Missouri enters conference play with a losing record for the first time in 34 seasons (1978-79 season) and the only team in the league below .500. But, they’re taking baby steps.
With nine underclassmen, including six freshmen, it’s been a work in progress for Missouri and first-year head coach Kim Anderson. But, there is progress being made. The Tigers, like every other Division I win this year, struggled – trailing by as many as 11 (30-19) after Lipscomb (5-9) scored 13 in a row before cutting the lead to 35-33 by the half before finding themselves down by 10 (48-38), answering with a 16-1 run – in a 72-60 win Saturday in the non-conference finale, but the two games prior – although both still losses – offered Missouri fans glimpses of hope for conference play.
Missouri entered Dec. 20’s “Braggin’ Rights” game with Illinois in St. Louis 0-3 against Power Conference teams with an average defeat of 75-56, then lost at the buzzer on a Rayvonte Rice 3-pointer, 62-59, in their first consistent 40 minutes of the season, then followed that up 10 days later with an overtime loss in Kansas City to Oklahoma St., 74-72. Yes, both losses, but MUCH better efforts than against Arizona, Purdue and Xavier.
“I’m proud of our effort, we just need to get over the hump,” Anderson said.
Now, the next thing for this group needs to do is put away one of these close games and to beat a team with an actual pulse (as it stands now, Missouri’s best win is over 14-3 Valpo).
Part of Missouri’s progress stems from the consistent play of clearly the best player on the roster, sophomore forward Johnathan Williams III (team leader in scoring, 13.5 and rebounds, 6.8), who has stepped up as “the guy” – something Missouri was clearly missing early in the year. He posted a double-double (16 & 10) in Saturday’s win, and averaged 18.5 points, 8.5 rebounds per game in the Illinois and Oklahoma St. losses. For the past couple of weeks, the 6-9 sophomore from Memphis has been the Tigers only consistent player.
“He’s grown so much as a player since I’ve been here,” Anderson declared. “His game has expanded; his shooting has gotten better. He’s the kind of go-to guy we need.”
Another plus was the arrival of the Top 50 Jakeenan Gant, who missed the first nine games of the season while under NCAA investigation for receiving impermissible benefits. He made an immediate impact with 13 points in just 15 minutes in his debut against Xavier.
Some other small, but important moves, from Anderson have made a difference. I suggested after that Anderson might as well go young, with only two upperclassmen in the nine-man rotation, because, if you’re going to suck, you might as well do it with the future – the future that will be the sole reason why you’re good in a few years, if you are. With senior Keith Shamburger (8.2 points per game, 3.2 assists) at point guard, Williams III at the four and two freshman –wingman Teki Gill-Caesar (11.5 PPG) and Gant (7.3 PPG) as the four main starters with sophomore PG Wes Clark (8.6 PPG, 3.1 APG) or freshmen PF D’Angelo Allen (4.4 PPG, 3.5 RBP) and shooting guard Namon Wright (5.3 PPG) – the team’s best 3-point shooter (14-31, 45.2%) – as the “other starter” or even freshmen combo guard Tremaine Isabell (5.0 PPG) – the team’s best “creator” and junior swingman Deuce Bello (who is currently suspended) filling out my rotation with junior and senior bigs Ryan Rosburg (2.9 PPG, 38 RBP) and Keanau Post as the end of the bench scholarship players, playing only when an extra big is needed because of foul trouble, etc.
Since, Anderson has added Gant to the starting lineup and cut Rosburg’s minutes (9.3 per game over the last three games) into a role player – a perfect role for him. But, with Post’s effort on Saturday (7 points, 10 rebounds in 14 minutes), I think Rosburg should be the last man that plays IF Anderson plays all 11 scholarship players.
“I didn’t play him the last two games because I didn’t think he had been playing well enough,” Anderson said of Post, who played seven total minutes in the last four games prior. “And he never said a word. He never changed his expression.”
It’s still a work in progress with the youth on the roster, and even Anderson admits that, “Like a lot of other teams around the nation, we’re still trying to figure things out,” he said. “We’re aren’t where we need to be from an execution standpoint, but we’re getting better. I’m encouraged by the freshmen.”
He adds that Allen is really the only one of the young guys who completely understands and knows his role, “He’s a winner.”
But, the growth over the last few weeks is noticeable and maybe – just maybe – Missouri will continue growing into SEC play and finish in the middle of the pack, right around .500 – as I predicted in the preseason. That’ll certainly be an improvement over the 10 or 11 win season it looked like Missouri was headed for about a month ago. If Missouri can defend the home court, and win a couple on the road, it is possible they can finish near 9-9 in league play – not good by any means, especially for Missouri standards, but it’s realistic for this team and maybe even a stretch.
That starts tonight when they host LSU (11-2), winners of eight straight.
“If you’re going to compete and be successful, you’ve got to win home games,” Anderson said.
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