Before the season, Missouri coach Mike Anderson invited his old friend and mentor, Nolan Richardson, to the university to give his players a little pep talk. Anyone within the same area code of the program heard plenty about Richardson, but Anderson wanted his players to hear directly from him.
Richardson coached for four decades and is a member of the College Basketball Hall of Fame. He took Western Texas to a national junior college championship in 1980, won the National Invitation Tournament with Tulsa in 1981 and won the NCAA Tournament with Arkansas in 1994. He's the only man in history to win all three titles.
If you remember, he's also the coach who popularized the pressure defense known as "40 Minutes of Hell" in the 1990s. Anderson had the pleasure of playing for him at Tulsa and coaching under him for 17 years. They speak a few times a week. And now Anderson's players understand just how fortunate they are to play for him.
"All the same phrases, all the same gestures, everything," sophomore swingman Kim English said. "It was like Coach Anderson right in front of me. It was like looking at Coach Anderson talk. You understand greatness, so you listen. You want to be a sponge. We were sponges that day."
If you didn't know any better, you would have thought Richardson was coaching Missouri to an 86-78 victory over Clemson on Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. Missouri played with the same aggression and relentless energy under Anderson that made Arkansas so great back in the mid-1990s.
Missouri won 31 games last season and reached the Elite Eight but it's not a national championship-caliber team this year. Its lack of talent eventually will be its doom, perhaps even Sunday against West Virginia, but the Tigers are not about to back down from anybody in this tournament, either.
"I don't think anyone presses like we do," Anderson said. "It's something we do every single day. When we get into tournament play, it benefits us if we can get past that first game and get on a run like we did today. It's the ultimate compliment, that we look like one of [Richardson's] teams. All his teams did was win."
West Virginia is the No. 2 seed, but the Mountaineers had best be prepared for the swarm of bees awaiting them Sunday. West Virginia napped through the first 10 minutes before its talent took over in a blowout of Morgan State earlier on Friday. If it happens Sunday, the Mountaineers could get stung.
Just ask No. 7 Clemson, which was looking to play an up-tempo style Friday and had a welcome combatant in Mizzou. In the end, Clemson picked on the wrong kid at the playground and stumbled home. Missouri played better defense, played better together, was more resourceful and wore down Clemson in the second half.
Keith Ramsey was among the heroes after scoring a career-high 20 points, but his greater achievement was shutting down forward Trevor Booker. Clemson's leading scorer was hardly a factor partly because its guards spent so much energy getting the ball up the court. Booker, who averaged 15.3 points per game going into the tournament, finished with 11 after scoring three buckets late in the game.
Anderson on Friday improved to 34-1 in games in which his team has 20 assists or more. They had 20 points off turnovers and limited Clemson to just five. Missouri had 15 steals while Clemson had only two. Mizzou outscored Clemson, 22-2, on the fast break.
"It felt a lot like practice," English said. "We don't have guys in our league pressing us that much, so it was a welcome sight seeing a team that wanted to beat us up. That's what attributed to the high score. We're a defensive, blue-collar, gritty team and I think it showed today."
Missouri plays an exciting style that revolves around selflessness on both ends of the floor. And the players seemed to have an answer for everything.
Clemson point guard Andre Young matched a career-high with 19 points, including 13 in the first half. Mizzou extended its defense to the perimeter and limited him to just four shots in the second half. Clemson had problems merely getting shots off, let alone good shots.
And they dared Mizzou to run?
Forget the 78 points Missouri surrendered. The real indicator was what it had left when it mattered most. Clemson had one field goal during a seven-minute stretch in the second half, when Missouri pulled away.
Clemson looked like it was in hell for the better part of 40 minutes Friday. Somewhere, Richardson had to be smiling.