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Flying Tigers
TIM LAYDEN
March 02, 2009
Thanks to its Hell-raising coach and a tough, frenetic style that has recaptured the hearts of its disaffected fans, Missouri has overcome scandal and apathy to become a contender once again
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March 02, 2009

Flying Tigers

Thanks to its Hell-raising coach and a tough, frenetic style that has recaptured the hearts of its disaffected fans, Missouri has overcome scandal and apathy to become a contender once again

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That toughness was hatched in Anderson's youth. He grew up in Birmingham as the sixth of 10 children born to Willie Lee and Lucy (Peaches) Anderson. They lived in a three-room shotgun house, and Anderson spent countless hours at the rec center. If there was a game, he played it. If there was a race, he ran—or swam—in it. When his high school started a soccer team, Anderson was the goalie.

He brought that same passion for competing to Missouri, running his holdover players through a de facto tryout in the spring of 2006. "There is a reason the job was open," says Anderson. "They had some issues here, ain't no question about that. I needed to see what I had."

The first year his team was a surprisingly solid 18--12 despite more off-the-court issues. Reserve guard Mike Anderson Jr., the coach's son, was suspended from the team after a drunk-driving arrest in February 2007 but was later reinstated. Returning starter Kalen Grimes was dismissed from the team in July '07 after he was charged with second-degree felony assault for hitting a man with the butt of a shotgun. (Grimes never went to jail and ended up graduating from Mizzou in '08.) Later that month forward DeMarre Carroll was shot in the ankle outside a Columbia nightclub while trying to break up a fight. In late January five Missouri players were suspended following a bar brawl; leading scorer Stefhon Hannah was dismissed from the team. "Those were things that made the school look real bad," says Leo Lyons, a senior who was among the five suspended players simply because he was at the club that night, even though he did not take part in the brawl. On Jan. 30, 2008, the Tigers played with just six scholarship players and two walk-ons at Nebraska and nearly beat the Huskers. Three days later, with two of the five suspended players back in uniform, they beat Kansas State and were enthusiastically rooted on by the Mizzou Arena crowd. From embarrassment, Anderson had planted the first seeds of respect.

He had also begun assembling a team that could play the frenetic style he wanted. The Tigers have 12 players who average at least six minutes per game, a relatively undersized collection that attacks passing lanes in ways that must warm Richardson's heart. (Richardson is a frequent visitor to Columbia, where Mizzou players call him the Grandfather.) Missouri is third in the nation in steals (averaging 10.3) and second in turnover margin (+6.6).

The team is a disparate collection of players. From his own family tree, Anderson found Carroll, a 6'8" 225-pounder who every summer attended the Arkansas camp in Fayetteville but chose Vanderbilt over UAB when Anderson recruited him out of high school. "He wanted to play [at a bigger program], and that's O.K.," says Anderson. But Carroll chafed at Vandy's Princeton offense and jumped at the chance to transfer into his uncle's system, where, after sitting out the 2006--07 season, he averaged 13.0 points in '07--08 and 17.0 so far this year, while often playing at the top of the Tigers' press. "He's got the freedom to go out and make plays," says Nebraska coach Doc Sadler. "That's a big part of Missouri's success."

From Snyder's roster Anderson already had Lawrence and Lyons. The 6'7", 203-pound Lawrence was told that he wouldn't be able to play in Anderson's frenetic system. "I'm a taller guard and a white guy," says Lawrence, who averages almost 20 minutes and 8.7 points per game. "People warned me. But I'm a Tiger." Lyons (14.3 points, 6.0 rebounds) is a dangerous scorer whose 6'9", 244-pound frame presents outside matchup problems.

Guard J.T. Tiller, a relentless defender, was part of Anderson's last recruiting class at UA and transferred to Missouri to follow his coach. Zaire Taylor, another transfer (from Delaware), has made two game-winning shots this season and is such a basketball junkie that he spent all of New Year's Day in the gym working on his shooting. He celebrates the sport in the poetry he writes and performs at campus open mike nights:

When you entered my life, nothing was wrong

Couldn't go left, everything was right

At a prep school in Fitchburg, Mass., Anderson found Kim English, a 6'6" guard so dedicated to practicing that during last summer he often slept on a recliner in the Mizzou locker room so that he could shoot late at night and lift weights early in the morning without having to go back to his dorm in between. He continued the routine once the season started, returning to the gym to shoot predawn jump shots after road losses to Illinois on Dec. 23 and Kansas State on Jan. 28.

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