KANSAS CITY – As Missouri’s men's basketball team moves on without DeMarre Carroll, Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence – its three leading scorers last season – each of the Big 12 Conference’s top teams is welcoming back a slate of key players.
Kansas, the consensus No. 1 pick in national preseason polls, was able to keep preseason All-Big 12 team members Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich out of the NBA Draft. Texas returns Damion James, also preseason All-Big 12, and honorable mention Dexter Pittman. Despite losing last year’s Player of the Year Blake Griffin, Oklahoma brings back Willie Warren and Tony Crocker, its second and third top scorers last season.
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And that’s just scratching the surface. Coach after coach pointed out the high number of key players returning this season during Thursday's Big 12 Media Day.
“You look at all the individual talent in our league and how so many players made the commitment, sacrificed to come back to their schools,” Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford said.
It’s a plus for the conference as a whole but a big threat to individual teams.
“It’s exciting to be a part of it, but on the other hand it definitely keeps you up at night, there’s no question,” Ford said.
The excitement Missouri generated after its Elite Eight appearance last year seems to be overshadowed by the loss of its two skilled forwards. The Tigers return starting guards J.T. Tiller and Zaire Taylor, but how will they make up for the scoring previously supplied by Carroll and Lyons?
“I don’t worry about that,” Anderson said. “I think we’ll be able to score. I think the key is stopping people.”
Anderson mentioned four players when asked who will pick up the scoring load: Tiller, Taylor, Marcus Denmon and Kim English.
All four are guards, which still doesn't answer who will replace Carroll and Lyons.
Keith Ramsey, Missouri’s only senior forward, comes to mind first. Ramsey and junior Justin Safford gave the Tigers a spark during their Elite Eight loss to Connecticut. While they made noise as the season progressed, doubt remains over whether Ramsey, Safford and Missouri’s other returning big men, Laurence Bowers and Steve Moore, can combine to match the skill set of Carroll and Lyons.
“You kind of get tired of hearing about it,” Ramsey said.
Missouri will have to wait until the season begins to see what it has offensively in its forwards. The Tigers don’t necessarily need their big men to develop into highly skilled offensive weapons. Anderson thinks his team’s fast-paced style could be more effective and lead to more easy baskets this season.
“I want to play faster this year,” he said. “You thought we played fast last year.”
Anderson should have the type of players to do just that. In his fourth season at Missouri, Anderson has recruited every player on the Tigers’ roster. While Lyons and Lawrence improved defensively under Anderson, neither player was the type of defender Anderson needs for his system to work. Now that his inherited players are gone, Anderson has a team fitted to his style, which makes him excited for the future.
“I don’t think it’s going to be just a one-year wonder,” he said. “Some people may think that.”
Although many, such as Oklahoma coach Jeff Capel, said Anderson has revived Missouri, the conference’s coaches picked the Tigers seventh in the preseason poll.
That might not be a bad thing, considering Missouri was picked seventh last year and wound up a game away from the Final Four. But it’s clear that many aren't fully sold on this year’s team, including Anderson himself.
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Anderson said. “We lost a lot of scoring, rebounding, toughness. We’ve got some young guys who’ve got to fill in some big roles. It remains to be seen who are those guys.”
Wrist watch: J.T. Tiller had surgery on his right wrist in mid-April, and he wasn’t able to dribble or shoot with his right hand for about eight weeks. Tiller said his wrist is now healed, and while the rehabilitation was frustrating, it allowed Tiller to become a more versatile scorer.
“It was a blessing in disguise because I had to work on everything left-handed, and that was a weakness that I had last year anyway,” Tiller said. “So being able to work on moves going to the left, dribbling with the left and working on everything with the left hand is going to make me a better player this year.”
Added dimension: Kim English stepped into the role of sharpshooter for Missouri last year, finishing second on the team with 41 3-pointers. But English failed to prove he could penetrate effectively and score around the basket.
This summer, English and Keith Ramsey often played against each other in full-court one-on-one games. Ramsey worked on his ball handing, while English practiced driving.
“Kimmie takes pride in me not blocking his shot anymore,” said Ramsey, Missouri's leading shot-blocker last year.