Even after a loss, it’s easy to see Missouri is much improved

Missouri's Terrence Phillips (1) and Kevin Puryear (24) celebrate with Missouri fans in the crowd after Missouri defeated Wofford on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015  (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Missouri’s Terrence Phillips (1) and Kevin Puryear (24) celebrate with Missouri fans in the crowd after Missouri defeated Wofford on Friday, Nov. 13, 2015 (AP Photo/L.G. Patterson)

Missouri lost at Xavier Tuesday Night, 78-66, and weren’t really a threat over the final 10-15 minutes, but they look significantly better than last season.

Yes, it’s early. Really early. But, I think we’ve seen enough in just three games to determine that the 2015-2016 version of Kim Anderson-led Mizzou basketball is better than 2014-15 Mizzou.

Anderson’s first year at his dream job was not good. After winning just nine times in 32 tries and going 3-15 in league play in one of its worst seasons in school history – the worst in 50 years. So, it’ll be hard NOT to get better, but there was a significant roster turnover, a former major recruit left (Teki Gill-Caesar transferred after just one year) and the team’s leading rebounder and scorer left (will-be junior Jonathan Williams III) transferred (Gonzaga). What was left? Nine underclassmen – five returning sophomores returning from a year ago and four new freshmen, another newcomer (junior college transfer Russell Woods), junior undersized point guard Wes Clark and lone senior, career disappointment Ryan Rosburg; and a starting lineup featuring three freshmen, a sophomore and a junior.

Missouri led 3-0 after a Terrance Phillips 3-pointer, but soon found themselves down 7-5 by the first media timeout. Leading 17-10, Xavier (2-0) aided a 15-5 Mizzou (2-1) run by going 7 minutes, 24 seconds without a field goal, missing 13 in a row. Missouri answered Xavier’s first make with a JD Walton jumper, and extended the lead to 30-26 on a Kevin Puryear And-1. When Tramaine Isabell’s runner banked off the glass and in to end the half, Missouri was down 37-36. Puryear put Missouri in front with a lay-in to open the scoring in the second half. He hit two free throws one minute later, and the Tigers trailed 42-40. They didn’t score again until a Wes Clark 3 snapped a 6-0 run. This time down 10, Isabel drilled a 3 from the top of the key. It was 53-46. Missouri got it within seven just one time the rest of the way, 57-51 when Cullen VanLeer made one of his 4 3’s at the 10:39 mark. Xavier’s James Farr, who recorded his third career double-double (15 points, 14 rebounds) hit a jumper with 6:57 remaining and Missouri faced a double-digit deficit from then on out. Trevon Bluiett scored 13 of his 18 in the second-half for Xavier – a 20 minutes that mirrored 2014-15 Missouri offense…which, was NOT good.

Missouri trailed by as many as 15 in the second half, 58-43, when Rosburg scored his only tally. Xavier opened the second half on a 16-7 run. Missouri went 14 of 18 at the free throw line, but got there just four times in the second half, going 3-4.

VanLeer led Missouri in scoring, off the bench, with 13, Puryear scored 12 and Isabell and Clark added 11 each, as the underclassmen scored 54 points, good for 82% of the team total – up from 75% from the first two games.

Xavier came out in the second half in a 1-3-1 zone defense, and it really threw the Tigers off, as Missouri opened the second half by missing 10 of its first 14 shots and turning the ball over four times. Missouri struggled offensively the rest of the half.

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Missouri used big runs to win the first two games. In the opener on Friday, down 8-2, Missouri ripped off a 20-2 run over the defending Southern Conference Champs, Wofford in an 83-74 win. Missouri led by as many as 14 in the second half (37-23) before taking a 39-29 lead into the locker room. After halftime, Wofford once cut the Mizzou lead to 5 when Namon Wright, who’s 3-pointer ignited the 20-2 run, splashed home a 3. Wofford twice cut the deficit to six, but Missouri always answered. Puryear scored 20 and Wright added 18, off the bench.

