Mizzou gets back on winning track

OKLAHOMA CITY -- DeMarre Carroll realizes how long and tenuous his trip to the NCAA tournament has really been.

The Missouri senior forward almost got sidetracked several times along the way. And he's not ashamed to admit to some of the hardships that he and his teammates have overcome over the years.

"Once I transferred here, it seemed like nothing went right for me," Carroll said. "When you consider what I've gone through and then getting to play with these guys … to accomplish what we've done is just amazing."

Coming into this season, the Missouri program had been involved in an embarrassing string of off-court incidents that had turned it into a local punch line. The Tigers had been a first-round casualty in three straight Big 12 tournaments. And there was no real end in sight.

But Carroll and his teammates have rebounded for a stunning 28-6 season capped by the Big 12 conference tournament championship last weekend. That triumph has boosted them into their first NCAA tournament berth in five seasons as they will meet Cornell on Friday in Boise, Idaho.

And Carroll, who nearly turned pro after last season, has developed into Missouri's leading scorer and rebounder (16.8 ppg, 7.3 boards). He's also become only the second player in Big 12 history to make all-league first-team honors and first-team all-academic honors in the same season after earning a 3.70 grade point average last semester in graduate school.

Such honors seemed a long way away in July 2007, when Carroll was shot in the ankle while trying to mediate a fight in Columbia, Mo. The bullet grazed his ankle and barely missed his Achilles tendon, which scared him more than anything else. It made him realize that his basketball career isn't something he could ever take for granted.

"Everything started going wrong," Carroll said, "and I started looking around thinking, 'What did I get myself into?'

"I got shot. We lost a lot of games. But look at me now. I'm standing here smiling with a Big 12 championship."

Carroll had come to Missouri to play for his uncle, Mike Anderson, after a disappointing start at Vanderbilt. He felt constricted by coach Kevin Stallings' Princeton-like offensive philosophy.

But he and his uncle have helped orchestrate a dramatic turnaround for a team that was picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 before the season started.

"We had some storms, man," Anderson said. "We had a lot of storms. And he [Carroll] was involved with a lot of them. But as I tell them, 'Tough times don't last; tough people do.'

"I think you've got to go through some things to get where you want to go."

Anderson has certainly been there -- just like his nephew.

The Missouri program he inherited from Quin Snyder was a mess. The Tigers' image had been besmirched by Ricky Clemons' jailhouse tapes and notorious ATV accident at the home of then-Missouri president Elson Floyd in the summer of 2003.

After a heralded career at UAB in which he won 20 games in four straight seasons, Anderson was a hot commodity when he arrived at Missouri. But some of his luster appeared to have diminished after last season's disappointing 16-16 season, which was beset with player dissension and off-the-court incidents.

The problems had started even earlier. Leading 2006-07 rebounder Kalen Grimes was kicked off the team after he was charged with hitting a man in the face in an early-morning altercation outside a Dairy Queen in Florissant, Mo. Carroll's shooting incident happened only a couple of weeks later.

But the biggest change came during the infamous incident outside the Athena nightclub on Jan. 27, 2008 -- only a few hours after the Tigers' first true road win of the season at Colorado. Senior guard Stefhon Hannah had been the key player, making a critical steal and scoring a basket to ice the victory.

But less than eight hours after that big play, Hannah was lying face-down outside the nightclub after being struck in a fight. He suffered a fractured jaw in the incident and was also charged with third-degree assault along with senior guard Jason Horton.

It's hard to believe that only 14 months ago, Anderson made a bold stand and suspended five players who had violated curfew in that incident. The Tigers played their next game, against Nebraska, with only eight players. They lost but built cohesion among those who remained.

"It's unfortunate that we had some things that took place that didn't have anything to do with basketball," Anderson said. "It seemed like I was dealing more with the issues and trying to manage them than coaching."

It's been different this year as he's reshaped his program with seven players who have redefined the roster. The new players are a better fit for Anderson's defensive strategies, ideally blending with key returnees Carroll, Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence.

The difference in his new teammates was noticeable to Lawrence after only a few practices.

"I could tell in the summer that this team would come together," Lawrence said. "We have guys with high character and good personality. And we hadn't had that kind of chemistry since I've been here."

Such an attitude was a huge contrast from previous years, Lawrence said.

"In the past, there were a lot of guys who were out there for themselves and not playing to win," he said. "But now, we've got guys that sacrifice themselves for the team."

The change was noticeable to Anderson, too. He said the bonding began during a preseason trip to Canada and has continued building throughout the season.

Anderson has called them "the ultimate team" because of the way they have been willing to sacrifice to keep improving.

The Tigers are limited offensively but play the same kind of ferocious defense that Anderson learned from his mentor, Nolan Richardson, during the "Forty Minutes of Hell" era at Arkansas in the 1990s.

The Tigers will scrap and claw and come at opponents in waves. Their depth in particular makes them a difficult matchup.

"I love the roster and the type of players they have," Texas Tech coach Pat Knight said. "They are all so versatile and bring energy to the court from a defensive standpoint. Mike hasn't had the roster he wanted the first couple of years. Now, you can see how lethal that style of play can be."

Carroll is the only player in the Big 12 who ranks in the top 10 in scoring, rebounding, field-goal percentage and steals. But he's ably assisted by Lyons (14.2 ppg, 6 rpg) and Lawrence (9 ppg, 42 percent 3-point shooting) in a rotation of 10 players who average at least 9 minutes a game.

That group has limited opponents to 41.5 percent field-goal shooting while leading the Big 12 in turnovers created (18.9 per game) and turnover margin (plus-6.5 per game). The Tigers also lead the nation in assists and rank second in steals.

"It's definitely been a roller-coaster ride, and credit goes out to the guys on our team who came in here and were all about one thing: winning," Lawrence said. "That reflects our coach. Coach Anderson's been nothing but honest with us, saying that he's going to bring a championship to the school."

Anderson, for his part, isn't satisfied with simply making the tournament.

"I told these guys they could have a special season," he said. "And it continues."

Tim Griffin covers college football and basketball for ESPN.com. You may contact him at espntimgriff@yahoo.com.