COLUMBIA — Zach Price’s first two college seasons ended with trips to the Final Four. The third will likely end with a short walk to his dryer.
On a Tuesday night in late January, the memories forged with his former Louisville teammates seem closer than the ones with his current Missouri teammates, who are beginning a pivotal six-game stretch more than 300 miles away against Arkansas in a few minutes.
Superstitiously cleaning his laundry while his Missouri teammates play away games is the norm for Price, who begins the load 15 minutes before tipoff. This way, the cycle ends in time to be moved to the dryer during halftime.
Price realizes his laundry has zero impact on the game, but the routine makes him feel as if he’s contributing somehow. He can't join the team on road trips or sit on the bench with them at home because of NCAA rules for transfer players.
With the cycle already underway, Price reminisces on his dream come true, and then gone wrong, from a couch inside his dimly lit one-bedroom Columbia apartment.
Drilling the basics while he waits
It's a half-hour after practice ended for his Missouri teammates, and Price is still getting an earful from assistant coach Tim Fuller on Norm Stewart Court.
“You had two years of rest at Louisville,” Fuller shouts to a fatigued, irritated Price. “It’s time to play now!”
It’s mid-October. Because he transferred to Missouri from the University of Louisville, which requires sitting out this season, Price won’t play in a meaningful game for more than a year, which might be a good thing for the 6-foot-10, 250-pound center.
Fuller has put Price through an exhausting series of drills focusing on Price’s low-post moves. There’s a lot of jumping; there’s a lot of dunking.
There's a lot of Fuller yelling.
Price calls them "Fuller Drills."
During an intense workout, Price makes it to the final drill. The objective is to corral a pass that Fuller whips toward him, make a power move to the basket and finish with a right-handed dunk. He needs to finish the play 10 times in a row.
Only then, finally, will Fuller shut up. Price botches the ninth attempt twice. Frustration mounts. Discouragement grows. Sweat drips.
Water cups remain 10 consecutive slams away. Five more minutes and numerous attempts later, Price completes his day’s work.
“We (transfers) have to put in more work than anybody else, just basically to stay in shape and get ready for next year,” Price said. “It’s pretty tough, but that’s what comes with the game. It’s tough, but you get better as you continue to do it.”
Most days are like this for Price and fellow transfer Deuce Bello, who is taking extra shots on a side hoop arranged for practice. If they’re not shooting after practice or running through extra positional drills with Fuller, they’re on the treadmill.
“There is no limit on how tired we get,” Price said. “The average day is working out, working out, working out … some way of getting better every day.”
This isn’t how things were supposed to be for Price.
Price grew up a Louisville fan. The Cardinals were his favorite team, Rick Pitino his dream coach.
A younger Price envisioned the back-to-back Big East Tournament Championships he lived through as a Cardinal in 2012 and 2013. He pictured the National Championship that followed in 2013.
What the former four-star recruit didn’t expect was experiencing those triumphs from the bench as a seldom-used center.
The 2013-14 season was supposed to be his junior season, the year he would crack Louisville’s starting lineup and contribute to a championship-caliber team while catching the eyes of NBA scouts.
Instead, all he can do is watch as Missouri teeters on the NCAA Tournament bubble.
Reflecting on a past team in Louisville
On a coffee table to Price’s right sits a picture with former Louisville teammates Chane Behanan and Kevin Ware.
On his iPhone, Price proudly shows off a picture of the rings from his time at Louisville – two for the Final Four appearances, one for the Big East Conference Tournament Championship, another for the National Championship.
“It’s huge and it’s heavy,” Price said of the national championship ring.
He can’t show off the actual rings because they’re kept at his mother’s house.
But he also holds onto the memories, such as when the world saw what the inside of Ware's leg looked like during the Cardinals' win against Duke en route to the team's title.
"Man, everyone's always asking about that," Price said with a sigh and a head shake. "Yeah … that wasn't pleasant, no sir."
Those moments, the gruesome and the glorious ones, serve as a reminder of what he wants for himself and his new teammates.
Because of early offensive contributions from center Ryan Rosburg and Johnathan Williams III, Missouri leads Arkansas 10-3 at the game’s first TV timeout.
Price continues his reflection, his voice barely loud enough to be heard over the ESPNU broadcast because of Price’s blaring sound system.
“It gave me a taste of what to strive for, as far as my last few years in college,” Price said of Louisville’s achievements. “A national championship is a great thing, and it’s definitely something I want to achieve (as a starter).”
It’s something he wishes he could achieve in the shorts he’s wearing, the throwback shorts from the 1993-94 season that Missouri players wore in its preseason game at Hearnes Center.
Making the changes necessary to make the big time
When Price committed to Louisville as a high school sophomore, his parents decided they would move with him to the area.
With his stepfather unemployed and his mother working a job she didn’t like after Price’s junior year, they decided not to wait another year.
The summer before Price’s senior year, the Prices left Cleveland for southeast Louisville.
That’s when Fuller, then an assistant coach on Pitino’s Louisville staff, first met Price.
“They seemed to just have a rapport with one another that kicked off immediately,” Price’s mother, Valerie Price, recalled.
She remembered the two frequently talking, working out together and going to dinner.
She approved because she believed Fuller genuinely wanted the best for her son.
“You always want your child to relate to someone who can help him grow personally, professionally, athletically, all of that,” she says. “Coach Fuller filled that gap.”
But a year later, when Price arrived at Louisville, Fuller was gone. He had accepted a position on Missouri coach Frank Haith’s staff.
