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February 27, 2009
The Tradition Returns
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DeMarre Carroll remembers the conversation with his uncle. Shortly after making the decision to transfer from Vanderbilt to Missouri, Carroll sat in Mike Anderson's office.
"When I first got here, we both sat down and talked, me and my uncle," Carroll said. "He already said there were going to be some rough times. But by the time you leave here, you're going to be a proud man."
No one is calling Anderson a prophet. But in this season which has seen Missouri rise to 24-and-4 and a national ranking as high as No. 8, some are saying he's done the best coaching job in the country. But to simply leave it at that does a disservice to the long-time fans of Missouri basketball. The perpetrators of this run-the Tiger players-don't know. They admit they don't know.
"I never knew about Missouri," said first-year Tiger Keith Ramsey. "I didn't know what conference they were in."
"I kind of was able to be around long enough to pick up some of the history of the program," said Zaire Taylor, in his second season after transferring from Delaware.
"When I first got here," Carroll admits, "I didn't know nothing."
Quin Snyder? Ricky Clemmons? NCAA probation? Jail-house phone conversations? It's all a part of the recent history of Missouri basketball. The players may not know the sordid details, but the fans do. Generations of proud Tiger loyalists who had puffed out their chests after four consecutive Big Eight titles in the early eighties, after an unbeaten conference season and a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in 1994, after four tournament bids and an Elite Eight run in Snyder's first four years, didn't just die a little in the five years before this one. They died a lot. They did the unthinkable-they nearly lost their allegiance to the program they had so loved.
"I used to follow them on TV. My heart was with them the whole time during the recruiting process," freshman forward Laurence Bowers said. "To see the arena with that many people in there, there wasn't nobody there last year."
"I get a feeling of it. Seeing how many people were at the football games in the fall and then seeing how little people were at our games at the beginning of the year," said fellow freshman Kim English. "And now to just walk around campus, how excited people are and just loving it. Me, I score like two points, and people are like, 'Great game, man. You guys are doing great.'"
With the sarcasm dripping off his tongue, English smiles: "I'm like, 'Thanks.'"
These Tigers have brought the passion back to Missouri basketball. And because of all those things that happened since Missouri last played in the Big Dance, this season means even a little bit more.
"It makes it special just because Missouri basketball has kind of been down, had some down years," said freshman Marcus Denmon, a Kansas City native. "When I first wanted to come here, I kind of had that vision that this could be that marquee season where Missouri basketball could be turned around."
"At first, I was like, 'Wow, man, is this what I got myself into?'" Carroll admits. "And now I look at it like it was a blessing in disguise. Coach says it's good that all this happened and I think it happened for the best."
The Tigers are happy for themselves. They are pleased with the season. But they don't really get a sense of how special it has been, how much it has meant, until they leave the confines of Mizzou Arena.
"Last year when we was getting in all that trouble, it was kind of down then," Carroll said. "Now I can't go nowhere without someone recognizing me, signing autographs, saying 'What's up?' It's good when you can go somewhere and people will recognize and notice you and always give you congratulations on the kind of season you're having."
"I think what we're doing is special for the community, for our coach because he finally got his players here, and just for us here to have a great season for these seniors," Bowers adds. "They're giving it all to experience this season and all of us, the freshmen and the underclassmen, we're doing it for the seniors and our coach."
More than that, they're doing it for a state. They're doing it for the thousands of fans who have stayed home the last five years.
"We're doing it for them," English said. "We play to win the games, but I'm doing it for the fans."
On Sunday, Missouri plays its 29th game of the season. The Tigers travel to Kansas with first place in the Big 12 on the line. The fans are back. They are energized. They are happy with this season and the direction of the program. But the Tiger players cannot adopt that mindset.
"This is a special season. I feel like the team is at a point where we could possibly make history," Taylor says, before launching a warning. "You've got to take it one game at a time. With that being said, this can be a special season and I hope this is just the beginning."
"We keep winning," Carroll said. "All my dreams will come true."
Along with those of an entire fan base.
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