|Sidelined with injury, Bowers saw his No. 2 seed Tigers fall in their NCAA tournament opener. (Getty Images)|
If there was a silver lining to the knee injury that claimed Missouri's top frontcourt player a year ago, it was that Frank Haith's program wouldn't take quite as deep a fall into the abyss with fifth-year senior Laurence Bowers back in the fold this season. Bowers, along with a holdover backcourt of Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon, would make Mizzou solid, maybe even competitive for a postseason berth in 2013.
Now Bowers' return could make the Tigers legitimate Final Four contenders.
"That's not nuts at all to say this team is more talented than last year," Bowers said. "I'd tell anyone that."
"However," he is careful to add, "the key is chemistry. That's what made last year's team what it was."
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Gone are Kim English and Marcus Denmon -- both selected in the second round of last month's NBA Draft. Fellow starters Ricardo Ratliffe and Matt Pressey also graduated.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding period in Year 2 of the Haith regime. Instead, this team is loaded.
Dixon will likely move from his sixth-man role to team with Pressey, one of the elite point guards in the country, and form one of the nation's top backcourts. UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi, the most productive player on the court in the national title game two years ago, will almost certainly start in the middle. Take your pick out of transfers Jabari Brown (Oregon), Keion Bell (Pepperdine) and Earnest Ross (Auburn) as to who will start on the wing -- and Bowers expects to be ready for the season opener.
Oct. 3 was the day Missouri was effectively buried a year ago. This was a program that had hired the oft-scrutinized Haith months before -- and now had lost Bowers, one of its two legitimate big men.
There sat Bowers, bawling in the locker room with his head on the shoulders of English, his three-year roommate and teammate. The season of optimism was over -- at least in the minds of those who lived outside the Mizzou campus. Down to seven productive bodies, just one of which stood over 6-feet-6, and with a coach that fled Miami, there was no way this group could achieve anything of note. An NCAA appearance had turned into a long shot.
But even without Bowers, believed by many to be the team's top returning player a year ago, Haith led a thin group to a 30-4 mark heading into the NCAA tournament before the first-round loss to Norfolk State ended the unexpected dream season.
Bowers recently passed the nine-month mark in his recovery and hasn't been cleared for contact yet, but he'll be back in plenty of time for the 2012-13 season opener.
"He looks really good, even though there's been no contact yet," Haith said. "He's gotten a lot bigger and stronger."
"I'm just taking it slow and being cautious," Bowers said. "There's no rush."
He's dunking, running and cutting. Bowers estimates he's about 75 percent, but he is mature enough to understand the key is to be 100 percent when it matters -- in November.
"I feel like I can play right now if I wanted to," he said.
Bowers' last memories on the court in a Missouri uniform were of a player who became far more aggressive down the stretch of his junior season. There was the February victory against Baylor in which he had 20 points, nine rebounds and six steals. A few weeks later, against Kansas, he went for 22 points, 10 boards and a handful of steals.
"I was playing my best, but the team was divided," Bowers admitted. "Everyone seemed to be trying to get theirs."
Now Bowers wants to regain the intensity and productivity he displayed down the stretch of the 2010-11 season, but with a different group -- one that watched and hopefully learned how to play together from witnessing last year's team.
"We have to do it the right way," Bowers said. "I've never seen a group play together like last year's team."
Bowers will accompany the team on its overseas trip to Belgium, Spain and Amsterdam in August, but won't play. He said it's difficult watching, especially with the system Haith put in place a year ago in which players are allowed to play through their mistakes.
"It was difficult under Coach [Mike] Anderson because if we'd make a mistake, we'd come out," he said. "Now if you mess up, you're OK. You don't have to play looking over your shoulder."
But that could change this year now that Haith has options.
There are two quality guards in Pressey and Dixon, two proven front-court players in Oriakhi and Bowers, and depth on the wings with Bell, Ross and Brown (who becomes eligible in December). Haith has also added junior college forward Tony Criswell and freshmen Negus Webster-Chan, Stefon Jankovic and Ryan Rosburg -- all have a chance to fight for spots in the rotation.
Bowers has added 20 pounds since he came down awkwardly while trying to catch a poorly thrown alley-oop pass on Oct. 3, 2011. It was bittersweet to sit and watch guys like English and Denmon -- who came into Columbia together -- excel on the court.
"It was tough," Bowers admitted. "Obviously, I was happy for them and for the team. But I wanted to be a part of it."
"He was an unbelievable teammate last season," Haith said of Bowers. "He stayed involved all year with his teammates and never felt sorry for himself."
That was clear when, just hours after receiving the news that his season was over, he hobbled up the steps of the Columbia Public Library to stick to the commitment he had previously made to read to children.
"Those kids didn't have anything to do with me getting hurt," Bowers said. "I had to deal with it -- and I didn't want to disappoint the kids and not show up."
Bowers played the role of the consummate teammate all season long, praised by his coach and guys like English and Pressey for his leadership from the bench. Few were aware of his impact last season -- and most are sleeping on what his return could mean to next season's group in Columbia.
"I know people have forgotten about me," Bowers said. "That's fine. I'm just going to play with a chip on my shoulder."
That seemed to work for his former and current teammates a year ago.