Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Hope falls eternal

For some, it’s the blooming redbuds and pitchers and catchers reporting, but for me, the world springs to life when the trees shed their leaves and basketball practice begins. You may find paradise in the left field bleachers on a sunny day. For me, heaven is a warm gym on a cold winter night.

It was with that sense of anticipation that I walked into Mizzou Arena on Friday night for the Black and Gold Scrimmage. I was only able to stay for the first half, so I won’t offer a full report (and anyway, you can find recaps here, here, here and here), but the first thing I noticed was how fast everything moved on both ends of the court. On defense, we saw pressure all over the floor, including an extended, trapping zone in the half-court. Offensively, it was a far cry from the ponderous pitch-it-around-the-perimeter game we’ve seen so much of in recent years. The theme was attack, attack, attack. It wasn’t always pretty, but it was consistently entertaining, and it suits a roster that isn’t exactly teeming with players known for their skills in traditional offensive sets.

There’s little point in judging players based on such a small sampling, but a few things stood out. First, as widely reported, point guard Stefhon Hannah, a junior college transfer, looks like a complete player, and the telepathy that he and Marshall Brown seemed to share in the opening minutes called to mind the chemistry Wesley Stokes and Rickey Paulding knew during their brief time as teammates. Freshman guard Keon Lawrence also turned heads with his ability to get inside the lane, draw contact, and still finish despite his spindly, spidery frame (though Monday’s news that he’ll be lost for several weeks with a stress fracture to his foot is a kick in the gut). When Lawrence first committed to Mizzou a year ago, someone close to the process told me that he was a little like former Iowa State star Curtis Stinson, with a knack for getting past defenders and scoring in unorthodox ways. Keon certainly showed that on Friday night. Mizzou’s other Lawrence, sophomore guard Matt, made impressive use of the most elegant three-point stroke seen around here since Kareem Rush left for the NBA. And finally, junior forward/center Kalen Grimes looks to have dropped several pounds without losing his ability to dunk the ball very hard.

While the conventional wisdom says that this group will struggle in coach Mike Anderson’s first season, for optimists like me, hope springs eternal. The non-con schedule is hardly a murderer’s row, and real opportunity exists for any team in the Big 12’s north. While Kansas should run away with the league – they have more talent than the division’s other five teams combined – there’s hope for any team that can establish itself as the north’s next best squad. In essence, Missouri, Colorado, Iowa State, Kansas State and Nebraska are going to play a round-robin tournament, and if any of those clubs can go 6-2 or better against the other four, it could win 20+ games and/or sneak into the NCAA Tournament. Kansas State seems to be the consensus pick to finish second in the north, especially with Cartier Martin back from suspension (and with super prospect Bill Walker potentially joining the team in December), but the Cats have a new (if accomplished) coach and an unproven roster. Nebraska and Iowa State also break in new coaches, and neither boasts a wealth of talent (Iowa State was stung by the early departures of Curtis Stinson and Will Blalock), and Colorado will go through the season with a coach who has already announced his resignation. And though the Buffs return Richard Roby, one of the league’s top players, they lose six of the top nine players from last year’s team. If Mike Anderson’s Tigers can get it together more quickly than the other members of the topsy-turvy north, this season could surpass the guarded expectations of most of Missouri’s faithful.

Random notes: John Cooper was on campus over the weekend, and was honored at the annual Alumni-Faculty Awards dinner. Dr. Cooper, who is 94, won the Big Six scoring title in 1932, and made college basketball history by being the first player to employ a jump shot. After graduating from Mizzou, Dr. Cooper went on to a distinguished career in academia, where he was a pioneering force in the field of kinesiology. . . . I bumped into Gary Link at Faurot Field on Saturday, and though he graduated thirty-two years ago, Link looks like he could still play ball. I bet he hasn’t gained a pound in the past three decades. Gary, who gave me a fantastic interview for my book, is one of the most loyal and enthusiastic supporters of the University I have ever met. . . . I also saw Jim Dinsdale at the stadium, but that’s not unusual; I see him everywhere. Dinsdale, who played for Sparky Stalcup and Bob Vanatta in the early 1960’s, is an ardent supporter of Mizzou, and he shows up at countless events in Columbia and Kansas City. . . . By now, you’ve heard that Red Auerbach died this past week at 89. During his legendary career, Auerbach succeeded at almost everything he tried. One of the few things he couldn’t do was to convince former Missouri star Bill Stauffer to play in the NBA. The Celtics drafted Stauffer in 1952, but military service beckoned. Upon Stauffer’s discharge, Auerbach met with the Tiger legend to try to entice him to Boston. But at a time when NBA paychecks were just a tiny fraction of what they are today, Stauffer was eager to begin his career in the newspaper business, and he politely declined the offer.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

Two toes left

A sure touchdown pass dropped. Blam! Interception. Blam! Fumble. Blam! Defensive holding extends a drive. Blam! Punt blocked for safety. Blam! Roughing the kicker. Failure to convert four chances inside the two. Personal foul after a third down stop. Blam! Blam! Blam!

Over the past twenty years, I’ve seen a lot of bad Missouri football teams self-destruct, but I grew numb to it. Watching a good one repeatedly shoot itself in the feet in a winnable game is much more agonizing. I’m making my first trip to Lincoln, Nebraska in a quarter century next week. A victory there would surely ease the pain.

Friday, October 27, 2006

Time to fire this thing back up

Sorry for the long dormancy here. The flu has gone through my house like lightning and I've had some other projects to keep me busy (I've achieved a certain minor fame in Philadelphia, but that's a story for another time). I promise to do better in the coming weeks.

For those interested in getting a signed copy of True Sons, we'll be in the Hearnes Center fieldhouse before the Missouri-Oklahoma football game, at an MU Alumni Association event. Feel free to stop by (and buy).

If I can get to Columbia in time tonight, I'll be at the Black and Gold Scrimmage, and I'll have thoughts about it in the coming days. I'd also be ridiculously remiss not to write some ode to this remarkable football season.