COLUMBIA — When Missouri men's basketball coach Mike Anderson walked in for a press conference on Friday at Mizzou Arena, he had a smile on his face.
It was the look of satisfaction.
For the second straight season, the Missouri men’s basketball team (23-11, 10-6) advanced past the first round of the NCAA Tournament. A year after making the Elite Eight, the No. 10 seed Tigers lost 68-59 to No. 2 seed West Virginia in the second round. However, Anderson he considered it a successful season because of his team's lack of experience.
“We were a young basketball team whether people know it or not,” Anderson said. “So for our guys to put together 23 games — they won 54 in the last two years — I think winning is a habit, so hopefully they got that habit of wanting to win and know what it takes.”
This season, Missouri wasn’t supposed to make it back to the tournament. The Tigers had lost DeMarre Carroll to the NBA and key players Matt Lawrence and Leo Lyons to graduation. The Big 12 coaches predicted them to finish seventh in the conference. Instead, they finished fifth in what Anderson has said is the toughest conference in the nation. Anderson said teams were celebrating whenever it beat Missouri, something that he thought was a positive sign.
“I think that is encouraging to me, because we took the other guys’ best shots, and they were celebrating after they beat us,” Anderson said. “Our guys get to see that and not only that but Missouri means something now, even as we go to next year.”
Anderson even expected his team to win its first-round game against slightly favored No. 7 seed Clemson. Despite struggling to adjust without starting forward Justin Safford, who tore his left anterior cruciate ligament in late February, Anderson did what he has done consistently in the tournament – win. In five NCAA tournament appearances Anderson has won the first-round game four times.
“We had some adversity take place, we had some injuries that went down, but I thought that was pivotal in what took place at the end,” Anderson said.
Anderson attributes the frenetic style of play that helps make his teams successful in the tournament. This season, Missouri forced Clemson into 20 turnovers and was within four points heading into the last two minutes against the Mountaineers thanks to its pressure.
“I like our teams in tournament play, because of the way we play,” Anderson said. “To me that is an advantage.”
Next season Missouri will have to find a way to replace starters J.T. Tiller, Zaire Taylor and Keith Ramsey who all graduate at the end of the year. However, Anderson expects the incoming freshmen class to help fill the gap. The class includes forward Tony Mitchell, who was voted the Dallas Morning News Player of the Year and guard Phillip Pressey, who was named to the Dallas Morning News’ first team all-area.
However, Anderson said next year’s team will have something more important — experience. The Tigers will have five juniors and one sophomore with extensive playing time, something Anderson said that will be key for next season to help make it a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance.
“Experience is the greatest teacher,” Anderson said. “And that is why I’m excited about this group.