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March 17, 2010

Powered Up: These Tigers make a statement

Sixty-four teams will open NCAA Tournament play over the next two days looking to avoid a dreaded phrase. Nobody wants to be "one and done" come March. But for Missouri, the Tigers have already avoided that tag in one sense.

"I'm sure a lot of people that saw our team last year and saw what we were losing last year, did not expect to see us here. They did not. And I know that. I've heard it from a lot of guys," Mike Anderson said. "I guess the gratification is that these guys have worked extremely hard to become a team that's put itself in position to play in the NCAAs.

"I think it makes a statement. It's a program. It's not one of those one and done."

After going 34-and-28 through his first two seasons at Missouri, Anderson missed the post-season each time. That ran to five Missouri's string of seasons missing the NCAA Tournament. There were two NIT bids in that stretch (both one and dones under Quin Snyder), but college basketball programs don't set out in October to make the NIT.

The 2008-09 season saw Mizzou return to national prominence. The Tigers won a school-record 31 games, the Big 12 conference tournament and fell just one step short of the first Final Four in school history. Anderson then saw his top three scorers and top two rebounders graduate. And the doubters came out in droves.

"Before this season started, a lot of people, they had no idea what this team was going to be about," Anderson said. "I just knew we had some nice pieces. The ownership and the leadership just had to step forward."

The leadership came in the form of another trio of seniors. J.T. Tiller is constantly called the team's "heart and soul" by his coach. Zaire Taylor won three games with shots in the final 30 seconds, including a buzzer-beater in overtime at Iowa State that might be the main reason Missouri is still playing. And Keith Ramsey leads the team in rebounding while averaging more than 35 minutes a game since Justin Safford went down with a knee injury.

But the pieces on this team have more to do with the youth. In 2008, Anderson signed five high school players to go with Ramsey in his first full recruiting class at Mizzou. Laurence Bowers and Kim English are now starters. Marcus Denmon is the first player off the bench. Those three sophomores are Missouri's three leading scorers. And Steve Moore and Miguel Paul average 10 and 12 minutes a game, respectively, and have come up big at times throughout the season.

As a whole, the sophomore class averages 38.5 points, about half of Missouri's total. The group chips in 14.3 rebounds, 5.8 assists and 4.3 steals a night.

"I think they got a taste of the success that took place last year...They got a sampling of it and of course this year they got an even bigger dosage of it and they learned along the way," Anderson said. "They came in here, they came from winning programs but then when you come to the collegiate level and you're part of an Elite Eight team, I think that's special."

The sophomore class contributed plenty during that run. English's two free throws to help beat Marquette and Denmon's 70-foot bomb to beat the first-half buzzer against Memphis stood out. But the Elite Eight run belonged mostly to Leo Lyons, DeMarre Carroll and Matt Lawrence. This season, those sophomores have not only contributed, but have led the way.

"All of us come from a program that was winning in high school. I think we've been very vital to the program and hopefully we can continue to do that for the next two years," Bowers said. "Not too many players make the NCAA Tournament all four years. I know as a sophomore class, that's our goal."

It is a goal that, two years ago, seemed absurd at best. The Tigers hadn't been in the field for five seasons. They'd made more headlines off the court than they had on it. But Anderson stayed the course and the Tigers are preparing for their second straight shot to play for a national championship.

"That's what I talked about coming in here at the University of Missouri. That I want a program. I don't want a fly by night, one and done or just a fad," Anderson said. "The numbers tell it all and I think it's something that will continue. I think from a recruiting standpoint, it only continues to add value to what your program is all about."

Suddenly, what Anderson's program is about is winning. It's about making the tournament. It's about competing with the best teams in America. It's about making headlines for basketball, not breaking the rules or the law. It's about restoring a once proud--but badly tarnished--tradition.

Now that's a statement.

PowerMizzou.com will have previews and analysis of the tournament all week long.

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