For most of the Missouri basketball team and its fans, the Tigers’ road to their season-opening game against Oakland University on Saturday is a long and unfamiliar one.
The 675 miles from Hearnes Center to Auburn Hills, Mich., feels like home to seniors and Detroit natives Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson.
They can’t wait.
Johnson talks with his mother, Jeanette Johnson, frequently on the phone, but he hasn’t seen her since summer.
“I’m ready,” Johnson said. “The first thing I’m going to do is kiss my mother.”
Starting the Tigers’ season with a spark is the next thing Johnson plans to do.
“We have a great group of guys coming back,” Johnson said. “Knowing that, we have the chance to do some of the things we’ve always talked about. It’d be great to win a national championship.”
The team’s preseason praises indicate anything is possible.
Big 12 Conference coaches have picked the Tigers to win the conference championship. The Tigers are ranked fifth in the Associated Press preseason poll and sixth in the USA Today/ESPN poll.
The Grizzlies will have five games of experience and playing in their arena to their advantage, but Johnson said this is the Tigers’ year.
How better to kick it off than with friends and family in the stands?
“A lot of people who are going to come to the game haven’t been in the gym and seen us since high school,” Johnson said. “It’s just good to get back. Everybody can just drive to the game; they don’t have to watch it on TV.”
Growing up on the east side of Detroit, Johnson led Pershing High to four consecutive league championships. Paulding averaged 25 points for Renaissance High on the west end of the Motor City.
Although Johnson and Paulding’s high schools never competed, their friendship stems from summers of playing together in an AAU basketball league. Paulding’s high school coach, Mark White, connected the two after leaving Pershing to coach at Renaissance.
Paulding said Saturday’s game gives him and Johnson a chance to show their appreciation.
“I think he’s really proud of us as far as where we’ve come from as basketball players and as people,” Paulding said. “Just to play in front of him will feel good just to show my thanks for all he’s done for us.”
Missouri coach Quin Snyder said the bond Paulding and Johnson formed in high school resonates through the squad.
“They’ve been able to say things to each other honestly without getting mad at each other,” he said. “It’s been the same thing with this senior group. They get on each other quite a bit, and I think that makes a strong team.”
Both earned honorable mention All-USA Today selections as high school seniors. Both chose Missouri over Michigan State, Michigan, DePaul, Ohio State and Miami. After a loss to Marquette in the 2003 NCAA Tournament, both said NBA careers could wait for graduation and one more run with the Tigers. Both earned spots on the All-Big 12 team and will contend for All-American honors.
Now in their last year with the Tigers, Paulding and Johnson are primed to claim their places in Missouri basketball history.
Despite all parallels, the differences between them are unmistakable.
Johnson started 27 games as a freshman at center, and the team felt the impact of his nine points per game right away. He’s Missouri’s all-time blocked shots leader with 197 and will claim the school’s rebound record with 194 more.
Even though Johnson, the preseason Big 12 Player of the Year, was criticized early in his college career for lacking emotion, Snyder said Johnson’s rowdy enthusiasm defines his on-court presence.
“When he’s that fired up and has that much energy, he’s a great player,” he said. “He’s got to bring that all the time. I think being a senior, he understands that much better than he did last year or the year before and what a huge effect that has on his game and also on our team.”
Paulding’s introduction to the spotlight was less immediate.
He played all 33 games of his freshman season but started in only eight. Paulding paid attention while Kareem Rush and Clarence Gilbert ran the show.
As the Tigers advanced to the Elite Eight in 2002, Paulding shaped his breakthrough, leading Missouri with 18.3 points per game. A preseason All-American, Paulding is also a candidate for National Player of the Year.
Although it’s easy to mistake him as too reserved to take charge, Paulding has evolved into the perfect leader.
“He’s started to get on some guys on their play at times, and they’ve responded well to that and have taken that positively,” Snyder said. “I think it’s noticeable. I feel like there are things that I can sometimes say and I don’t have to sometimes say them. They’re saying them before I can.”
Seven players return from last year’s lineup that finished 22-11, and Johnson said he sees unprecedented potential in his teammates.
“You can go out there and give it your all because you know you’ve got some more guys who are going to come in there right behind you and give it their all,” he said.