Big 12 Campus Correspondent
He is among the best guards in the nation. His team is ranked in the top 10. NBA Draft experts call him one of the "best spot-up shooters in college basketball." He is a Wooden Award finalist. He knows he has a long way to go. He knows there is much to be achieved.
Marcus Denmon doesn't need to jump on life's interstate highway; for 21 years, the scenic route has served him just fine. Leading up to his senior campaign, a season promising stability, a head coaching change and a significant injury to Laurence Bowers, his running mate and friend, muddled up the nation's outlook of the Tigers. Still, the senior guard from Kansas City maintained his composure. He is no stranger to overcoming obstacles.
Denmon moved in with his grandmother at one year of age, forming a close bond that largely shaped the man he would become. He credits her love for other people as a contributing factor in molding him into a better teammate and person.
"I feel I've taken a lot of it from her," Denmon says. "I'm always unselfish and willing to help out others, whether it's my family or my teammates. Just in life, if you give things without expecting anything in return, it usually pays off in the long run."
If his grandmother shaped his character, it was his uncle Martinez that helped him develop into a talented basketball player. A former standout at Iowa State and draft pick of the Boston Celtics, Martinez poured some concrete in Marcus' backyard, put up a basketball goal and invited the neighborhood for endless games of pickup. Soon enough, Denmon graduated to the advanced class.
"I was usually a lot better than the people my age," Denmon said. "I always played against everyone older because they were better, so I was the youngest one. I felt that gave me the toughness, getting thrown around by older people and just playing against better competition."
A seamless transition from pavement to hardwood allowed Denmon to stand out at Kansas City's Hogan Prep High School. Twice he made the all-metro team; he was named the area's player of the year as a senior. However, national recruiting services didn't see him as a future all-american candidate. Denmon noticed.
"Coming out of high school, I was ranked 150 or something," Denmon said. "I kind of took it personal because I thought I was a lot better than some of the players they had [above me]. It wasn't in my control so I just continued to work hard and get better. Now that you're in college, none of that stuff matters anymore."
He made his debut into the national conscious of basketball fans as a freshman with a half-court, buzzer-beating heave in the Tigers 102-91 Sweet 16 win over John Calipari's Memphis Tigers. He has cemented his MU legacy by navigating the waters of uncertainty in leading his team to one of the best starts in school history.
Due in large part to Denmon's blistering first half of the season -- his 17.9 points per game and 91 percent free-throw conversion rate are good for team bests -- Mizzou has put nearly all doubters in its rearview mirror. The program hasn't been ranked this high this late, second in the nation the week of Jan. 23-29, since the 1989-90 season. Expectations of a long tournament run under first-year head coach Frank Haith are running wild. If the program can reach its first Final Four, the Haith and Denmon relationship will have come full circle.
There was enough foreshadowing for a Dickens novel. As a senior in high school, Denmon was recruited by Haith and his staff to come to the University of Miami. After considering the offer, he declined to take a visit, staying close to home instead. But destiny would bring the two together.
"Fate. It was fate, I guess. We still ended up in the same place," Denmon said.
If the sellout crowds at Mizzou Arena are any indication, Missouri basketball fans are glad circumstance intervened. Haith and Denmon have fed off of each other the entire season. Along with fellow senior guard Kim English, Haith has continually emphasized the importance of Denmon buying into his system. A true leader of the team, he has been a coaches dream.
"You talk about a guy that has star status, we go to Iowa State and he scores just six points but he gets several assists and no turnovers," Haith said. "He wants to win. I think that's the best way to describe Marcus and his attitude. I love guys that have the grit that he has."
Senior center Ricardo Ratliffe notes Denmon's leadership ability, even if it doesn't always come in pomp and circumstance form.
"He is probably a guy that you have to gain his trust, but when you gain it, he'll open up to you," Ratliffe said.
In the midst of a tough shooting stretch, Haith has unequivocal faith in Denmon.
"He is our guy. I trust him," Haith said. "I'm not concerned with him missing a few shots here and there. I think he is going to be fine."
Lift any anecdote from Denmon's past and you will be hard-pressed to disagree with Haith. Mizzou's All-America candidate has proven time and again he will rise to the challenge. Delivering MU to its first Final Four would just be par for the course.
Sometimes you have to take the backroads to get an extraordinary view.