On Sunday, Missouri used another run to pull away for a 73-55 win. Up just 42-41, Missouri ended the game on a 31-14 run to put away Maryland-Eastern Shore. The Tigers stepped up its defense in the second half, often utilizing a full-court press. The Hawks (0-2) committed 10 of their 13 turnovers in the second half. Missouri finished with 11 points off turnovers.

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Missouri is still not that good of an offensive team, but they’re better than they were the year before. They have better pace and flow. Last year, the pace was at a crawl and on top of that, they had a lot of trouble scoring. It wasn’t pretty to watch at all.

Missouri, based on roster numbers, is going to get a lot of production from its underclassmen – especially the backcourt. As much as in the past few years, Missouri will be small again, and it shows with a 6-8 and 6-7 frontcourt – with Jakeenan Gant at only 207 pounds. Size is going to be an obvious issue with this team, so team rebounding will be key. Obviously Mizzou’s got bigger opponents on the schedule, and breaking even against Wofford (and losing the battle to UMES) is a bad sign. But there’s still a difference between being an issue and a killer weakness. You want to overcome rebounding disadvantages? Miss far fewer shots than your opponent, they did that in the first two games, shooting a healthy 57%. They did not manage this on Tuesday.

It’s hard to reach too many conclusions after games against two iffy/bad teams, so Xavier was a better baseline for this year’s team. Playing tough into the second half against a likely tournament team, on the road, just three games into the season is what it is. Maybe, Missouri can finish at .500, or above this year. Maybe, the core of Missouri’s next NCAA Tournament team is on the roster.

Through three games:

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Missouri is still not that good of an offensive team, but they’re better than they were the year before. They have better pace and flow. Last year, the pace was at a crawl and on top of that, they had a lot of trouble scoring. It wasn’t pretty to watch at all.

Missouri, based on roster numbers, is going to get a lot of production from its underclassmen – especially the backcourt. As much as in the past few years, Missouri will be small again, and it shows with a 6-8 and 6-7 frontcourt – with Jakeenan Gant at only 207 pounds. Size is going to be an obvious issue with this team, so team rebounding will be key. Obviously Mizzou’s got bigger opponents on the schedule, and breaking even against Wofford (and losing the battle to UMES) is a bad sign. But there’s still a difference between being an issue and a killer weakness. You want to overcome rebounding disadvantages? Miss far fewer shots than your opponent, they did that in the first two games, shooting a healthy 57%. They did not manage this on Tuesday.

It’s hard to reach too many conclusions after games against two iffy/bad teams, so Xavier was a better baseline for this year’s team. Playing tough into the second half against a likely tournament team, on the road, just three games into the season is what it is. Maybe, Missouri can finish at .500, or above this year. Maybe, the core of Missouri’s next NCAA Tournament team is on the roster.

Through three games:

