NASHVILLE — One night after a victory in Italy this summer, Missouri guard Terrence Phillips pulled aside new teammate Jordan Barnett.
A thought had crept into Phillips’ head, and he wasn’t sure how it would sound out loud.
“Jordan,” Phillips said. “I think we’re good.”
The Tigers are coming off their worst two-season stretch since 1966-1968. Third-year coach Kim Anderson has had to deal with severe sanctions — the result of a previous regime’s actions — and constantly changing leadership at the University of Missouri. “Mizzou” and “good” have not been paired together since midway through Frank Haith’s final season in 2014.
So pardon Phillips for being surprised at what he saw in those international games this summer.
“I think we’re gonna shock a lot of people this year,” the sophomore guard told Barnett. “And I think we’re gonna shock people more when you return.”
Barnett appears to be the key to Missouri’s climb out of the SEC cellar. The 6-foot-7 transfer from Texas won’t be eligible to play until mid-December, but his talent has both his coach and his teammates excited.
Anderson called Barnett, who was once a Top 100 recruit out of St. Louis, Mo., a “better shooter than I thought he was,” while sophomore post Kevin Puryear simply called him a “freak.”
“I think the dynamic of the team will change when he comes back,” Puryear told SEC Country at the conference’s basketball media day on Wednesday. “I think he’ll bring an element to the team that we really need.”
Before then, the Tigers will lean on a lineup full of teenagers.
Puryear (11.5 points per game) was last year’s leading scorer. Phillips (3.5 assists) led the team in dimes. Sophomore teammates K.J. Walton and Cullen VanLeer played in all 31 games.
A group of five freshmen is also supposed to get on the floor. And for the first time, the program is designed the way Anderson wants it.
“To me, it’s his first year,” Puryear said. “These are guys that he recruited. This is all his staff and his hires. We love Coach Anderson. He’s a really genuine guy. He puts his players in a position to suceed, and we hope to do the same with him.”
That’s the way the coach sees it, too: “I do think this is kind of a starting over point for our program,” Anderson said. “With the type of guys we have. With the type of recruits that we’ve got. We’ve tried to build it from the ground up.”
The questions now become: How long will it take Anderson to restore the program to its prior status as an annual tournament invitee, and how much patience will a new athletic director and upset fanbase have during that process?
One reporter asked if such a turnaround will take four more years. Five? Six?
“I hope it’s before then,” he said. “I hope in the next couple years. Our goal is to be relevant. We don’t want to be 3-15. We want to get back to where we’re competitive every night.”
The Tigers were, unsurprisingly, picked 14th out of 14 SEC teams in this week’s preseason poll, but few can argue with the assertion that Missouri brings back enough talent to at least improve on its dismal 2015-2016 season.
Phillips said that he and his teammates know what Missouri basketball is “about.” They know what the arena looks like when it’s full.
“We want to get back to that,” Phillips said. “Even if it’s not selling out. Even if it’s just 10,000 in the stands. Whatever. We just want to get people back in the seats. Get people excited about basketball.”
Anderson, a former Missouri star under legendary coach Norm Stewart, undoubtedly longs to see the arena packed again.
For now, he’s asking supporters to see the big picture.
“I think fans have to exercise a little bit more patience,” he said. “Give us a little bit more time, and I think they’ll enjoy the product. I think these guys will play unbelievably hard every night, if it’s anything like they’ve done in practice.”
Extra notes from the media session on Wednesday:
- Phillips wears No. 1, the same jersey that former Missouri guard Phil Pressey wore a few years back. As a joke, one of the equipment managers gave Phillips an old Pressey jersey before the school’s media day earlier this month. “He just played with no fear,” Phillips said of Pressey, who went on to play in the NBA. “He was in control, and he ran the team well.”
- Puryear said he’s developed a deeper bond with his teammates this season: “The chemistry, the feel of the team, is a lot different than it was last year. These are guys that I want to go to war with every night. I enjoy being with them every day. The love I have for these guys is pretty deep.”
- Anderson on the two players he brought with him to Nashville: “Terrence is a magnet. He’s a people person. He’s a campus leader. He’s a chairman of the SEC leadership council as a sophomore. He’s got charisma. Kevin is more of a, ‘Hey, let’s play.’ He does his talking on the court.”
- Anderson on coaching players he didn’t recruit: “Maybe they don’t like your style. Maybe they like the coach they were playing for, which is understandable. It’s been kind of a two-year process. It is kind of like my first year, to be honest with you, but I remember the last two, I can promise you.”
- Anderson on basic improvements this season: “I think they’ll be a better team offensively. Last year, we had a lot of trouble scoring. We couldn’t score. We kind of changed things up defensively. We’ve gotten back to being more intense and getting after teams more. I just feel like last year, we tried to pack it in more, and I didn’t think it carried over. I thought it made us soft as a team.”
- Anderson on his diet in Italy, where he also played professionally for several seasons: “I’m eating pasta. I’m eating gnocchi every freakin’ night. Gnocchi with sauce. Gnocchi without sauce.”
- Phillips on the freshman class and this year’s overall team: “I think people are gonna be in shock. We’ve got some key pieces. A lot of height … The pieces we brought in this year are gonna be shocking to people, and the difference in the team this year is gonna shock people. I’m very excited for people to see us play.”