Enjoy the ride

(US Presswire)

COLUMBIA --- To be sure, the Missouri Tigers are coming off a great basketball season.

Memorable, historic, one for the ages.

Oh my, were they fun to watch. A true team.

They played together better than 3 year-olds who didn't know better.

The Tigers produced an amazing, enjoyable ride --- 30 wins, a Big 12 Tournament title in the their last Big 12 Tournament, climbing as high as No. 2 in the national polls and securing a No. 2 seed in the NCAA Tournament.

"I thought we had an outstanding year," said Missouri coach Frank Haith, who's entering his second year with the Tigers. "With the adversity we dealt with and having only seven scholarship players, to do what we did, you just couldn't do any better than that."

Super-guard Phil Pressey directed the show and was simply fabulous.

"I will always remember the greatness that we had, the chemistry and the way we jelled," said Pressey, now a junior. "We all were so unselfish and wanted what was best for the team."

But last season was also memorable for another reason. This one, not so good.

And it was also historic --- Missouri lost in the first round of the NCAA Tournament to Norfolk State and in the process became the biggest favorite in the history of the event to lose. Ever.

The Biggest Loser. March Sadness.

Norfolk State 86, Missouri 84.


"I'll always remember that," Pressey said. "Not only was it the seniors last game together, but it was me and my brother's (Matt) last game together.

"I'll never forget it, it was tough."

It certainly was, but this year looks to be another great one for the Tigers --- and Norfolk State is not on the schedule.

Last season, Missouri's bench was thinner than a middle-aged man's hairline.

After Ricardo Ratliff, they basically had no other big man. Steve Moore tried really hard but, well, when fans roar when you get a rebound or make a free throw, you're not really a game-changer.

This year, the Tigers --- ranked 15th in the preseason poll --- may have more talent than Haith knows what to do with.

He's had a wave of transfers, with 6-9 senior Alex Oriakhi topping the list. Oriakhi was a starter on UConn's national championship team in 2011, when he totaled 11 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots in the title game against Butler.

"Our expecatations of Alex, and what I think his role will be, is different than what he did at UConn," said Haith, whose teams opens the season against SIU-Edwardsville at 4 p.m. Saturday at Mizzou Arena. "We want him to do a little more on the offensive end and that's going to take time."

Others transfers include: 6-4 senior Keion Bell (Pepperdine), 6-5 junior Earnest Ross (Auburn) and 6-5 sophomore Jabari Brown (Oregon), who still won't be eligible to play until Dec. 17.

Then you throw in some freshmen like 6-10 Stefan Jankovic, 6-10 Ryan Rosburg and 6-7 Negus Webster-Chan, and Haith might be yearning for the days when he only had seven guys to choose from.

"I don't know how long it will take, but we'll figure it out," Haith said. "That's the neat thing about coaching --- we've got pieces, it's just about putting those pieces together.

"When you look at this team, and I don't know if I've stressed this enough, we haven't had all our guys on the court to play, even when we took them to Europe in August.

"So we're still going to have some moments where we're still trying to get in the flow."

But he's got the flow-master in Pressey, who set a school record last season with 223 assists.

"It's different, we have a different team," Pressey said. "We have bigger guys, more dunkers, a lot more athleticism than last year, when we just had a a lot of shooters.

"So it will take time for us to really get a good feel for each other."

And we haven't even mentioned 6-8 senior Laurence Bowers, who's back after missing last season with a knee injury.

"It's the strength of our team, that we have a lot of depth," he said. "If somebody goes down, somebody will step up."

Bowers had the same experience last year as Elvis Fisher of the football Tigers --- injured on the brink of their senior seasons, only to return this year.

"Elvis and I are real close and we always checked in on each other," Bowers said. "We had the same injury, but you really can't compare the sports, it's totally different.

"But me and him, we were totally trying to lift each other's spirits up."

Then you have the return of senior sharp-shooter Michael Dixon --- who missed both exhibition games and will also sit out Saturday --- as "he clears up some stuff off the court," Haith said.

Dixon, along with Pressey, are the only two back from last season's Super Seven.

"We have to get a good rotation and get all these guys comfortable with playing with each other," Haith said. "The biggest thing is just getting those guys out there with the lights on."

There certainly seems to be an abundance of talent, but there's only one ball to go around. We know the ball will start in the hands of Pressey, who's been named the Preseason SEC Player of the Year.

In a conference that includes Kentucky --- a team that sends its entire roster to the NBA every year, it seems --- that is tall praise for the 5-11 Pressey.

This guy is a wizard and he can make you gasp for all the right reasons.

"There's no question, it tells us that people recognize his ability and value," Haith said. "He's a special player."

The players are in place and the season is at hand.

Enjoy the ride.