COLUMBIA — When the players on the Missouri men's basketball team talk about the site of their upcoming NCAA Tournament game, their eyes get wide with excitement.
They talk about Buffalo, N.Y., with the excitement of a child talking about a class field trip. Forward Keith Ramsey remembers the beauty of Niagara Falls, 30 minutes to the north of the city. Others like forward Laurence Bowers talk about the great weather they had while playing a tournament in the city.
No. 10 seed Missouri (22-10, 10-6 Big 12)
vs. No. 7 seed Clemson (21-10, 9-7 ACC)
WHEN: about 1:45 p.m. CDT
WHERE: HSBC Arena, Buffalo, N.Y.
TV: CBS - (Gus Johnson play-by-play; Len Elmore analyst)
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR/102.3 FM
“It’s beautiful up there,” Bowers said. “Hopefully we can stay and have another sort of vacation besides playing basketball.”
In early September of 2008, Missouri went on a three-day trip to Niagara Falls, Ontario, to play in an exhibition tournament. Anderson said the trip was the catalyst that propelled the team to a school-record 31 wins and an Elite Eight appearance in last season's NCAA Tournament.
Now, Missouri (22-10) returns to the NCAA Tournament as a No. 10 seed, playing No. 7 seed Clemson (21-10). Missouri hopes it can regain some of the momentum it took away from its previous trip.
“How ironic that we have the opportunity to go back in that area,” Anderson said. “We are looking forward to it."
When Missouri flew into Buffalo on its way to Niagara Falls last season, there were a lot of question marks surrounding the team. It had seven newcomers and six players returning from a team that finished with a 16-16 record. The Tigers hadn’t even practiced together. Anderson said he had no idea what to expect.
“I got a chance to see my guys, I hadn’t even practiced with these young guys,” Anderson said. “It was there that I saw that we have more options with our basketball team. It all came together.”
The team went on to win all three games of the exhibition tournament, but more importantly it created chemistry on the court. Bowers said that was a key to last season’s success.
“I think that was beneficial for last year,” Bowers said. “Just having that trip and getting the team chemistry down that early in the season, it carried over. It showed and we carried it to the Elite Eight.”
Missouri guard Kim English said the non-stop time spent together forced the team to form relationships that never would have happened otherwise. Players that never talked to each other like Steve Moore and DeMarre Carroll formed friendships. It created an unselfish atmosphere that helped the team average 18 assists a game.
“You want to see your friend get a dunk, you want to see your roommate hit a three,” English said. “You want to see all those powerful things, and that stems from friendship.”
Much like last season, Missouri will be returning to Buffalo searching for its identity. Since starting forward Justin Safford tore the ACL in his left knee on Feb. 24, the Tigers have lost three of its past four games and have averaged just 59.5 points. Players like Bowers and Steve Moore have struggled to adjust to new roles in Safford's absence.
“We are a new team kind of trying to find our way,” English said. “I think we are trying to find that in practice the last couple of days.”
Missouri hopes a return to the roots of its success last season will rejuvenate the team. The idea of returning to the falls had even crossed Anderson's mind, until he realized their might be a minor problem with the plan.
“I got to make sure all my guys got their passports to get over there,” Anderson said with a laugh.