Orlin Wagner, Associated Press
COLUMBIA, Mo. — After a strong junior season that had him briefly flirt with leaving early for the NBA, Missouri forward Laurence Bowers returned to school with plenty of unfinished business.
He had to adapt to a new system installed by Frank Haith, the former Miami coach hired to replace Mike Anderson, a Bowers family friend who recruited the 6-foot-8 Memphis, Tenn., native. Told by NBA advisers to refine his game, Bowers looked to improve a stellar stat-line from 2010-11, when he averaged 11.6 points and a team-high 6.1 rebounds and led the Big 12 in blocked shots.
The top priority? Leading Missouri to its first Final Four after an assortment of near-misses all too familiar to Tigers fans.
Those dreams crumpled in early October when Bowers blew out his left knee during a preseason pickup game. The torn anterior cruciate ligament meant season-ending surgery and immediately raised questions about Missouri's front-line depth. It also turned Bowers' carefully crafted plans upside down.
"That's the toughest part," he said in an interview with The Associated Press. "Having the game of basketball taken away from me at the snap of a finger."
Though devastated at first, Bowers wasn't one to mope. The day after his injury — hours after he learned the torn ACL would scrap his senior year —Bowers joined several teammates at a local library to honor a previously scheduled commitment to read books to children.
On game days, Bowers dons a different type of uniform — suit, tie and dress shoes — as he not only cheers on his teammates but also offers insights to fellow forwards Ricardo Ratliffe and backup big man Steve Moore, whose playing time has increased substantially with Bowers out.
"He's been outstanding," Haith said. "He's a really good leader. He's always talking to the guys. We take him on the road so he's at every team meeting, he's engaged (with) what's going on in terms of our preparation. And that helps ... It feeds him, because he's not playing in the game."
Bowers acknowledged that Missouri's success this season has at times made sitting out more difficult.
"It's real bittersweet," he said. "Of course, I want my guys to do extremely well. These are guys I've been with for three or four years. The bitterness is I'm not a part of it. "
An 87-86 overtime loss at Kansas on Saturday cost the Tigers their chance at a Big 12 regular-season championship and dropped Missouri (25-4, 12-4) to No. 7 in the latest poll. The Tigers face Iowa State on Wednesday at Mizzou Arena — the final home game for a six-man senior class of Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Moore, Ratliffe, Matt Pressey and walk-on Jarrett Sutton that has set a school record with 102 wins.
It's a group that made its mark early, with Bowers, Denmon and English playing key roles as freshmen on a 31-win Missouri team that scored a Big 12 tournament title, upset Memphis in the NCAA tournament and fell one win short of the Final Four. Ratliffe and Pressey joined the team last year as junior college transfers.
Instead of joining his teammates on Senior Night against the Cyclones, Bowers will instead return after his medical redshirt season to a new-look Missouri squad along with guards Michael Dixon and Phil Pressey, and four Division I transfers sitting out this season: Keion Bell (Pepperdine); Jabari Brown (Oregon); Danny Feldmann (Columbia); and Earnest Ross (Auburn).
"God does things for a reason," Bowers said. "Maybe his reason was for me to come back and lead this team next year."
His teammates say Bowers has been unrelentingly positive, attacking his rehab with vigor while embracing his new role as unofficial assistant coach and oversized cheerleader.
"He's always passionate," Dixon said. He's always positive and cheering. That's what he wants to give us and that's all he can give us right now."
Bowers doesn't expect to be at full strength until summer, though not for want of effort. Missouri's trainers have had to "shelve (him) for a little bit," Haith said, dialing back Bowers' recovery regimen for fear of pushing him too hard, too soon. Bowers and his coaches expect him to join the team on a summer exhibition tour of western Europe.
"An ACL injury is like a pregnancy," said assistant coach Ernie Nestor. "You've got nine months — three trimesters. He's through the first one. The middle one is the scary one. There's a need for caution. Because he starts feeling pretty good. But he's not as healthy as he feels."
The unexpected time off has also allowed Bowers, always a strong student, to boost his academic portfolio. He expects to receive his bachelor's degree in May and is already taking six graduate credits in hopes of leaving Missouri with a master's degree in psychology or health promotions next year.
"This is a minor setback for a major comeback," he said.
Follow Alan Scher Zagier at http://twitter.com/azagier
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