There are times in our lives when we hope that what we think we just experienced is real. Did I really crush that interview? Did she really smile at me? And when these moments come we do whatever it is that we do to strengthen the odds of reality; we cross ourselves, we pray, we swing a snake - whatever. We just want to know that our perception and reality are traveling the same path. This is what Missouri fans want to know. Was last year real? Is Frank Haith the guy to lead them into the SEC? Are the Tigers going to be a major player on the national scene?
What happened last year: Two weeks after Mike Anderson stated in an interview that he had no interest in other positions, that he was "going to retire in Columbia," the Tigers were looking for a new coach. Frank Haith wasn't the first choice - far from it - but he was the man Missouri ended up with. It didn't seem to be a good sign that many fans from the school they poached him from - the University of Miami - were shocked and celebrated that someone took him off their hands. It wasn't a good sign that Haith brought a 43-69 conference record, and had never once had a winning season in the ACC. Then, a few months later, the Nevin Shapiro scandal hit at Miami, and Frank Haith was implicated. Sports Illustrated columnist Luke Winn wrote that Haith should be put on administrative leave, and many Mizzou fans, unhappy with the hire, agreed.
But it didn't happen. The season began. And everyone forgot.
Missouri rolled through Notre Dame, Cal, Villanova, Illinois and Old Dominion on their way to a 14-0 start. At one point they were 25-2 and tied with Kansas atop the Big 12. They lost in overtime - at Kansas - in a game that would decide the regular season, but then regrouped and swept through the Big 12 Tournament.
The blemish, the black eye, came in the NCAA Tournament where No. 2 seed Missouri lost to Norfolk State. Still, the season was undoubtedly a success. Frank Haith was awarded the Henry Iba Award and named AP Coach of the Year.
What they lost: Marcus Denmon. Ricardo Ratliffe. Kim English. Matt Pressey. Steve Moore. That's four starters and five of seven players who saw meaningful time. In all they return just 29.6% of their minutes. Denmon was 1st Team All Conference and 2nd Team All American. Ratliffe was 2nd Team All Conference. Kim English was 3rd Team All Conference and most outstanding player in the conference tournament. The departing seniors averaged 55 points a game. Denmon and English were the two players on the roster who made more than 37% of their 3s (41% and 46% respectively). Ratliffe had the highest eFG% in the nation and was an elite rebounder, especially on the offensive end. They had the best offense in the nation.
Missouri lost a ton, and pessimists will point to the fact that not even Frank Haith could have wrecked that lineup. They had depth. They had experience. They knew one another's games.
What they have: Junior (to be) point guard Phil Pressey set a new Missouri record for assists, and with 70% of last year's production he'll become the all-time assist leader at Mizzou in just three years. He made a solid 37% of his 3s, and led Missouri with steals on 4% of their opponents' possessions. Senior Michael Dixon might have been the most valuable sixth man in the nation. He played more minutes than two of the starters, took a higher percentage of the shots than anyone but Marcus Denmon, made 37% of his 3s, 58% of his 2s, 90% of his FTs and was arguably the best defensive player on a weak defensive team (more on that in a bit). Laurence Bowers, a valuable 6-8 player inside, sat out the season with a torn ACL. If he returns at anything close to full speed he'll go a long way toward replacing Ricardo Ratliffe's production. Junior Ernest Ross had a solid sophomore season at Auburn, is a very good defender, and is an exceptional rebounder for a 2-guard. The downside is that he falls in love with the 3 and isn't a very good shooter. Senior Keion Bell - a transfer from Pepperdine - was ridiculously high volume and his efficiency was horrible. If he can stop jacking 3s (31% for his career) and focus on his slashing game to get to the line then he could be a valuable contributor. Sophomore Danny Feldman sat out the season after transferring from Columbia and isn't expected to be a major contributor.
The seven newcomers are a mix of high school players and transfers. Alex Oriakhi was the big name. As a junior at UConn he had a very disappointing season, and Tiger fans are hoping he shows up and plays like he did as a sophomore when he was an elite rebounder and didn't turn the ball over. As a junior his rebounding rates dropped precipitously, his turnover rate went up, and his shooting metrics dropped. He also referred to his coaches as "slave masters." Jabari Brown, a consensus 5* recruit, played two games at Oregon and then left the program. He ended up at Missouri and will be eligible after the fall semester. 6-9 Tony Criswell is a JUCO player (via UAB) who will provide another big body and has some offensive skills.
For the freshmen there are four. There is little chance any of them make a huge impact as freshmen, but the two most likely candidates are teammates from Huntington Prep (WV): 6-10 Stefan Jankovic and 6-6 Negus Webster-Chan. Jankovic needs to add weight, but he has nice offensive skills and considering he chose Missouri over Florida State it means he likely has the potential to develop into a high end defender. Webster-Chan, a wing, originally committed to Louisville but re-opened his recruitment after changes to the staff and followed Tim Fuller to Mizzou. Webster-Chan has legit 2-guard skills in a small forward body, though his hopes of big minutes as a freshman are probably misguided. Still, he'll contribute. The other freshmen are 6-4 Domonique Bull and 6-9 Ryan Rosburg. Bull is physically ready for the college game, and is a high volume player who should develop into a steady scorer. Rosburg is a big who can get out and run.
Where they're going: This will be a telling season for the Tigers. Frank Haith returns two of the better players in the Big 12 SEC, and has a chess board of pieces to surround them with. Even though he only returns those two players who saw significant minutes, he returns four players who sat out last season, a transfer who has been at UConn for years, a 5* transfer, and a JUCO player. Then he has the freshmen to fill in the gaps.
This roster is very different from last year, but it is still talented. Only now - because the players aren't as familiar with one another - it's going to take coaching to mold them into a formidable unit. And this is where the optimists and the pessimists part ways. Will Haith do it or not?
Of note is the Missouri defense, or lack of it. Last year they finished 115th in defensive efficiency, which was actually a 50-spot drop from the previous year. Unfortunately, this wasn't exceptional or surprising. Mike Anderson teams were significantly better defensively than any Frank Haith team. Haith has coached a top-50 defense once in his career (No. 47 in 2008-09). And offensively, he hadn't been much better. Going back to last season, that was the only offense in Haith's career which finished amongst the top-25. And now that all those senior minutes are gone it's a lock that Mizzou won't have the No. 1 offense in the country again. But how far will they drop? And will they play defense? The answers to these two questions will decide the season for Missouri, and more importantly they'll settle the debate between the optimists and the pessimists.