COLUMBIA — Whatever was learned from Mike Anderson’s first season at the helm of the Missouri men’s basketball team, forget it.
The Tigers start their season Monday with eight votes in the AP poll, but barely a hint from coach Mike Anderson as to what his starting lineup will be. Arguably their best player, forward DeMarre Carroll, has yet to play a regular season game. And even if the Tigers play better, there might be more early losses with a nonconference schedule that includes some teams you might have heard of before.
Although Missouri returns four starters and 11 players, it is likely to be a different team than last year.
When the Tigers open their season against Central Michigan on Monday, there are few things that are certain.
Will the Tigers survive nonconference play?
If the Tigers can manage to go 18-12 again this season, there is a good chance they make a postseason tournament this time around. But going 18-12 will be considerably harder.
Missouri started out 11-2 against cupcake nonconference opponents last season, but that didn’t prepare the team for conference play, Anderson said. The Tigers kicked off Big 12 Conference play with four losses and finished 7-9.
Anderson doesn’t want to make that mistake twice. This season, Missouri has one of the nation’s more challenging nonconference schedules. The Tigers will face traditionally solid teams in No. 19 Arkansas, California, Illinois, Purdue and Mississippi State. Plus, if Missouri advances in the CBE Classic, they could potentially face No. 8 Michigan State and No. 2 UCLA.
“One of the things I learned coming in is that on any given night you’ve got to be prepared to play, no matter where you go, whether it be at home or on the road,” Anderson said. “And I think that’s the urgency our guys have to play with from day one with this schedule.”
Can Hannah build on last year?
Stefhon Hannah was easily Missouri’s best player last season. The starting point guard led Missouri in just about every statistic last season, including points, assists, steals and minutes played.
An infection in Hannah’s foot caused him to miss more than a week of unofficial practice. Then he was held out of the Black and Gold game for violating team rules.
Hannah returned to Missouri’s starting lineup for its second exhibition game against Missouri Western, scoring 11 with seven assists and eight steals in 22 minutes, but the team hasn’t allowed him to talk to the media since his suspension.
In October, Hannah told the Missourian that his focus is on the team and not his individual stats.
“I want to win more than anything,” Hannah said.
But for the Tigers to live up to expectations, last season’s Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, Hannah, and this season’s preseason Big 12 Newcomer of the Year, DeMarre Carroll, are going to be expected to make big contributions.
Carroll has looked up to the task in the exhibition games, now it is Hannah’s turn to show he can help lead the Tigers to the next level.
Who will start?
As of Thursday, Anderson gave little indication of who will be starting on Monday.
“With me you never know,” Anderson said. “I think I can start seeing now some of the core guys, I think that’s the most important thing.”
Anderson wouldn’t reveal who those core guys are, but the preseason has given some hints as to who might be playing a lot.
The only starter not returning from last year is center Kalen Grimes, who was dismissed from the team. Anderson has hinted that Leo Lyons could step in for him.
Carroll, who had to sit out last season after transferring from Vanderbilt, could step into the starting lineup right away at power forward. Hannah, last year’s leading scorer, should be a lock to retain his starting role.
The rest is murky.
Keon Lawrence and Matt Lawrence were Missouri’s other starting guards last season, but with the emergence of Carroll, they could be splitting time with last year’s starting power forward Marshall Brown. Brown worked on his perimeter shooting this offseason and is expected to play in the wing more.
Jason Horton and J.T. Tiller should also see some of playing time at guard this year. Tiller made his first career start in Missouri’s first exhibition game while Horton ended last season as Missouri’s sixth man.
Now that Darryl Butterfield is off suspension, he and senior Vaidotas Volkus should see considerable time as the Tigers’ big men. Anderson has hinted that 6-foot-8 freshman Justin Safford will be thrown right into the mix as well.
The only thing that is certain right now is that a lot of players will be seeing the court this year.
Will the team improve defensively?
Defense and rebounding were not Missouri’s strongest areas last season. The Tigers were ninth in the conference in scoring defense, giving up nearly 75 points per game during Big 12 play, and ranked 10th in the conference for rebounds per game.
Defense will always be an emphasis for an Anderson-coached team, and this year is no different. Anderson has been preaching defense and rebounding throughout the preseason. The players say they are more comfortable with Anderson’s intense system now that they have a year of experience. The Tigers are also hoping something else can help them: Carroll.
“I think he gives it,” Anderson said. “He’s quick on the floor. And maybe his presence can trigger some other guys, such as Marshall Brown, Leo Lyons, Darryl Butterfield. And not only that, our guards. It can get contagious when you talk about aggressiveness. The way we play, you’ve got to have aggressive players.”
The Tigers lost their top rebounder from last year in Grimes, but Carroll could be an immediate help there. As a sophomore at Vanderbilt, Carroll averaged 6.4 rebounds per game. That would have led Missouri last season by almost one rebound per game. Carroll said he fits into Missouri’s system more than he did Vanderbilt’s, so he is expecting a big year.