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November 14, 2011
Although it played its first game Friday, Missouri already has endured a season's worth of adversity.
Three weeks after saying he planned to retire at Missouri, former Tigers coach Mike Anderson left for Arkansas, where he was named coach March 21. Missouri wanted Purdue coach Matt Painter to replace him but instead settled for Miami coach Frank Haith. And Missouri announced just last week it was leaving the Big 12 for the SEC next season.
But perhaps no off-court development will affect Missouri's 2011-12 fortunes as much as the preseason injury to senior forward Laurence Bowers, who tore the ACL in his left knee last month.
With Bowers in the lineup, Missouri was a popular pick to contend for the Big 12 title. Now that he's injured, the Tigers' run of three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances could be in jeopardy.
"Before Laurence went down, there was a feeling of newness and freshness - a new beginning," senior guard Kim English said. "With him going down, obviously it hurt. It was a tough day. Nobody's going to feel sorry for us."
Although senior guard Marcus Denmon is Missouri's most accomplished player, Bowers was the one guy on the roster the Tigers could least afford to lose. He led the Tigers in rebounds (6.1 per game), ranked second on the team in scoring (11.6) and finished second in the Big 12 in blocks (62) last season. Missouri lacked depth in the frontcourt even before Bowers got hurt. Without him, the weakness has reached crisis level.
"The one thing we've tried to address with our team is it's not just our front line that's going to have to pick it up," said Haith, who was 129-101 at Miami in seven seasons. "It's got to be our guard play. It's got to be our coaching staff. I think everybody has to give a little more."
While it's true that everyone will have to pick up the slack, Bowers' injury could affect a few specific players more than others. Bowers' injury leaves 6-foot-9 senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe and 6-11 senior center Steve Moore as the only guys taller than 6-6 who played a minute for the Tigers last season.
Ratliffe, a former junior college transfer, was the Big 12's newcomer of the year and averaged 10.6 points and 6.0 rebounds last season. But he also fouled out five times and picked up four fouls in 11 other games. He must avoid foul trouble this season.
Moore never has started a game at Missouri and didn't average more than 2.0 points in any of his first three seasons on campus, but the Tigers' lack of frontcourt depth likely forces him into a bigger role this season. He averaged 8.3 points and 19.7 minutes off the bench in three preseason games.
Perhaps nobody could benefit more from the coaching change. Moore's 6-9, 267-pound frame didn't make him an ideal fit for the fast-paced game favored by Anderson.
"We were fast last year, fast in prior years," English said. "Our big guys have been hybrids; Keith Ramsey, Demarre Carroll, Leo Lyons - those guys are like agile, big guards. Steve's a true old-school big man. I think it will help him being in a slower-paced system. He can finally get downcourt and we'll be waiting for him."
The early returns are somewhat encouraging. Ratliffe had 20 points and eight rebounds Friday in a season-opening 83-68 victory over Southeast Missouri State. Moore came off the bench to provide two points and two blocks, though he also picked up four fouls in 12 minutes. Missouri also outrebounded Southeast Missouri State 36-31.
The Tigers should find it easy to continue to get acclimated in their next two games, against Mercer tonight and Niagara on Thursday. But a game with Notre Dame looms Nov. 21, and a matchup with either California or Georgia occurs Nov. 22. There also are non-conference matchups in December with Villanova, Illinois and Old Dominion.
But this was a backcourt-oriented team even during the Anderson years. Now the Tigers will depend even more on their guards.
Missouri's extraordinary backcourt depth could allow the Tigers to utilize a four-guard lineup. In each of its three preseason games as well as its regular-season opener, the Tigers started four guards: Denmon, English, 6-2 senior Matt Pressey and 5-10 sophomore Phil Pressey.
"Definitely I feel we'll cause a lot of matchup problems playing four guards, with Kimmy being a big guard or having Phil and Mike out there - two point guards on the floor," Denmon said. "It will be tough on some teams."
Of course, those matchup problems go both ways.
Just as having four guards on the floor at one time can cause headaches for a bigger and slower opponent, utilizing a lineup with only two guys taller than 6-3 and one taller than 6-6 could prove costly in the paint and on the glass.
Missouri had a negative rebound margin last season. In Big 12 games, Missouri was outrebounded by an average of five boards per game. How will the Tigers improve those numbers without Bowers in the lineup?
"Offensively, I think we'll be fine [using four guards]," Haith said. "People have to guard those guys, and I think it will be fun to watch and match up with.
"Defensively, we have to be creative in what we do so people can't exploit us because of our lack of size. We have to be fundamentally sound in blocking out and doing the little things consistently."
A four-guard lineup also would put plenty of pressure on English. Since he's the tallest Missouri guard at 6-6, he could find himself trying to defend opposing power forwards in certain situations. English spent the preseason preparing for this scenario.
"As a team, we're going to have to defend really well," he said. "Because we're small, if I'm working my tail off to keep my big guy off the glass, our [other] guards are going to have to dig out a lot of rebounds. We understand that. Coach understands that. I've been trying my hardest I'm really working with coaches on my footwork because it's a little different at the 'four' spot. You're catching the ball and backing up instead of stepping into it off the curl.
"If you're 6-4 in the inner city, you're a center your whole life, so I'm a center. But it's a little different in the Big 12 when you look at every team's 'four' man and it might be some of their best players - [Kansas'] Thomas Robinson, [Baylor's Perry] Jones and [Quincy] Acy, [Texas A&M's David] Loubeau and [Khris] Middleton. There are a lot of good power forwards. It's definitely going to be a tall order, but we're going to do it together."
Missouri will have to rely heavily on its experience. Few major-conference teams in the country are as senior-laden as this squad. Phil Pressey likely will be the only non-senior in Missouri's starting lineup.
Of course, they would have liked at least one more senior to join them in the rotation. But even though Bowers won't be playing for Missouri this season, his teammates are taking inspiration from the example he has set.
On the same day Bowers learned he had torn his ACL and would miss the season, he spent his evening reading to children at the Columbia Public Library.
"That morning he was crying on my shoulders,'' English said. "And I have a picture of him smiling and reading to those kids 12 hours later."
The Tigers plan to respond to this latest setback by following the lead of their injured teammate. Why should they feel sorry for themselves?
"The mission doesn't change," English said. "That's the bottom line."
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