Missouri Tigers round-up

Fall sports are winding down, basketball just getting started for Mizzou

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Darren Hellwege, Sports Commentator

As KBIA moves into pledge drive mode, it’s a crazy busy week for me, but here are a few random thoughts on several issues related to Mizzou sports.

FOOTBALL: Tigers getting defensive

Throughout the Pinkel Renaissance in Missouri football, Tiger teams have tended to win with outstanding offense and a defense that was good enough to win most of the time. It’s interesting to see a different style of winning this year with as the Tigers have struggled on offense but have won with great play by the defense. Most people are scratching their heads wondering how the Tigers could be 7-2 and in first place in the SEC East, but it’s not a complicated answer—defense.

And it’s not just the line, although as Shane Ray’s sack record is celebrated it’s obvious the line is the strength of this defense. Ray and Markus Golden are monsters, and the interior has played exceptionally well too, with the depth shining through in big moments from guys like Harold Brantley and Marcus Loud. The line backing has been solid, with both Michael Scherer and Kentrell Brothers in the top five in the SEC in tackles.

But the biggest improvement may be in the secondary. Aarion Penton keeps getting better and better, and Kenya Dennis seems to make big plays (and big hits) every time out. They could be one of the better sets of corners in the league next year. Unfortunately, the cornerstone of the defense will be missing the first half of the Texas A&M game on Nov. 15. Braylon Webb will serve a suspension for a questionable targeting call towards the end of the Kentucky game. Webb has 35 straight starts for the Tigers, and the loss of this senior and team captain will be keenly felt.

MEN’S HOOPS: T for Tigers, T for team

First-year Missouri basketball coach Kim Anderson applauds players as they are introduced at the team's first game of the season. The game was played at the Hearnes Center on Oct. 29, 2014.

First-year Missouri basketball coach Kim Anderson applauds players as they are introduced at the team’s first game of the season.

There is no doubt the MU men’s basketball team has a great deal of talent, with a nationally-ranked recruiting class full of what Dick Vitale calls “Diaper Dandies.” They have guys who can shoot, guys who can play inside, guys who can defend. But as we’ve seen over the years with Mizzou (and really any basketball team) it’s not so much the level of talent but how they all play together as one unit rather than just individual superstars. When the Tigers fell apart last year, we saw individuals playing in the same laundry, but rarely a real team. If last week’s exhibition against William Jewell is any indication, this may be that real team. While they’re very young and will be inconsistent, we saw flashes of unselfish play, of guys making extra passes, and of factors I think are so vital to winning basketball—vision and court awareness. Coach Kim Anderson seemed pleased, even with guys who hadn’t scored but who made contributions in other ways to the team winning. One guy to keep an eye out for is Deuce Bello. He may not start, but he has in his game a fire that could make him an affective bench player. To use a hackneyed cliché, he could be a real spark plug off the bench whose drive makes the players around him better.

 

WOMEN’S HOOPS: Team suffers major loss with Doty injury

I’ve become known over the last (censored) years of covering Tigers sports as a big fan of women’s basketball, so I was obviously looking forward to the upcoming season, and felt like there were reasons for some optimism.

That didn’t die last week when Mizzou point guard Lianna Doty was spotted on crutches, and last Monday when it was announced she was out for the season with a foot injury. But that optimism isn’t nearly as healthy. Doty has been an anchor for this team since her freshman year. While she always had crazy passing skills, there were consistency concerns and she had a tendency to get into trouble both with turnovers and with fouling. We’d seen improvement in that consistency in the last season, and I was really looking forward to seeing what she would do this year.

So what next for the Tigers with Doty done? Crazy as it sounds, the answer may be…another freshman. While sophomore Lindsey Cunningham stepped in for Doty at times last year (mostly when the above-mentioned fouls became an issue) she’s worked more at other positions in the preseason. And coach Robin Pingeton has shown a willingness to throw rookies into the mix and let them learn the game on the court. So, expect to see Carrie Shephard get a chance to win the job when the season starts. Shephard played point for one team in the Black and Gold scrimmage and while the team in general looked sloppy, that’s to be expected in the inter squad game. I’ve heard Juanita Robinson’s name mentioned as well, and she certainly has the ability to create, but she can also be a big scorer for this team and provide something the Tigers have desperately needed, someone to aggressively attack the basket, and it’s just harder to do that from the 1 position. It may mean some growing pains for this team, but I’d rather see Robinson at the 2 and either Shephard or Cunningham at the point.

