As difficult as it was to get a read on the 2002 Missouri Tigers from week to week, the 2003 edition was even more mysterious.
The Tigers entered this season missing several key players from the team that made an Elite Eight run in the NCAA Tournament last season. Gone was the budding superstar: Kareem Rush, the four-year warrior: Clarence Gilbert, and the much-maligned point guard: Wesley Stokes. Also gone from the team was football transfer Justin Gage, who seemed to always show up after the conclusion of football season just in the nick of time to add toughness, rebounding and character to the basketball Tigers.
In 2003, two new faces adorned Missouri's backcourt: highly-recruited Jimmy McKinney from Vashon High School, and junior college transfer Ricky Clemons. Also back in the mix after a redshirt season was utility player Josh Kroenke.
Missouri fans anxiously awaited the arrival of Clemons in particular because the team had gone a long time without a threat at point guard. Clemons, a transfer from Southern Idaho CC, was to be that threat. The former national high school scoring champion certainly could shoot, and had no hesitation to do so from virtually any place on the floor.
The Tigers started the season out on a positive note by winning the Wooden Classic in Orange County, California by defeating the USC Trojans. Missouri then turned around and lost a poorly played game to Illinois a few weeks later. It marked another loss suffered by Quin Snyder at the hands of Bill Self and the Illini.
Little did the Tigers know at the time, but the Top 10 ranked team would be in for some tough times. First, reserve forward Najeeb Echols decided to transfer after failing to crack the starting lineup. Echols was one of Missouri's top reserves at the time, but had not found his niche on this team. Next, Clemons was arrested for assault involving a female guest at his apartment.
The already thin Tigers suddenly were two players down with the conference season around the corner. Missouri entered a difficult stretch of poor play and inconsistent execution.
For the balance of the regular season, Missouri played pretty well in Hearnes, but poorly on the road. Yes, they defeated Kansas State and Nebraska on the road, but both of these teams were down this season.
The highlight of the regular season had to be the home thumping of Oklahoma. Missouri played their best game of the season to date as they took Kelvin Sampson's team behind the woodshed for a good old fashioned whipping.
Arguably, the two most bitter defeats of the regular season came to Kansas. Both KU games were very close and came down to the last minute of each game. The final game of the season was decided by two buzzer beaters delivered by Aaron Miles and Kirk Heinrich on long three-pointers.
As bitter a pill as the losses to Kansas were to Missouri, the Tigers found a new asset on the team. Travon Bryant, who had been virtually invisible during much of the regular season, suddenly came to life at the end of the season playing much like he did in last year's tournament run.
Missouri rolled through Nebraska, Oklahoma State and Kansas in the Big 12 Tournament before bowing to Oklahoma in the championship game. In this game, Missouri was down by over 20 points in the second half and had a furious comeback run lead by Rickey Paulding and Arthur Johnson to have a shot at the end of regulation to win the game.
The sixth-seeded Tigers were pitted against the eleventh-ranked Southern Illinois Salukis. SIU lead for much of the game until Paulding drew a controversial blocking foul with 4.1 seconds left, then made one of two free throws, thus insuring a 72-71 victory in the Midwest Regional.
Paulding finished with 19 points and nine rebounds, while Johnson had 24 points and 11 rebounds, one short of his season-high.
The two Detroit players were at it again in Missouri's next game vs. Marquette in the second round. Missouri trailed by 10 points at halftime as Marquette shot 67% from the field. However, in the second half, Sweet Rickey and Doc lead the Tigers on another patented comeback drive.
Paulding rained in 9-15 three point shots and scored a gaudy 36 points. Equally impressive was Arthur Johnson who poured in 28 points, pulled in 18 rebounds and blocked three shots. Missouri's big two were hot...the rest of the starters were not.
Travon Bryant went scoreless and fouled out of the game. Ricky Clemons shot an ice-cold 1-10 from 3-point range and ended up with five points. Jimmy McKinney also ended up with five points and had three turnovers and some poorly-timed fouls.
Still, Missouri drew even with Marquette by the end of regulation and forced an overtime period. In the overtime, Marquette was a perfect 6-6 from the field and won the game.
Missouri finished the season with a 22-11 record.
It is expected that Missouri will return all of their key players for next season. The one exception may be Ricky Clemons. Clemons still faces assault charges and a court date sometime this spring.
In our second installment of the season wrap-up, we will provide a synopsis of each player's contribution this year, along with a look ahead to the 2003-2004 season.