  • F Kevin Puryear (3 starts, 15.0 PPG, 5.0 REB, 29.0 MIN, 53.5 FG% (16-30), 20% 3PT (1-5), 85.7% FT (12-14)): The freshman from Blue Springs is the team’s leading scorer through three games and the sixth freshman ever to score 20 points (or more) in their debut (Gill-Caesar did it last year, scoring 21 in a home loss to UMKC) and is the first freshmen to score in double-figures in first three games of his career. He has a well-rounded, offensive game. He’s sort of a tweener in size, but his ability to knock down jump shots makes him somebody to keep an eye on.
  • SG Namon Wright (2 starts, 10.3 PPG, 5.3 REB, 25.7 MIN, 38.1 FG% (8-21), 33.3% 3PT (4-12), 73.3% FT (11-15)): Wright is a pretty elite shooter, as evidenced from his 28-point game against Florida last year (6-8 from 3), but, he has added more to his game with ability to score off the dribble and get to the rim. He’s going to be a good one. He has some discipline issues, missing two games to suspension last season, plus the exhibition this year, before coming off the bench in the opener (where he scored 18).
  • G Wes Clark (3 starts, 10.0 PPG, 2.3 REB, 30.0 MIN, 2.7 AST, 1.6 A/TO, 34.6% FG (9-26), 40% 3PT (4-10), 80% FT (8-10)): Clark is a playmaker who plays better off the ball, though mainly he has been a point guard in the past. He’s a tough matchup and has no trouble getting his shot up when the offense breaks down. Clark is the most experienced guard, and exhibits the most leadership on the team; however he is still too careless with the ball and makes silly mistakes for a third year player; leads the team in minutes.
  • PG Terrance Phillips (3 starts 7.7 PPG, 1.3 REB, 22.7 MIN, 1.7 AST, 1.0 A/TO, 57.1% FG (8-14), 57.1% 3PT (4-7), 75% FT (3-4): Phillips is a “true” point guard – the first Missouri has had since Flip Pressey, but that’s not saying much. The brother of NBA’s Brandon Jennings, the freshman has ability to get into the paint, but the pass-first point guard only has six assist in three games. His shooting – especially from downtown – has been better than expected; he made 3 3’s against Maryland-Eastern Shore.
  • F Jakeenan Gant (3 starts, 14.7 MIN): Gant has started all three games, but is only playing 14.7 minutes per game. A 3 or 4 playing the 5, Gant, who last season attacked the rim and had some monster dunks, is soft in the paint and it out-matched down there, for now
  • SG KJ Walton (8.3 PPG, 1.3 REB, 17.7 MIN, 2.0 A/TO. 43.8% FG (7-16), 0-2 3PT, 85% FT (11-13)): Walton is a physical freshman wing who excels at driving to the basket and scoring through contact. Smooth and uses his body well. Went 9-10 at the FT line against Maryland-Eastern Shore.
  • SG Cullen VanLeer (7.0 PPF, 0.3 REB, 14.3 MIN, 57.1% FG (8-14, 57.1% 3PT (4-7), 0-1 FT): VanLeer is a pure shooter, something Missouri desperately missed last year. Now, he won’t offer much if he isn’t hitting 3’s, but he is 3-3 on 2’s. He hit 4 of his 5 3’s against Xavier. His only rebound of the season was a put-back.
  • PF Russell Woods (3.3 PPG, 2.3 REB, 12.0 MIN, 80% FG (4-5), 40% FT (2-5)): The JUCO transfer started his Mizzou career with a 4-5 shooting night, but he has not attempted a field goal since.
  • G Tramaine Isabell (6.3 PPG, 2.7 REB, 11.7 MIN, 1.3 AST, 53.8% FG (7-13), 1-2 3 PT, 100% FG (4-4)): The sophomore undersized combo guard from Seattle is still up and down. He is an electric player when he gets it going, but is a little too careless at times and makes some scratch your head mistakes (team-worst 2.7 turnovers per game despite limited playing time).
  • F D’Angelo Allen (1.0 PPG, 3.5 REB, 13.5 MIN, 1-1 FG, 0-2 FT): Allen, another sophomore, started down the stretch last season, but has not seen the court much this season, and when he has, hasn’t contributed. He missed the exhibition and season opener in Anderson’s dog house. Another undersized post player, Allen does have face-up ability and can stretch the defense with range
  • C Ryan Rosburg (2.3 PPG, 2.3 REB, 13.0 MIN, 1-2 FG, 5-8 FT): Rosburg, the former Mr. Show Me Basketball, is finally a senior – much to the liking of many fans, who have been hard on the St. Louis native who has been a huge let down in his career. Forced into playing time the last few years, Anderson is giving Rosburg just about the right amount of playing time. He may not do much, but he can rebound and foul, the typical veteran role player every team has. And, at least he has improved at the line, an improvement over his 48% mark for his career (33% last year).
  • G Jimmy Barton (1 minute, 1 turnover): The walk-on guard looked like he belonged on the court in his short stint on the court in Friday’s season opener. Then, he turned it over.

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UP NEXT: After playing three games in five days, the Tigers have six days off before facing ex-Big 12 rival Kansas State in the CBE Hall of Fame Classic, at the Sprint Center in Kansas City. The winner likely faces No. 1 North Carolina, who faces Northwestern. It would be nice to see Missouri beat K-State, also in rebuilding mode, and play North Carolina.

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