It's never too early to look at what's to come. During the next few weeks, we will give you a peek of what's ahead for teams in the Power 5 conferences and some other teams expected to be players on the national scene. Next up: Missouri.
Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the main event! This fight, years in the making, will be settled today, when we decide who had a worse 2015-16: The Missouri Tigers men's basketball team? Or the Missouri Tigers athletic department?
In one corner, fighting out of Columbia, Missouri, a hoops team that won just 10 games, finished two spots ahead of DePaul in the Pomeroy adjusted efficiency rankings, knocked off just one top-100 opponent all year and saw six of its players transfer out of the program before, during and after the 2015-16 season.
Who will rise to meet this challenger? Also fighting out of Columbia, Missouri ... is that -- that's the Columbia Tribune's music?
In a year of upheaval, athletes openly rebelled against the university and its athletic administration, longtime coaches left their posts, the NCAA investigated the men’s basketball program and the school conducted a Title IX investigation of the softball team that drags on even after the last runner crossed the finish line at the national track meet, signifying the end of competition for MU’s school year.
Oh. Right. We have a winner.
OK, OK, so the metaphor is messy, but the larger point remains: Save the football team's powerful display of political protest, pretty much everything about Missouri athletics in 2015-16 (up to and including the university system's response to the football protest) was really messy.
Messy enough that the hometown Tribune needed to wait until mid-June to fully summarize the disaster (so as not to omit the somewhat confusing Title IX investigation against softball coach Ehren Earleywine). Messy enough that a 10-win, six-transfer hoops season barely made a dent.
The dent came on Jan. 19, when MU announced that it had spent the better part of two years working with the NCAA on its investigation into violations committed during former coach Frank Haith's tenure. Out of the gate, the school self-imposed a postseason ban and the loss of two scholarships (though the Committee on Infractions' final judgement has yet to be rendered). The news offered a bonus heap of wound-salt, revealing that Haith, Lyle Lanley-like, had left for Tulsa just four days after the NCAA first verbally notified Mizzou of its inquest.
Meanwhile, the report revealed that former athletic director Mike Alden didn't notify Kim Anderson of the investigation before Anderson was hired. The NCAA hadn't given the school authority to discuss the investigation, Mary Ann Austin, MU's executive AD for compliance, said later. But even so -- that's a pretty rough way to spend your first day at a new job.
Anderson's two Tigers teams since then have been about what you'd expect from a new coach inheriting a cratered roster at a program under the NCAA microscope: The Tigers are 19-44 overall and 6-30 in SEC play on his watch. Again, six players -- D'Angelo Allen, Wes Clark, Jakeenan Gant, Tramaine Isabell, Martavian Payne and Namon Wright -- departed at various points throughout the season. Clark was the team's second-leading scorer; academic issues led to his dismissal in February.
The entire situation is vaguely reminiscent of 2008's Kelvin Sampson-Tom Crean succession saga at Indiana. Haith, like Sampson, executed a near-instant turnaround upon arrival -- the Tigers were 30-5, won the Big 12 tournament and were a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament in 2011-12, Haith's first year -- only to leave under varying shades of investigatory shadow. Anderson, a Missouri native and MU alum, ended his successful tenure at Division II Central Missouri to leap at a dream job, only to discover that things were even worse than they seemed from the outside.
Crean won just 16 games in his first two seasons at IU. By his fourth, freshman star Cody Zeller had signed on, senior stalwarts had come into their own, and the 27-win Hoosiers were off and running.
Whether Anderson will receive even that much patience (from a program far less traditionally successful, to boot) is uncertain. In March, almost as soon as Year 2 went in the books, Anderson's job security was the subject of widespread speculation. To his credit, first-year athletic director Mack Rhoades declined to make a change and has admitted (and surely identifies with) the "tough, tough situation" Anderson was thrust into. But Rhoades hasn't exactly sworn his everlasting love and commitment, either:
As for Kim Anderson's basketball program, Rhoades said he's had a lot of "frank conversations" with the head coach since the end of the season. "I tell you what I told him," Rhoades said. "I told him at the end of next year we can't feel like we're still three our four years away from having real progress for our basketball program to be relevant."
Which is fair enough. Rhoades was hired to do a job, just as Anderson was, and at some point the failure of one leads to the failure of another.
In 2015-16 -- and for at least a few years before either man was employed at the school -- that failure ran in multiple directions. Despite the presence of a good corps of rising sophomores and the potential midseason arrival of Texas transfer Jordan Barnett, it is hard to imagine Anderson turning around the Tigers next season. Almost as hard, say, as it is to fathom the school's immediate perceptual recovery from the furor of the past year.
Reputations, like basketball teams, are long-term projects. And Missouri needs to rebuild both.