Another newcomer may be needed even more to adjust quickly to the college game. This team lacks size, and if Bri Porter can become a real post soon, that changes a lot for Pingeton’s offense. And sophomore Kayla McDowell and the rest of last year’s freshies will be called upon to provide some offense as well. This team cannot win by just hoping Morgan Eye hits a whole bunch of 3-pointers, especially if her health isn’t 100 percent at first. Eye, who missed much of early season practice and the Black and Gold with a minor knee injury returned to full work with the team last weekend. She’s a tremendous player, this team needs more than just one, though.

VOLLEYBALL: Nice guys finish last?

Probably the biggest question in the minds of those who follow Tiger women’s athletics this year has been, “What’s happened to the MU volleyball team?” After going undefeated through the regular season last year, winning the SEC Championship and making the second round of the NCAA tourney, this year’s team has fallen on hard times, currently standing with a losing record in the SEC and a disappointing 14-12 overall.

Part of the answer may have come in a conversation we had after last Sunday’s gut-drop against Texas A&M in which the Tigers played brilliantly in set one then folded up faster than Superman on laundry day, losing 3-1. Middle Blocker Emily Thater described a conversation the team had earlier in the week with longtime Tiger assistant coach Deng Yang. Yang compared volleyball to boxing, and told the players that a boxer, when hit, has to hit the opponent back.

This is a great, great bunch of young ladies. They’re wonderful kids, they’re fun to be around, they’re really nice. Sadly, that’s exactly what’s wrong with this year’s team. And when I hear the description of them figuratively smashing someone in the mouth, it’s hard to imagine where that comes from. Yes, on the court they’re missing Molly Kreklow terribly, as was to be expected. But while Lisa Henning played a position that’s easier to replace, there was a toughness, a grit to Henning that’s sorely lacking on the 2014 version of Wayne Kreklow’s Tigers. This team misses Lisa Henning, badly.

There is individual skill, we see it at times, and this team looks in flashes like they could be a very good team down the road. But right now, there’s just a toughness lacking. The Tigers are getting hit in the mouth by teams like A&M, and so far for the most part, sad to say, the response has been to sit on the ground bleeding. Passing falls apart, blocking just doesn’t happen, offensive systems are as forgotten as Demi Moore, players just look lost. Whether it happens in what’s left of this year, or it waits until the future and comes from one of the youngsters on this team (one imagines in time Kasey Reuter could be the Henning-style bad ass this team so desperately needs) someone needs to stand up and start pushing back, or Mizzou volleyball may have seen the last of championships for a while.

 

REMEMBERING THE COACH

Finally, it would be an absolute sin for me not to mention one of my favorite people ever, John Kadlec. The man who played, coached, commented on and just plain loved Missouri football for many decades passed away last week, sending all who knew him into mourning.

My favorite thing about the man affectionately known as “Mister Mizzou” was how much he cared for all Tiger sports. He was a football man to the bone, but was friends with tracksters and swimmers and was a huge fan of MU softball. Anyone, man or woman, who wore the Tiger uniform in any sport had a fan, and a friend, in John Kadlec.

My favorite personal memory of John came a few years ago at an annual event he and I both loved, the banquet announcing the new inductees into the Missouri Athletics Hall of Fame. In addition to being a great celebration of the history and legacy of Mizzou sports, it’s usually a pretty good meal. In his wonderful history of Tiger football titled “Ole Mizzou,” the great old sportswriter Bob Broeg wrote of the coach —

“…he considers Missouri athletes the best fed anywhere and quotes professional scouts who visit the campus. The truth is, John not only is prejudiced but also indiscriminate. There are those who say that John would eat anything that would not eat him first.”

Sharing this love of food and in particular a sweet tooth, I was at a table with Kadlec and former Mizzou softball great Cat Lee and nobody else. But, being a banquet, the folks serving us placed a desert at every space at the table — eight or 10 seats. Gradually, Kadlec and I finished our cheesecake, and looked at one another…then at the homeless cheesecake slices. He grabbed another, as did I. We had Cat hand us one more. Before we were through, Coach and I had each eaten…well, let’s just say more than our share of that cheesecake.

I’ll remember Coach when the next warm August comes around and the Tigers gather for the opening of camp. John Kadlec thought the first day of football practice each summer should be a national holiday. I’ll remember his warm smile and affectionate laugh. I’ll cherish his friendship always.

And I’ll never be able to look a piece of cheesecake in the face without remembering this dear man. We’ll all miss him terribly, but we’re also glad he’s reunited with his beloved wife of so many years, Dolly. Happy trails, Coach.

 

Darren Hellwege is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association and Football Writers Association of America. 

Twitter: @kbiahellwege

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