Fans at this sold-out Mizzou Arena carried players from another era in their hands.
Maybe it was because the new souvenir cups haven’t arrived yet, or maybe so few people came to games last season that concessions stands never ran out of the old ones. Either way, soda-drinking spectators received cups with one former Missouri player on them who transferred (K.J. Walton) and one who graduated (Russell Woods).
They played under a different coach in Kim Anderson, who never led Tigers teams in an environment like the one that greeted Mizzou in its 74-59 season-opening victory against Iowa State on Friday night.
With more than 20 minutes until tipoff, the student section was full, something it never was a season ago.
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And before doors for fans opened 90 minutes before the game started, each of the lines to get in had a few hundred people standing in them. Three TV news stations did live shots outside the arena. Another did one just inside the arena’s doors.
“If you weren’t here for Willie Jackson, we don’t want you!” PJ Morin, a member of the off-color and unofficial student group The Antlers, said in reference to a forward who left the team after never returning from winter break last year.
The Antlers, known for raunchy nicknames on the back of their shirts and worse-than-PG chants, have benefited from increased interest, too. They saw an uptick in membership — from seven new initiates a year ago to 13 this season. The Grand Poobah — essentially the president of the group — Dan Blanchard, said what’s more impressive than that was the number of applicants the group received.
Just 26 people applied a year ago. Eighty did this year.
“We’ve all been waiting since the end of the SEC Tournament last year for this night,” Blanchard said.
It’s an Antler tradition to have new members camp outside the arena before the season opener, and Blanchard, a junior, said he sensed more energy from the group than he did around this time the past few years. The Antlers always search for opposing players’ phone numbers before games, but Blanchard said members seemed particularly giddy to call the Cyclones late at night in hopes of waking them up.
“I’ll take this 10 times out of 10,” Blanchard said — even if there’s a mild sensation of frustration at the people who didn’t support the team during darker days.
The Antlers’ chants sometimes stood out inside a mostly empty arena in past seasons, but they didn’t Friday, not even after star freshman Michael Porter Jr. left the game fewer than two minutes after it began because of a hip injury.
Flashes from cell phones dotted the arena during introductions, and fans waved gold flags they received on their seats. During the Anderson era, thousands of towels would have been without an owner.
“Last year, we didn’t get a lot of games like that,” senior Jordan Barnett said. “I can honestly count on one finger the amount of games we got like that.”
“Zero fingers,” Kevin Puryear interjected.
Friday was the first time the venue sold out for a basketball game since March 5, 2013. The announced attendance was 15,061.
Every game this season might be a sellout. The school sold a Mizzou Arena-record 9,572 public season tickets, plus another 6,028 student ticket combos that include access to football games.
“In order for us to be a great program and maintain, it has to be every game,” coach Cuonzo Martin said of the crowd. “It has to be every night. When you want a great program and you ask for that, then we need you in the arena to support, so we can maintain that.”
Perhaps there’s a transition period that comes with the renewed interest.
The arena still seems to need new cups, and if the towel-waving is going to continue, Missouri will need to order more of them. About the top eight rows of seats on one side of the stadium didn’t have any, and fans should fill those seats all season.