Five of Missouri’s six new scholarship basketball players arrived on campus in early June, providing the program with the perfect opportunity to begin a fresh chapter.
There were more valleys than peaks during coach Kim Anderson’s first season as Missouri men’s basketball coach.
The 2014-15 season started with a loss to UMKC before ending with only nine wins and a program-record 23 losses.
The Tigers opened Southeastern Conference play with a stirring overtime victory against LSU, but a program-record 13-game losing streak followed.
It all came to an inglorious end with a first-round loss against South Carolina in the conference tournament.
“We talk about it a little bit, but not too much,” junior guard Wes Clark said. “We’re looking forward and beyond that season. We’re still remembering; still remembering the pain and the hurt and the disappointment we had and where we need to go from there.”
The Tigers’ new blood — freshmen guards Terrence Phillips, K.J. Walton and Cullen VanLeer along with forward Kevin Puryear and junior guard Martavian Payne, a transfer from John A. Logan Community College — has injected new life into the program.
“They have added an energy, a youthful exuberance,” Anderson said. “They’re talented, but they know they’ve got to get better too, and their work ethic has been phenomenal.
“They’re in the gym late at night. They’re in the gym after practice, so I think they’ve brought something to the table … The new guys have come in with an enthusiasm and an exuberance that I think has helped everybody.”
Forward Russell Woods, who was Payne’s teammate at Logan, won’t arrive until later in the summer as he finishes some coursework, but the rest of the newcomers already seem comfortable.
“We’re bonding with the older guys, and all the freshmen are coming together,” Phillips said. “I think the freshman group is really strong here. We’re really kind of setting the tempo. We’re getting in the gym. Adjusting to practice was quicker than I thought it would be. We’re settling in just fine.”
It’s not that Missouri’s new crop of players are unaware of last season’s 9-23 record or last-place finish in the SEC, but this summer represents a chance to start over.
“New faces, new team — that’s how I look at it this year,” Phillips said. “Last year, it happened. We don’t want to bring it back up that much, but it still is in the back of our heads to motivate us and get us going.”
It’s made a difference for the returning players, too.
“Those kids came in with a lot of confidence,” Clark said. “After the season we had, it’s a little common for the team to be a little down on themselves, not knowing how to fix things and how to better ourselves. But these kids came in with a work mindset first, which is pushing everybody else to be better.”
It’s a welcome change for the entire program.
“They get us boosted up and hyped up,” sophomore forward Jakeenan Gant said. “We talk a little bit during pickup (games) and get everybody riled up and motivated in the weight room and everywhere.”
Of course, exuberance alone isn’t going to change the Tigers’ fortunes on the court, but it’s a good place to start.
“Having new guys, it’s a new vibe in the locker room and new vibe on the court,” said Phillips, a point guard from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia. “There’s just a lot of new excitement.”
Phillips said he tries to get in the gym three times a week to shoot at least 1,000 shots and 600 made baskets.
That’s indicative of the work ethic the freshmen have brought. It’s also evident in the weight room, Anderson said.
“We just want to get better as a class,” Phillips said. “We want to make an impact as a freshman class this year.”
Missouri worked feverishly on defense last summer, but Anderson has shifted focus after last season’s squad struggled mightily on offense.
The Tigers’ primary focus is on offensive skill development — footwork, shooting, dribbling, passing, coming off a screen, spacing the floor.
“We’ve spent zero time on defense since we got back here (in early June),” Anderson said. “Last year, by now, we had done a lot of defensive work. We actually had kind of a shell defense in. We’ve really spent more time this year working on individual development, skill development.”
Missouri lost its leading scorer and rebounder when Johnathan Williams III decided to transfer. He signed with Gonzaga.
The Tigers expect some gains from its sophomore group now that it has a year of experience, but the freshmen are driving the culture shift.
“They’ve brought maybe a positive vibe, because when you have a year like we had, there’s not all positive things,” Anderson said. “There’s a few positive things, but they weren’t here. They’ve come in, and they’ve all done a nice job.”