Mike Anderson knew he had work to do when he took over as coach at Missouri in 2006. The program had fallen into disarray under former coach Quin Snyder, with two straight losing seasons and myriad off-the-court problems.
Anderson has also hit some potholes in his three seasons at the helm of the Tigers. Missouri went 18-12 in his first season, then slipped to 16-16 last winter in a season marked by five players being arrested in altercation outside a bar in Columbia.
However, everything has started to turn around this season for Missouri. The Tigers will take a 22-4 overall record and a 9-2 mark in the Big 12 into Saturday's game at Colorado.
"We've got more guys doing what we want to do now," Anderson said. "We've got a team with more options. We have guys who are used to winning, who are willing to pay the price and to sacrifice to do good things on and off the floor. It takes a while to put your stamp on a program and we're still a work in progress, but we're making progress."
Anderson is being modest. Missouri is third in the Big 12 behind Oklahoma (25-1, 11-0) and Kansas (21-5, 10-1) and the Tigers appear to be a threat to possibly make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.
Anderson is a disciple of Nolan Richardson, having served as an assistant coach under him at Tulsa and Arkansas. Like Richardson, Anderson believes in a style of defense that is 40 minutes of hell.
Not surprisingly, Missouri ranks 10th in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency with an 88.0 mark. However, the Tigers are also 12th in adjusted offensive efficiency at 115.4.
Anderson, though, says that it is defensive intensity that has enabled his team to reach No. 8 in the Pomeroy Rankings. He particularly gives credit to senior forwards DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons, and junior guard J.T. Tiller.
"They do the blue-collar things that you look for in pivotal moments of games," Anderson said. "They really hang their hats on defense. They understand defense is what we do best and that the offense will take of itself. Our team has a certain level of maturity and it comes from DeMarre and J.T. and Leo Lyons. Our guys really step up and play good basketball when the game is on the line and the defense has been a constant."
Carroll has not only been the closest thing Missouri has had to a star this season but has an interesting backstory. He is Anderson's nephew and played two seasons at Vanderbilt before transferring when his uncle left Alabama-Birmingham for Missouri.
Carroll's 119.8 offensive rating is 95th in the nation. He also ranks in ten other Pomeroy statistical categories, peaking at 94th in effective field goal percentage (59.6), 104th in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (5.9) and 127th in both true shooting percentage (61.2) and turnover rate (12.7).
Meanwhile, Lyons is first in fouls drawn per 40 minutes (8.3) and Tiller is 19th in steal percentage (4.6).
"DeMarre and my son are the same age and they were always familiar sights at Nolan Richardon's camps while growing up, then at my camps," Anderson said. "He wanted to come to Missouri and I wanted to have him here. He's a special player. We have a lot of special players, which is what you need to put together a program that can win on a sustained basis."
The Big Bad East
The Big East could dominant the upper tier of the NCAA tournament bracket this season. The conference has nine teams in the top 37 of the Pomeroy Ratings: No. 3 Pittsburgh, No. 4 Connecticut, No. 6 West Virginia, No. 9 Louisville, No. 18 Georgetown, No. 21 Villanova, No. 22 Marquette, No. 31 Syracuse and No. 37 Notre Dame.
"I clearly think, between Pitt, UConn and Louisville, we could have two No. 1s and a No. 2," Big East commissioner Mike Tranghese told the New York Daily News.
The Big East had three teams make the Final Four in 1985 when Villanova shocked Georgetown in the national championship game in one of college basketball's biggest upsets. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun thinks there could be a repeat of that Final Four 24 years later.
"I personally believe there are four, five, six teams in our league that could make the Final Four," he said.
The race for the regular-season title is tight as Connecticut (12-2) has a half-game lead over Louisville, Marquette and Pittsburgh, all at 11-2.
Pitt knocked off Connecticut 76-68 in Hartford on Monday night and the two teams meet again at Pittsburgh on March 7 in the regular-season finale. That game could determine a No. 1 seed; the Panthers believe they deserve one after beating the Huskies on the road.
