Wednesday, February 21, 2007

Seems Like Old Times

Last night, we partied like it was 1989.

Sitting in Mizzou Arena on Tuesday evening, I flashed back to my salad days, four glorious undergraduate years that saw the Missouri Tigers capture two Big Eight basketball titles while winning fifty-eight games at home against just two losses.

You read that right: Fifty-eight and two.

Back then, it was almost incomprehensible that Mizzou could lose at the Hearnes Center. Time and again, I sat in my dizzying perch in Section D and watched the Tigers trail by a point with two minutes to play, absolutely knowing that they were going to win. And they always did, even when it seemed impossible, like on December 5, 1987, when Missouri needed a frantic rally and a mind-blowing coast-to-coast drive by Lynn Hardy just to get to a second overtime, where Lee Coward finally capped a two-point victory over Eastern Michigan. But from where I was sitting, the game was never in doubt.

Last night, for the first time in a long time, was one of those nights. Oklahoma’s David Godbold sank a three-pointer with 2:25 to play, giving the Sooners a 64-63 edge. No sweat. From my vantage point in section 115, it was in the bag.

And the Tigers rewarded my faith. Leo Lyons hit a free throw, Keon Lawrence made some ridiculous shot in the lane that made my eyes go crazy, and then he and Stefhon Hannah, cool as Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction, sank six straight tries from the line to close the door on Oklahoma.

Of course, it hasn’t always been like that of late. Mike Anderson’s team had been in five previous games that had gone to the wire, and they had come up short in all of them. They didn’t really wilt in any of them (OK, they wilted against Iowa State), but they clearly lacked confidence in their ability to finish teams off. It reminded me of a conversation I had with former Tiger great and longtime Missouri assistant coach Kim Anderson while I was writing True Sons.

Anderson had been by Norm Stewart’s side during the historic 1993-94 season, when the Tigers executed a scorched earth march through the Big Eight conference, earned a top seed in the NCAA Tournament, and advanced to within a game of the Final Four.

But Anderson had also been next to Stewart the previous year when such success seemed impossible. The 1992-93 Tigers struggled mightily through Big Eight play, at one point losing seven straight games, often in agonizing fashion. That team was dominated by juniors who had been able to look to Anthony Peeler at crunch time the previous season. But with Peeler gone to the NBA, the Tigers floundered when games were on the line.

Reflecting on the 1993-94 team’s achievement, Anderson said that the 92-93 team’s troubles paved the way for the subsequent success. Having been on the wrong end of so many close decisions, those players came to understand the reed-thin difference between winning and losing, and figured out how to slam the door on opponents.

The current Tiger team reminds me a little of the 92-93 squad. With Thomas Gardner being the go-to guy last year, none of the current players had ever been counted on to take over a Division I game in the critical final moments. Now, players are beginning to step up, most notably the fearless freshman Lawrence, who displayed a similar cool last Saturday at Oklahoma State.

This team should come back intact, like the great 1993-94 squad did. Jeff Warren was the sole senior on the 92-93 team, just as Marcus Watkins is on the current club. And while the 93-94 team famously had eight seniors (including walk-ons Jed Frost and Derek Dunham), next season’s Tigers could have nine, assuming everyone (including walk-ons Nick Berardini and Michael Anderson) returns. The 1994 champs added freshman Kelly Thames and transfer Paul O’Liney to the mix, and became the most accomplished Missouri team of the past generation. We already know that next year’s squad will add do-everything forward DeMarre Carroll, a transfer from Vanderbilt, plus at least one player to be named later.

I’m not ready to predict a perfect league record or even a conference title for this crew next season (Kansas, with its ulra-talented roster set to return in full, is the clear, prohibitive favorite). But this team is already ahead of where the 92-93 squad was, winning in hostile environments like Gallagher-Iba Arena and (finally!) taking a close contest at home. I’m eager to see what this team can accomplish over the next three weeks. But I’m even more excited to find out what next season might hold.