Basketball season is just around the corner and the only area Division One college team who's ranked is Mizzou. The Tigers are rated number 15 in the country in the first Associated Press poll and their lofty status comes despite a huge turnover in personnel.
Missouri lost 8 players off last year's team that won 30 games and the Big 12 tournament only to get stunned by Norfolk St. in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Normally when you lose that many players, it's rebuilding time. But head coach Frank Haith pulled a Houdini act with his first recruiting class.
"I'm excited because we were able to maintain success," Haith said. "That was our whole goal. When we got the job we had all these seniors. We didn't have a freshman class or a sophomore class except for Phil Pressey. So instead of going out and signing a bunch of freshmen who at that point and time were guys we didn't think were good enough to play at this level, we decided on going the transfer route."
And the transfers were all stand-outs at their previous schools including Keion Bell, who averaged 16 points a game at Pepperdine, Earnest Ross, who averaged 13 points at Auburn, and Jabari Brown, an All-American high school player and transfer from Oregon who's eligible in December. Those three will join a backcourt that already includes Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon, who's currently on indefinite suspension. But the biggest addition is up front, where 6-9, 255 pound Alex Oriakhi comes to Columbia from UConn, where he helped the Huskies win the 2011 national championship.
"It was a crazy journey," Oriakhi said of his decision to come to Mizzou. "UConn was unfortunate. They got hit with a ban from the NCAA Tournament so it gave me an opportunity to transfer and play right away. Me being good friends with Phil Pressey....he recruited me and basically convinced me to attend the University of Missouri."
"Alex Oriakhi late in the year was kind of like a Christmas present that all of a sudden showed up under the tree," Haith recalled. "We weren't expecting it."
The other big frontcourt addition is the return of 6-8 Lawrence Bowers, who missed last season with an ACL injury. A key contributor on both offense and defense, Bowers return rounds out a roster with plenty of athleticism including 6-10 freshman Ryan Rosberg, one of Missouri's top high school players from St. Louis.
"One of the things I saw that was a weakness of ours last year was that we were so tiny," Haith said. "But now we have some depth and size. That's something you'll see different with this year's team."
While much has been made of Mizzou's entry into the top football conference in the country, the SEC is also a basketball hotbed producing three of the last seven national champions including Kentucky last season and Florida in 2006 and 2007. And Haith says there's definitely a difference in the Big 12 and the SEC.
"I've watched a lot of tape on the teams in that league," Haith explained. "One thing that's different is they press a little bit more. So you gotta be able to handle people coming at you with a full-court press. Nobody in the Big 12 would do that so I think that's something we've got to adjust to."
Haith says the team is excited about the new challenge. And with the addition of some promising transfers, fans are excited as well.
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