Mizzou sends message with beatdown
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- They gathered together in the summer, a hodgepodge of players who were more like castaways thrown together on an island.
There were five freshmen, a junior college transfer, a Division I transfer and a pack of veterans who had little to offer for a rallying cry other than the remnants of a 16-16 finish the year before.
They all had agreed to stay on campus for a sort of summer-long icebreaker, figuring the best way to become the '08-09 Missouri basketball team was a full-on immersion.
"There's not a whole lot to do in Columbia, Missouri, in the summer when the students are gone," Matt Lawrence explained. "Big surprise there, I know. So after we played all day long, we'd go out and grab pizza or whatever at night. We were together all the time."
The one they all remember was the kid, this freshman from Baltimore who would not stop with his crazy talk.
A few days into the summer, when they still could have used Hello My Name Is tags to identify one another, Kim English was chattering about winning a national championship.
"He's like, 'Hey, this team could win it all,'" J.T. Tiller said. "A freshman. I'm looking at him like, 'Let's make the tournament first.'"
No one laughs at English any more. Well, that's not true. This team laughs at everybody, a regular comedy on the court of smart-cracking jokesters who have grown from a team of strangers to a team; a team now 40 minutes from Missouri's first Final Four in school history, 120 minutes from making crazy English a prophet.
Mizzou beat Memphis in the Sweet 16 on Thursday night, which wasn't exactly an outlandish proposition what with the school's Big 12 tournament title in its hip pocket and No. 3 seed.
It is how Missouri obliterated Memphis that will send the message Mizzou has been trying to send since gathering over the summer. If a 102-91 beatdown of a team that sometimes doesn't give up 100 points in two games doesn't say Missouri is for real, nothing will. Memphis hadn't given up that many points in 18 years.
"What they did to us today no one has done to us," Memphis coach John Calipari said. "We've lost Elite Eight games, lost Final Four games, but they punched us in the mouth and we did not respond."
No, Memphis recoiled, digging a hole as deep as 24 points, which is what it might be like to watch Tiger Woods triple-bogey the entire front nine.
In other words, surreal because it just doesn't happen.
But this whole season is borderline wild for Missouri. Picked to finish seventh in its own conference and an NCAA tournament bystander for six years, Mizzou instead has won a school-record 31 games, its first Big 12 championship and, counting that conference run, is on a 6-0 dash through the postseason with a date with top-seeded Connecticut on Saturday.
All that with a team full of Bob Evanses, not Tyreke Evanses (and we mean that as a compliment).
The sweat was barely dry on Tyreke Evans' brow before someone asked him what his future was, whether the freshman would indeed be one-and-done (and after a 33-point effort the simple answer is, "Ya think?").
No one was asking anyone in the Missouri locker room about his draft status.
"Coach likes to say we don't have any McDonald's All-Americans," English said. "We have Burger King All-Americans."
Actually, what the Tigers have is a team full of guys like Mike Anderson, in his third season at Missouri's helm. These are hard-nosed, scrappy players, guys who could have played for Nolan Richardson, Anderson's coach and mentor. They outshot Memphis, yes, hitting 53 percent of their field goals against a team that was the best in the country in field-goal defense.
More, Mizzou out-toughed Memphis, literally wrenching the ball out of players' hands on more than one occasion. In a game in which most people figured Missouri's best-case scenario was to keep it close and hope for a shot at the end, Mizzou went directly at Memphis and sliced and diced with ease. Mizzou needed only six 3-pointers to top the 100-point mark (that one of them was a Marcus Denmon 60-foot, halftime-buzzer-beating heave only made the night somehow more poetic for Mizzou).
By the middle of the second half, Memphis players were tugging on their shorts, the universal hoops sign for exhaustion.
"Yeah, I saw that," DeMarre Carroll said, grinning.
Tiller had more points in one half (16) than he had in an entire game this season, finishing with a career-high 23.
And he's the defensive specialist.
And he had a bum wrist.
"That's J.T.," Lawrence said. "He could have a broken hand and he'd be out there. Pain is nothing to him."
That's what you get with the BK All-American, a kid who will not just buy into Anderson's hellacious system but who adopts his attitude, as well.
No one believed Anderson could mop up Quin Snyder's mess at Missouri; not his way anyway, not after he suspended five players following a fight, sent his leading scorer and rebounder packing and stood his moral ground despite the vultures circling over his head.
No one except a bunch of kids in the locker room.
Though not even Anderson was on board with English initially.
Asked what he would have thought if someone told him at the beginning of the season he'd be playing for a shot at the Final Four, Anderson laughed.
"I would be asking what are you smoking and drinking, man," he said.
But in those boring summer days, two things happened. First, the players who didn't know one another realized they liked one another. They have gone from virtual strangers to a merry band of jokesters. In the postgame locker room, English leaned in among the reporters interviewing Denmon with a water bottle for a microphone; Lawrence joked about Denmon's half-court prowess; and when asked about picking up two quick fouls, Zaire Taylor said with a straight face, "I wanted to give J.T. a chance to realize his full potential. I thought it was time for him to take ownership. It might have looked like it was the wrong move, but it was the right move."
Sitting one chair over, Tiller laughed and shook his head.
After the friendship came something even more critical: The players started to think that maybe English was onto something.
"The thing is you have to believe you can do it," English said. "If you aim for anything less, then you're just selling yourself short. If you don't believe you can win it all, who will?"
As of today, maybe a whole lot more people where Missouri is concerned.
Dana O'Neil covers college basketball for ESPN.com and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.