A basketball coach is standing in a hallway between the weight room and court at Mizzou Arena. His name is Rob Fulford, and he is here, in this moment, in a conversation about a basketball program trying to find its way.
In a more general sense, he is here because of his particular skills and connections that may help Missouri land some of the nation’s best players. More than anything else, Mizzou’s ability to attract better talent will determine whether this miserable season is someday viewed as dark foreshadowing or a noble struggle before bigger success — like that dirty apartment you had in college.
He is going through some of the minutia, and mentions that Mizzou's coaches have allotted 21 of their remaining NCAA allotted days during the current cycle to see high school kids. Then he pauses.
“Well, I guess we have 22 now,” he says, and here comes the punchline. “Since Coach almost went down last night.”
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He is referring, of course, to the cancellation of head coach Kim Anderson’s recruiting trip because his plane malfunctioned and made an emergency landing on Wednesday. Fulford is making a joke, but he’s dead serious about knowing exactly how much time the Mizzou coaches can spend on the road. This is their only way out of the darkness.
This is Anderson’s first year at his alma mater, and the failures are easy to see. Ten straight losses, the worst streak since 1967 — when Anderson was 11 years old — and now even worse with guard Wes Clark missing the rest of the season because of an elbow injury. Look through the schedule, and it’s hard to find more than two games — tops — where the Tigers will be favored.
This was always going to be a bad year for Mizzou. Frank Haith’s years of playing transfer musical chairs finally turned up empty, leaving in his wake a roster bad enough for at least a one-year mulligan on any fair judgments.
So it’s not that the last seven regular-season games are irrelevant — if nothing else, Anderson needs to keep his players going hard — but it is entirely true that what Mizzou’s coaches are doing in high school gyms and the living rooms of top recruits is more important than what happens during their own games.
And on that point, the indications are pretty good, actually.
“Our message hasn’t changed,” Anderson says. “Our opportunity is there, to come in and play. Have that opportunity to play. We’re recruiting some kids who are looking at that opportunity to come in and play right away.”
At the moment, Mizzou has signed two three-star high schoolers for next year — Blue Springs South’s Kevin Puryear, and Cullen VanLeer of Pacific (Mo.). Terrence Phillips, a three-star point guard from Oak Hill Academy in Virginia who is the brother of NBA star Brandon Jennings, has also committed to the Tigers.
Mizzou also remains in on some four- and even five-star recruits, including a pair of players from Huntington Prep in West Virginia, where Fulford coached last year.
After that are even bigger opportunities, including five-star recruits Jayson Tatum of St. Louis Chaminade in the class of 2016 and Michael Porter of Columbia Tolton Catholic in the class of 2017.
The most glaring needs on the roster are for a big man and a combo guard, specifically someone who can get a bucket when a play breaks down. That’s where recruiting comes in.
“I know they’re right in there with some pretty good kids,” says Steve Smith, the coach at Oak Hill, which is effectively a factory for high-major recruits. “Just from what I’ve seen, some of the top-level kids, the kinds of kids who maybe weren’t thinking about Missouri before, I’ve seen them listing Missouri. I don’t know if they’re going to get them, but you have to start somewhere.”
Recruiting was supposed to be Anderson’s weakness, you might remember. He addressed that concern immediately, not only in hiring Fulford but in retaining Tim Fuller from Haith’s staff.
Anderson says the biggest difference from his days recruiting kids to Central Missouri is that for Division II kids, you mostly recruit the athlete and the parents. With high-major Division I kids, there are typically more people around. Not just the kid and his parents, but more coaches, more relatives, maybe a mentor or personal trainer.
Anderson and Fulford said the approach and targets have not changed as Missouri’s season has faded, something confirmed by coaches of three different recruits.
But no staff at a school with MU’s ambitions gets two seasons like this without some serious pressure being applied, so the coaches know their message has a shelf life. Especially with athletic director Mike Alden retiring.
“Seeing what they’re doing on the road, and knowing a little about Kim, I think they’ll win eight conference games next year,” says an assistant at a rival school. “But if you don’t, and I know they want Kim to succeed because he’s one of their own, but we all know we have to win.”
The MU coaches are in a strange moment in time. This year’s losing can be explained, and even spun into a positive in recruiting, depending on a player’s preferences. But all of that has to turn into success.
In other words, the losing is fine — as long as it’s temporary. Everyone knows there will be dust and a lot of takeout food when they remodel their kitchen, but patience runs out fast once the work gets behind schedule.
“What most kids look at it is, there’s an obvious need for my position,” Fulford says. “Kids look at playing time, they look at opportunity. You never want to sell losing, but I think you have to spin it, because we have some good pieces here …
“What we’re saying is, ‘Don’t lose faith in us, because we’re going to win and we’re going to win big. You see where it’s at. Help it get back to where it can be. You can be a reason it gets back to this level. Take Mizzou to a Final Four. Be a part of the first conference champion in a long time.’”
It’s the only message Missouri can spread, really. It’s a smart message, one that appears to be making some inroads. But it’s also one that has to catch quick, or be buried under more losing.