Extreme makeover SEC edition: Mizzou embracing chance to begin anew
ST. LOUIS — Humor me, please, and forget about Missouri’s season-opening loss at home to Missouri-Kansas City. Just wipe it from your memory and pretend it never happened.
OK, there. Now the Tigers’ first season under coach Kim Anderson doesn’t seem quite so underwhelming, does it? Winning its opener wouldn’t make Missouri top 25 or anything, but take away that embarrassing defeat and the Tigers would have avoided their first losing record in nonconference play in 35 years. Considering they have played the 18th-most difficult schedule in the country, a winning record with a first-year coach and a roster packed with newcomers would be viewed far more favorably than it is. Mizzou Arena would be more than half full when the Tigers play, too.
Alas, the Tigers can’t wipe that 69-61 loss to UMKC off the books any easier than they can go back and start their season over again.
But they certainly can forget about that game, and with the Southeastern Conference season underway — the real season, if you will — the Tigers also can move past their 6-7 nonconference start. With the opening of their 18-game conference schedule, Missouri — as does every team — has a chance to begin anew.
"We talked a lot about that," Anderson said. "It’s like a do-over. You start the (conference) year off, everybody starts zero-zero. Now here’s your chance now to do something."
The Tigers did something, too, on Thursday night when they finally pulled out a victory against a team from one of the "major" conferences. It took overtime but Missouri beat LSU 74-67 in the SEC opener for both teams. While their overall record now stands at 7-7, the Tigers can say they’re undefeated.
"We started 1-0 and don’t have any losses," sophomore guard Wes Clark said after the victory over LSU. "So we’ll just keep going with that and take one game at a time."
Game No. 2 is Saturday at Auburn, a game that will pit two former Division II national-championship winning coaches in their first seasons at new schools, Anderson and Bruce Pearl. Auburn (8-6) opened its SEC season with a 64-52 loss at Vanderbilt on Tuesday night, a setback that ended a five-game winning streak. The two Tigers have one common opponent so far this season in Xavier, a team both played on their home courts. Missouri lost by 16; Auburn won by a point in double overtime.
"They’re a good team and he’s done a great job of putting these guys together," Anderson said. "They’re going to be physical, they’re going to be strong, they’re going to play hard."
The teams share numerous similarities beyond their nickname and first-year coaches. Auburn ranks 11th in the conference in scoring, Missouri 12th. Auburn ranks last in opponents’ field-goal percentage, Missouri is 12th. Both teams start a fifth-year senior transfer at guard, Missouri with Keith Shamburger, Auburn with Antoine Mason. Missouri was the preseason pick to finish seventh, Auburn was eighth.
For Missouri, going to Auburn will make for a trip not unlike LSU took to Columbia. That is, as someone with the LSU program told me before Thursday’s game, "This is a game we have to win." Translation: If LSU wants to have a good conference season, it couldn’t afford to lose to a team with a losing record even if the game was on the road. He quickly added, "But it’s a game we could lose."
They did, too, and it was not a fluke. Missouri has improved noticeably in the past few weeks for several reasons. Sophomore forward Johnathan Williams III has emerged into an all-conference type performer, Jakeenan Gant has brought quickness and energy since he became eligible five games ago, and the other freshmen have started to play like they belong. The best of the freshmen, Montaque Gill-Caesar, has been unavailable for the past two games because of a bad back and isn’t expected to play against Auburn, either.
Anderson hopes that breaking through against LSU after tough losses to Illinois and Oklahoma State will boost his young team’s confidence, which should spur further improvement. He called the LSU win his team’s "most complete effort from start to finish."
He added, "We’re thrilled with the win, but it’s just one game."
Yes, but one game at the start of the season altered the perception of Missouri. If beating LSU didn’t reverse that view, a win at Auburn certainly would.