. They’ll have an advantage that this year’s team didn’t get to experience.
“I didn’t have the luxury coming in as a freshman and going to the Elite Eight,” Lyons said. “Hopefully those guys, that’s all they know right now, and next year, hopefully they’ll do the same thing.”