"It means a lot," Pitt junior guard Jermaine Dixon said. "This is a big win for us. People were saying UConn was the team to beat. We knew it would be a hostile crowd. We knew we'd make a run, they'd make a run. It was about standing tall at the end."
Louisville was a trendy pick to get to the Final Four when the season started but then lost non-conference games to Western Kentucky, Minnesota and UNLV. The Cardinals were also blown out 90-57 at Notre Dame on Feb. 12 but have bounced back with a 99-54 rout of DePaul and a 94-76 victory over Providence.
The past two games have given sophomore guard Preston Knowles reason to think his team can indeed make a run in March.
"We're starting to play our best basketball now because of the Big East and the NCAA tournament coming up," Knowles told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "We get more focused and the practices start getting better."
Great Race Out West
Questionable officiating has been all the talk in the Pacific-10 recently as questionable calls went against UCLA and Southern California in losses at Arizona State last week. Trojans coach Tim Floyd wound up getting ejected following his tirade in which he dashed across the floor to confront the officials.
However, that should not detract from a most interesting race in the Pac-10.
"This conference has got a lot of balance," UCLA coach Ben Howland said. "It's very competitive. At the end of the day, there's a lot of very good players."
Washington is in first at 10-4, while Cal, Arizona State and UCLA are one-half game behind at 9-4. Arizona is a game-and-a-half back at 8-5 and USC still holds out hope with a 7-6 record.
"You have to see who plays who where to see who might have a little bit of an opportunity to win games going down the stretch," California coach Mike Montgomery said. "It's hard to say who has the edge."
Washington coach Lorenzo Romar believes winning the regular-season title in the Pacific-10 is a special feat because of the 18-game schedule.
"It's the equivalent of winning a conference tournament where you have to win three games in three days or four games in four days. It's that tough," he said.
Penn State its hopes of its first NCAA tournament appearance since 2001 alive with one of the ugliest wins of the season on Wednesday night, pulling out a 38-33 stinker at Illinois. Even Nittany Lions coach Ed DeChellis, whose team is 19-8 overall and 8-6 in the Big Ten, could find no beauty in the pivotal road win.
"I haven't been involved in one like this, ever," DeChellis said. "It's uncharted water. I kept looking at the score. I didn't know what half we were in. We set this [sport] back a few years. Naismith probably rolled over a few times."
It was the lowest-scoring Division I game since Monmouth beat Princeton 41-21 on Dec. 14, 2005. Illinois scored its fewest points since a 34-31 loss to Minnesota on Jan. 6, 1947 and easily had its lowest point total ever at Assembly Hall, which opened in 1963. The Fighting Illini lost 52-44 to Purdue there in 1982 and 62-44 to Ohio State in 2007.
The loss isn't likely to hurt Illinois' NCAA chances as the Fighting Illini are 21-6 and 9-5. However, they missed a chance to draw within a half-game of first-place Michigan State (10-3) in the conference race. Purdue is second with a 9-4 mark.
"I didn't care about the score," Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. "I just wanted to win. They don't care what the score is. They won. They went home happy."
Games to Watch
Five games to watch in the next week according to the Pomeroy Rankings, with all times Eastern:
No. 20 Wake Forest (20-4) at No. 5 Duke (21-5), Sunday, Feb. 22, 7:45 p.m., Fox Sports Net
No. 10 Louisville (20-5) at No. 11 Georgetown (14-10), Monday, Feb. 23, 7 p.m., ESPN
No. 11 Kansas (21-5) at No. 17 Oklahoma (25-1), Monday, Feb. 23, 9 p.m., ESPN
No. 4 Connecticut (24-2) at No. 22 Marquette (22-4), Wednesday, Feb. 25, 7 p.m., ESPN
No. 9 Arizona State (20-5) at No. 21 Washington (19-7), Thursday, Feb. 26, 11 p.m., Fox Sports Net
John Perrotto is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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