Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
COLUMBIA — Missouri basketball coach Kim Anderson’s first few months on the job haven’t exactly been a cakewalk.
Though he has answered doubts about whether a Division II hire could recruit at a Division I school, he has already had to dismiss two players from the team, and the beginning of the school year has been marred by sickness, injuries and suspensions.
“I don’t know how good we are compared to other teams,” Anderson said in a press conference Wednesday. “I think we have an opportunity to be good, but I think we have a lot of work to do. I think we’ll be a work in progress.”
Anderson wasn’t afraid to be frank about the situation he inherited at Missouri. He said he didn’t blame his players for being apprehensive about the current state of the program, he didn’t sidestep when asked to name concerns he has about his team — perimeter shooting and inside depth — and he didn’t mince words when referring to the 2013-14 Tigers, who went 9-9 in Southeastern Conference play and failed to reach the NCAA Tournament.
“I came in with a blank slate, and I told everybody that,” he said. “I said, ‘I don’t care what happened (last year). Really, the only (Missouri) game I remember is the game when I was coaching at Central Missouri, and we came in here — and you guys didn’t play very well that night either, by the way — but we came in, and we played you, and I remember preparing for you.’”
The Tigers officially start practice Monday, and they would like nothing more than to begin putting on-court struggles and off-court turmoil behind them.
It’s been a rough go of it so far. Keith Shamberger and Wes Clark missed a week of workouts due to illness, and Montaque Gill-Caesar has been out sick as well. Jakeenan Gant and D’Angelo Allen missed time to suspension after being arrested on suspicion of third-degree assault, though they have since returned.
What’s more, Jonathan Williams III, one of Missouri’s four returning non-redshirted players, suffered a slight meniscus tear in his right knee. He has missed two to three weeks of practice and, though Anderson said there’s “no real cause for alarm,” he will likely miss at least two more.
“It’s definitely been tough,” junior forward Ryan Rosburg said. “We’ve had team workouts with seven or eight guys.”
That’s not to say it’s all been negative for the first-year coach, who called the Missouri gig his “dream job” this spring.
“From the day I walked on this court in June to today, I’m really excited,” Anderson said. “… I’m really pleased with the way they’ve worked so far.”
Players said they enjoy working with Anderson, a Missouri grad who won a Division II national title at Central Missouri last season.
“It’s awesome,” Rosburg said. “It’s so relatable. This guy’s been here at Mizzou (as) a post player. I think that we have very similar type games. At least, I try to model mine somewhat off his, so it’s just so easy to get advice from him and learn all these different things that he used to do.”
Though Anderson has Missouri roots, he is still new to this team, which includes two new assistant coaches and nine players who have never played a minute for Missouri.
“With any coach it’d be bumpy, but he’s a very comfortable guy to be around, so he’s made the transition real easy for every last one of us,” Gill-Caesar said.
The newbies know their goal at Missouri is a simple but substantial one.
“Just to turn this program around, really,” Gill-Caesar said. “Because everywhere we go people ask, ‘Are you guys going to be good this year?’ kind of as a joking thing. … We’re the best (Missouri) freshman class in 14 or 15 years, so to have that backing by the whole community of the school, it feels good. You kind of want to turn around, not just for them but for us, too.”
Anderson plans to do that by sticking to a tried-and-true method: defense, defense, defense.
“That’s all we work on, man,” Williams said. “It’s defense every single day. That’s going to win games. That’s going to win championships.”
Rosburg added: “Man, we play defense it seems like the whole time.”
Another major component if Missouri hopes to have a successful year is solid play from underclassmen. The Tigers have just two juniors and two seniors on their roster. Anderson said sophomores like Williams and Clark will play a big role, and freshman will definitely see playing time.
Allen doesn’t seem too worried.
“We’re going to shock the world,” he said of the freshmen. “That’s all I can say. We’re going to shock the world.”
One of these days, at least.
“And by next year, we’re really going to shock them,” Allen said. “It’s gonna be over with. Fab Five, you know?”
And while the players say they’ve bought into Anderson’s methodology, actions will soon speak louder than words.
“I think they want to see results and so do I, and I’m hopeful as the next few weeks go by and we prepare to play a game that they’ll buy in even more,” Anderson said. “But I think for the most part, they’ve bought in.
“I think now, we’ll see if it works.”