COLUMBIA - Before Friday, John Underwood had only heard about the intensity of a Mike Anderson-run practice.
He quickly learned that hearing about Anderson's grueling practice isn’t anything like experiencing – or surviving it.
“I did not expect nothing like this. I did not,” said Underwood, a 6-foot-9-inch freshman forward on Missouri’s basketball team, which held its first practice Friday night.
After a few conditioning drills, Underwood and fellow freshman Tyler Stone were bent over, hands on their knees, gasping for as much air as possible.
“Get up son,” Anderson barked at Stone. “You think you’re in shape.”
Several Missouri players tried to push Underwood and Stone through the drills with vocal encouragement.
“Stay up. We gotta fight through this right now,” sophomore guard Kimmie English said.
But Stone, a 6-foot-7-inch forward, was so fatigued that he had to hide behind the padded base of the basket to avoid Anderson. Throughout the drills, Anderson and his coaches targeted Stone and Underwood, making the freshmen perform extra repetitions.
“You’re not at high school speed,” associate head coach Melvin Watkins said.
Senior guard Zaire Taylor remembers thinking he could handle his first practice under Anderson after enduring pre-practice conditioning.
“But you don’t understand how hard it is,” he said. “Conditioning is just to help you. You wouldn’t be able to get through a practice if you didn’t go through conditioning. It’s almost like a step in the ladder.”
Although Underwood and Stone struggled, the practice wasn’t a walk in the park for the rest the players.
“Our first practice is eye-opening. Even our veteran guys, they struggled at times,” said Anderson, who said the energy level during the practice was “outstanding.”
Taylor, one of Missouri’s veterans, has noticed a difference in Anderson’s intensity compared to last season.
“He is riding us harder…He expects more in some ways. I don’t know if I can put my finger on it, but when you’re out there at practice you know it’s there,” said Taylor, who zoned out while being interviewed because he was so exhausted from the practice.
After Missouri’s surprising Elite Eight run in the NCAA Tournament last year, Anderson said teams will be targeting the Tigers, and he wants his players to develop a mental toughness.
Another reason for raising the intensity is experience.
“More guys are in tune to what we’re doing now (than last year),” Anderson said.
Last year, Anderson had to phase in seven newcomers. This season, he only has three new players: Underwood, Stone and freshman guard Michael Dixon Jr.
While Underwood and Stone looked like freshmen, Dixon Jr. fit right in. The 6-foot-1-inch guard – named Mr. Show-Me Basketball after his senior season in high school – appeared unfazed by the taxing conditioning drills, displaying his quickness during a sprint and shuffle drill.
“There’s something about him that’s kind of special,” Taylor said.
Underwood said the practice was the most tiring thing he’s ever done, and he knows it will take time, maybe the entire season, until he can hold his own. For him, Friday’s opening practice was a rude awakening to Anderson’s cutthroat conditioning expectations.
“It was kind of frustrating at first, but if you think about it, they’re just trying to get us up to where the older guys are,” Underwood said.