The Puryear family sits in Section 111, on the eastern side of Mizzou Arena, and if you weren’t asking to use their tickets a season ago, then you cannot ask now.
“That’s the rule,” said Vicki Puryear, whose son Kevin, a junior forward for the Missouri Tigers, has begun smiling again when he greets his family after basketball games. For the first time in his college career, his team is winning.
This is the sort of change that happens when a team goes from being one of the worst Power Five squads in the country to standing on the precipice of its first NCAA tournament in five seasons. Holdovers from the Kim Anderson era are rediscovering what it feels like to be winners.
Before tearing an ACL in Mizzou’s win over Arkansas this past weekend, Cullen VanLeer had called his father after each of his performances this season. His dad used to have to initiate these conversations, only hoping to “make sure he was OK.” But winning has made Cullen want to talk.
Now, as long as Mizzou wins, Jordan Barnett doesn’t stress over a bad performance. The senior forward, a one-time transfer from Texas, has stopped asking his mother rhetorical questions, too. No more “when are we going to figure this out?” or “what can I do?” — as if anyone really knew the solution during a three-year period when Missouri won just eight conference games, two fewer than the Tigers have won this season.
The on-court failures of those Mizzou teams were foreign to the players who endured them. Nearly every player who earns a Division I basketball scholarship had to be skilled enough to be successful almost every time he stepped on the court before college.
Puryear, Barnett and point guard Jordan Geist were all state champions in high school — and they were all part of a Missouri Tigers team that won just seven regular-season games a season ago.
“Typically you don’t get hired if you haven’t won a lot of games at this level, and typically you don’t get signed as player if you haven’t won a lot of games,” said Brad Loos, a former assistant coach under Anderson. “… It was uncharted territory for all of us.”
If you identify as a winner your entire life, what happens when you start losing?
Maybe you wear a hood over your head or pull a baseball hat down low when you head to restaurants after games, as Puryear used to do.
And when you start winning again — what happens then?
“Winning tastes a lot better than losing. I can tell you that,” Puryear said. “We’ve played on a lot of big stages this year. Stages we really didn’t have the first two years. ... I’m not taking a second of it for granted.”
The Tigers passed last season's win total on Dec. 16, before conference play. A season ago, they went 2-8 in games decided by five points or fewer, and this season they have gone 6-5 in those same games.
Missouri is 20-11, the No. 5 seed in this week’s Southeastern Conference Tournament in St. Louis. And the men who used to be at the bottom of the SEC now have a new appreciation for success.
"With the caliber of teams that we’re playing and beating, it brings a whole new respect to winning," Geist said.
First-year Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said he didn’t think the players he inherited were “fragile or broken,” but the grizzled, hard-to-please man knew his criticism had to hit the leftover Tigers in the right way.
When he railed on them, he wanted them to know what he thought their potential could be. He has perhaps been hardest on Barnett, whom he believes has the physical ability to be the Tigers’ best defender.
“I never understood the emotional fatigue or letdown in a program when you struggle and you lose for so long,” Martin said. “So I had to change my approach as a coach, just having more compassion.”
This season has included accomplishments that much of this roster had never before experienced: victories over ranked opponents, true road wins. Only one person on this Missouri team, Barnett, has been part of a NCAA Tournament team before, and that was as a freshman who played sparingly at Texas.
“We’d get punched and might have fallen down and given up,” Geist said of last season’s Missouri team. “This year, we’re getting up and punching back.”
Geist said the Tigers’ collapse against West Virginia in the championship of their Thanksgiving weekend tournament in Orlando, Fla., reminded him of last season’s team, and he “wanted to get rid of that as soon as possible.”
The next week, Missouri traveled back to the same city and played at Central Florida. In a half-empty arena, the Tigers let the Knights get within two points with less than a minute remaining, but Martin’s team held on, snapping a 36-game losing streak in true road games.
Other games have mattered more for the Tigers’ NCAA Tournament resume, but Martin thinks this was one of MU’s most important victories. It broke that long road-win drought, and it showed Martin was right when he told his players they were capable of things they had never before accomplished at the Division I level.
They no longer had to take the coach's word. They had proof.
“Sometimes as a coach, you can come off as a parent,” Martin said. “My mom would say stuff over and over, it just became words. … You have to go through it. You went through it. Now those are results.”
Players up and down the Missouri roster said all season that their team was still learning how to win, and in some ways, it still is. Defensive intensity has lapsed. Full-court presses can lead to mystifying troubles with inbound passes. Late-game possessions have resulted in poor shot selection.
Combinations of those issues have led to two three-game losing streaks for Mizzou, the most recent of which ended on Feb. 27. But the Tigers, Martin said, can sense a slide coming on, a “here we go again” feeling, because many of them have lived through it before — and now they know how to stop their skids. The Tigers’ first slump-busting win came at Alabama, the second at Vanderbilt.
For a team that lost its true road games by an average of more than 14 points a season ago, those wins — and the team’s 7-8 record away from Mizzou Arena this year — figure big. Unlike a season ago, Geist said, the Tigers never became comfortable with losing.
“The returning guys, having faced so much adversity, they obviously have handled adversity well because of that,” Loos said. “There’s nothing being thrown at them this year that they haven’t already seen.”
Other than the success, of course, and the unique set of pains that playing in meaningful games in March can bring. But these are better problems to have.