Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator
Sometimes the surface story and what’s going on underneath can be very different.
It would be easy for Missouri fans to be cynical about the future of the men’s basketball program, both short-term and long-term. They’re wrapping up what anyone can see is a very disappointing season. It’ll take a miracle for this team to reach the NCAA tournament, and in recent years under Frank Haith and before him, Mike Anderson, Tiger fans are used to laughing at NIT teams from their seats at the Big Dance. Missouri might not get past the first round, but at least they were at the dance.
Not this year.
And with possibility of junior Jabari Brown and Jordan Clarkson going to the NBA, the Tigers of 2014-2015 have some big shoes to fill. But my bigger concern for a time has been the long-term strength of a program that seems to depend so much upon transfers rather than bringing along their own talent from freshman to senior year.
You can say my desire to see even the best college players go through all four years of college is as “old school” as a pair of canvas Chuck Taylor All-Stars or a Commodores LP (both of which I still think are very, very cool) but if you look at college hoops today, it’s still hard to beat a team full of seniors with a team full of kiddies.
Look at what Florida’s senior-laden roster did to Kentucky’s collection of superstars fresh from the McDonald’s High School All-American game. One of the great seasons ever at St. Louis University is based in a team full of seniors, and Wichita State scares the hell out of the teams from the big conferences not because they’re so battle tested from a season full of games with Drake and Missouri State, but because they’re experienced and well-coached.
Missouri, on the other hand, is Transfer U. And sometimes that works out well. Alex Oriakhi was a great player and team leader who started elsewhere. And there’s no doubt how…um, out of luck…the Tigers would be without transfers Clarkson and Brown this year. The team’s two seniors — Earnest Ross and Tony Criswell — are also transfers. As they (probably) all move on, the answer to what happens next heavily involves the next group of transfers.
Deuce Bello comes to Missouri from Baylor. Zach Price was a national champ at Louisville. And big center Keanau Post from Southwestern Illinois Community College is already making contributions.
At the mid-point next season the Tigers add Cameron Biedscheid, a transfer from Notre Dame. And while this is clearly part of a larger trend in college hoops, there’s a good deal of truth to the references from wags who call Missouri “Transfer U.”
And that can be a concern. There’s a reputation among teams full of transfers that they’ll have great individual talent but less teamwork, and frankly that’s exactly what Missouri has looked like at times this season. If all MU had in the vault for the future is another group of guys who became disenchanted at their first college choice, you might worry if there’s really a serious future with much better than the NIT for the Tigers.
But, while nobody is going to confuse Haith with John Wooden, there is a more pleasing model for the “old-school” guys happening. Don’t look now, but there’s some serious program building happening in Columbia. The freshman class of this season (Johnathan Williams, Torren Jones, Wes Clark, and others) contributed more than any group of newbies in quite some time. And the commitment of Haith and his staff to good old-fashioned program building can be seen in another strong class coming in with Jakeenan Gant and Namon Wright, two outstanding recruits.
Does this mean we’re a couple of years away from Jerry West basketball? Probably not. Just as Missouri has seen talent transfer in, an awful lot of players have found the exit door of Mizzou Arena, and Haith is nothing if not a product of his time, doing whatever it takes to win in the 21st century without nostalgia for times past. The game has changed, and Haith and his outstanding staff have proven they can win in the new age.
And, frankly, those fancy shoes the players these days wear are probably better than my old Chuck Taylors.
But you can have my Commodores LP’s when you pry them from my cold, dead fingers.
Here’s a quick look at what’s in the tank for next year:
FRONT COURT—What’s been a weakness at times for Missouri may be a real strength next year. Post keeps improving, and has the size to be a big factor inside. While we talk about the freshman class of this season, don’t ignore that Ryan Rosburg’s just a sophomore. He’s played so well in a lot of ways, especially in the final moments of some key league games, that it’s easy to forget how young he is. The type of advantages a team gets from the sort of program building I’m talking about, if it has a face on this roster, looks like Rosburg. And the post also adds in Price, who never got a lot of playing time at Louisville but has been working very hard all year and will come in excited to play. With a national championship ring in his possession, comparisons to Oriakhi are natural, and if Price brings his own skill level and Oriakhi’s commitment, he’ll push Post and Rosburg and maybe be the man in the middle for the Tigers.
At forward positions, the experience of Williams will be a major plus. J3 had some rough patches in the middle part of his season but overall is the kind of player you build a winner around, and his rebounding skill is a vital part of Haith’s plans for 2014-15. The most exciting note for the future in the final month of the season may have been the development of Jones, who already shows flashes of being a very complete player. There’s a lot of competition here, but Haith has always shown a willingness to let true freshmen earn playing time, so include Georgia high school stud Gant in the mix here, as well.
BACK COURT—More and more as the season progresses it looks like the point has a solid future with Clark. He’s gotten increased time and responded with sharp play, and if you don’t think someone that young can run a team, take a look at what Lianna Doty’s done for the MU women’s team. Clark also won a championship in Michigan’s Class A in high school and knows what it takes to be a winner. There’s also serious depth at the position, with a guy who’s been overlooked a bit as part of this strong class of frosh, Shane Rector. Rector’s been called a pure point guard and can handle the rock very well, and if he develops more as a scoring threat he’ll be a big part of the Tigers’ future. Bello is my kind of player, a defense-first kind of guy who impressed me with his play at Baylor back when we were watching the Big 12. Working through this season with the Tiger staff, it seems a pretty safe bet his game has rounded out and added an offensive threat. It seems unlikely that will be a concern with Biedscheid, who averaged nearly 32 points a game at St. Louis Cardinal Ritter his senior year in high school and more than six points a game in his rookie year with the Fighting Irish. And speaking of scoring, shooting guard Wright out of Los Angeles has the ability as well, so we may see another year of significant contributions from freshmen.
Now, as we said before, transferring works both directions and just as Missouri has brought in talent, we’ve seen some pretty good players leave Columbia for various reasons. So, whether all the young talent from this year’s freshman class or next sticks around for four years is a bit of a crapshoot. But the story of “Transfer U” isn’t the whole story of what’s happening with Missouri men’s basketball, and the future may hold a team that finally has some four-year seniors who’ve grown up through the program and can teach the younger players the Mizzou way.