Missouri Tiger fans hope 2004-05 will be a season of healing, and not just from a season of unmet expectations in which they finished 16-14 and failed to reach the NCAA tournament. Mizzou is also still reeling from an NCAA investigation into the program.
The lengthy process seemed to take its toll on last year's Tigers as much as anything that happened on the court. The investigation, for better or worse, should be wrapped up by the time the season tips off.
"Last year, we planned to have maybe more help at the guard position and that didn't necessarily transpire with ineligibility and a number of other things," said coach Quin Snyder.
Whether Missouri will be better remains to be seen. What is certain is that the Tigers will be different. In losing seniors Arthur Johnson, Rickey Paulding, Travon Bryant and Josh Kroenke, Mizzou will be without 60 percent of its scoring and 51 percent of its rebounding from a year ago.
The Tigers will lean not only on their returning players but also on a group of freshmen rated among the top 15 recruiting classes in America. "I think they're very hungry and ready to come in and put their mark on the program," said new associate head coach Melvin Watkins. "What I saw, and that's briefly, were some kids who are ready to come in and say, 'You know, let's get to work. Let's get on with the business of winning a championship.'"
FRONTCOURTLinas Kleiza, who plays much bigger than his 6-foot-8 frame, was the league's leading rebounder through the first half of his freshman season (8.4 boards in just 23 minutes per game). Kleiza missed the final 14 games of the season with a shoulder injury but has had surgery and is recovering nicely.
Junior Kevin Young is expected to shoulder some of the load that Johnson left. While his defense and rebounding are solid, Young is going to have to improve his offensive arsenal considerably to warrant major minutes.
Jeffrey Ferguson returns after missing last season, and freshmen Marshall Brown and Kalen Grimes will be asked to provide minutes as well.
BACKCOURTThe Tigers struggled at the point guard position last season. Randy Pulley was suspended, and Jimmy McKinney again had to play out of position at the point for most of the season.
"We got spoiled with Keyon [Dooling] and Brian Grawer. We haven't had people at that position that were raised playing that position," Snyder said. "Our hope last year was to let Jimmy be more of a player and not carry the weight of a position, and that's our hope again."
That may be easier this season. Incoming freshman Jason Horton was rated one of the top point guards in the nation, and Spencer Laurie has a year of seasoning and will be asked to take on a more significant role as a sophomore.
"Spencer and Jason both have experience and a comfort level at that position," said Snyder.
Joining Horton or Laurie in the backcourt will be some combination of McKinney, Jason Conley, Thomas Gardner and Glen Dandridge. McKinney should be allowed to slide back over to shooting guard, the spot at which he excelled in high school. Conley came to Mizzou as a transfer from VMI, where he led the nation in scoring as a freshman. He had a tough time adjusting to Big 12 basketball but came on strong to lead the Tigers' charge at the end of the year.
Dandridge and Gardner should both be key figures as the Tigers look to improve on last year's 35-percent shooting from 3-point range.
FINAL ANALYSISIt can't get any worse in Columbia. Last season was a disaster by almost any measure.
Making things a little better this season is the absence of high expectations. The departed senior class never learned how to handle the pressure of being a favorite. This year's group shouldn't have to.
A lot will be riding on Kleiza, who should be the top option this season. He needs to come back strong from his injury and learn when to take over and when to pass the ball. Perhaps more important, Horton and his classmates must make a significant contribution for this club to succeed. The Tigers haven't had a point guard since Wesley Stokes transferred. They've got one now, so that excuse will no longer suffice.