Watching the action from a distance
Road games mean dog-sitting duties for Price.
On the floor lies Kelsey, Price’s de facto roommate. Named after Kelsey Grammer, the shih tzu and bichon mix belongs to Price’s mother but can’t live with her because of a pit-bull at his mother's house as well. He also watches Earnest Ross' dog, a lab and coonhound mix named Sady.
The mutt joins Price on the couch as Missouri maintains its first-half lead against Arkansas; Price devours king crab legs, another road game routine.
“$6.99 a pound over at Gerbes,” he said.
Price is joined by Ross for dinner the night before home games. But for away games, Price eats alone.
After two plates of crab legs, it’s time for some chocolate chip cookies.
He’s calm. Helpless, but calm. The isolation comes with the territory of being a transfer. It’s a life he’s growing accustomed to.
He said watching road games from the couch is easier than watching home games, when he sits behind the Tigers bench at Mizzou Arena with fellow transfers Bello and Cam Biedscheid.
"You want to be a part of it, and you want to just run out there with them, but you necessarily can’t,” Price said. “You’re seeing it in person. You’re right there. … It’s a whole different experience."
The transfers never watch the games together, but they sometimes text each other at halftime.
“This is tough, but it’s definitely motivating at the same time because before you know it, I’m going to be out there, and I won’t be on the couch watching ESPN and seeing what guys are doing from a distance," Price said. "It’s actually going to become full reality.”
Making the switch to Missouri
During his two seasons at Louisville, Price played only 205 minutes.
He felt his vision for his college career no longer lined up with Pitino's. Price wanted a chance to play more. But he really wanted to play for a coach who believed he could play.
That's when Fuller came back into the picture.
Fuller began making phone calls as soon as he learned Price wanted to transfer. His mother happily answered.
“In my heart, I really wanted him to come to Mizzou because I felt he had that relationship with coach Fuller already,” she said. “When it was Fuller, I said, ‘Wow, this is somebody I know more than anybody else.'
“He knew Zach when Zach was here. He knew what Zach aspired to do. He knew Zach as an individual, his personality, his ups and downs; he knew all that stuff. That sealed it for me that I wanted him to come to Mizzou because I knew that Fuller was there and would look out for him and continue to work with him.”
Missouri had a scholarship available, and all parties involved, including Fuller, wanted a reunion.
“It’s hard to find guys that are 6-foot-10,” Fuller said. “It was one of the easier transfers we’ve had. It was already a pre-existing relationship between myself and his family.
“We were able to show him coach Haith’s style of play and how things worked out for Ricardo Ratliffe, Alex Oriakhi and that he’d have the opportunity to be the next one in that kind of generation of bigs.”
Price arrived in Columbia “grossly out of shape," Fuller said, fresh off more than a month of inactivity after deciding to leave Louisville.
The poor fitness level paved the way to Price’s initial struggles with the so-called “Fuller Drills," which focus more on building mental toughness and endurance than fine-tuning skill sets.
After countless rounds of “Fuller Drills” and extra hours with director of basketball athletic performance Todor Pandov in the weight room, Fuller likes the progress Price has made.
He sees a more confident player. He sees a player who has replaced body fat with muscle mass, a skillful shot blocker and rebounder, but a player whose back-to-the-basket game remains deficient.
“It has been a challenge for him because it is a high-fuel, high-intensity environment that we operate under on a daily basis,” Fuller said. “We challenge him the same way we challenge Torren Jones or Keanau Post, as if he was playing right now, because next season is going to be here before you know it, and there’s been a good success rate with the guys who have transferred in here.
“It’s a work-for-reward type of mentality. We have to teach them to continue to sew, so that they can reap, and it’s not a work-then-reward; it’s a sew-then-reap type mentality.”
If Price’s reward is to be a spot in next year’s starting lineup, he’ll have to beat out projected returnees Jones, Post and Rosburg — all of whom have struggled this year.
Now that he's back under Fuller’s tutelage, Price is in the best position he could be to earn a starting nod.
“He definitely wants to see me develop and go to greater heights that sometimes I can’t see myself going to,” Price said of Fuller. “Sometimes that extra push and his motivational words take me over that hill and make me want more from myself — to do things I couldn’t see myself doing before.”
Cheering on his teammates from the couch
As Missouri’s eight-point lead disappears during an 11-2 Arkansas run, four-letter curse words from Price become more common than Tiger baskets.
“I hate games like this, man,” Price said, leaning off the edge of the couch.
Missouri leads 64-61, with 2:24 remaining.
“No threes, no threes,” Price yells to his teammates on the screen.
It’s all he can do.
Razorback guard Rashad Madden makes a floater, draws a foul and hits the ensuing free throw. The game is tied with 1:58 to go.
After obediently sitting next to Price most of the game, Sady begins pacing around the glass table between the couch and TV, seemingly nervous.
“Sady, come here and sit down like you’ve been,” Price instructs the dog during a Missouri timeout.
Ross hits an open 3-pointer after the timeout and puts Missouri in the lead.
“WOO!” Price shouts, clapping his hands.
Three consecutive defensive stops and six Missouri free throws later, the Tigers have sealed the victory, the program’s first inside Bud Walton Arena.
Price gets off the couch, relieved, and walks toward his door. He gives a little fist-pump and turns back toward the living room.
“I’m telling you,” Price said. “It’s the laundry."
A huge smile stretches across his face.
"It’s the laundry."
Supervising editor is Sean Morrison.